Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Iowa/New Hampshire, Part ∞

Harry Enten has a nice piece up today in reaction to Richard Cohen's rather run-of-the-mill "Why are Iowa and New Hampshire still first when..." post at the Washington Post on Monday.

Look, Enten is right. First, look at Iowa and New Hampshire for what they truly are -- winnowing contests in the presidential nomination process. [This is a point that Jon Bernstein expands on in a post that popped up while FHQ was in the midst of writing this.] And second, if one is to attack the privileged status of the nation's first two contests, at least bother tease out the differences between the two. It really is poor form to say that Iowa and New Hampshire collectively push the Republican Party in a more conservative direction.

On structural grounds alone, the two are very different. Iowa is a closed caucuses state in which only registered Democrats or Republicans can participate in their party's contest.1 Also, compared to the New Hampshire primary, a lower percentage of voting eligible turnout in Iowa. The Granite state process is more open. The primary permits the participation of independents which would tend to moderate the results depending on the dynamics of a given race.2

Cohen's point, then, that the two contests push, in this case, the Republican nomination process off in a rightward extreme direction is wrong. That may be true of Iowa (again, see Bernstein), but not for New Hampshire.

Both Enten and Bernstein are absolutely right to point that out. But FHQ wishes to offer a concurring opinion.

Sure, FHQ was struck by how off base the above Cohen argument was, but I also take issue with some of the second order questions that were implied in his piece. Namely...
"The report confronts this problem by denying that it exists. While the authors want regional primaries and a truncated nominating process — so as to have an earlier nominating convention — they bow before what they call the “carve-out” states that have individual and early elections."
First of all, Cohen understandably focuses on the Republican side of the equation. It was the RNC after all that sanctioned the "autopsy" that produced the the regional primary recommendation (and not one solving the Iowa/New Hampshire "problem"). The Democratic Party was only mentioned in the final paragraph, and only then in the context of a hypothetically properly functioning Republican process that produces a nominee that can "keep the Democrats honest".

That is another mistake. Neither regional primaries nor a "fix" to the Iowa/New Hampshire issue is going to occur without coordinated (near unified) action on the part of both parties. Pointing the finger at the Republicans, then, is an exercise in futility without also pointing it at the Democrats. Even then it may remain an exercise in futility.

But why?

The fact that the Democrats have yet to weigh in on 2016 rules, much less react to the actions that the Republican National Committee may or may not take in regard to the Growth and Opportunity Project report, does not change the fact that the report -- a platform for the RNC to discuss its nomination rules -- mentioned regional primaries while continuing to protect Iowa, New Hampshire and the other two carve-out states. If coordinated action is required for both, then why not address both?

Well, as Bernstein points out in his post, the whole Iowa/New Hampshire "problem" has been overblown. But, beyond that, at its most basic, the answer is the parties cannot address both. As FHQ pointed out last week, without Democratic Party buy-in, the RNC will have a difficult time with the regional primary concept.  Even unified action on the part of both parties does not change the fact that some states would have some difficulty in shifting their contests around because the presidential primary is coupled with primaries for other offices. That problem stands a better chance of being resolved than the Iowa/New Hampshire issue.

For better or worse, the parties have given up on the idea of toppling Iowa and New Hampshire. Neither party made any kind of concerted effort to address the issue in the lead up to 2012. It came up, but nothing was ever done in terms of resolutions to alter the rules.

Instead of solving the "problem" the parties have opted to manage it. In my research, I talk about the willingness and ability of states to move their delegate selection events. There may be some willingness on the part of a state legislator or some state party officials or a governor to move a state's primary or caucus to an advantageous position on the primary calendar, but the contest will not budge unless there is some consensus to overcome any number of structural, budgetary or partisan hurdles. The national parties can more often than not count that -- those hurdles -- among their advantages in keeping states in line. In most instances, where that does not work, the parties have penalties associated with violations.

But Iowa and New Hampshire are interesting cases. First, each has an abundance of both willingness and ability to retain their first in the nation status. The ability has been made clear for over a generation now. New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner has the power to set the date of the presidential primary in the Granite state and basically has the state operating like a mobile voting unit on perpetual red alert. [That is only a slight exaggeration.] The caucuses in Iowa are a bit more unwieldy terms of the lead time required to adequately lay the groundwork for precinct caucus night.

That is one issue for the national parties, but the real Iowa/New Hampshire conundrum manifests itself in terms of the willingness each state has to stay on top. From the national parties' perspective, there is likely no penalty that likely alters the willingness in Iowa and New Hampshire to go first. Now, sure, both national parties -- and it would have to be both -- could go nuclear and strip both states of all of their delegates. That might work. Might. But that is not likely to deter either state. Instead, that creates a situation where both states hold their contests early anyway and then crow about the unfair penalties from the beginning of primary season until the convention. Neither party wants that kind of headache in any form (and it is a headache that could range from barely perceptibly minor to migraine of epic proportion).

The parties have learned. They have opted not to solve the Iowa/New Hampshire issue, but to manage it. Part of the negative perception of Iowa/New Hampshire was their collective lack of representativeness (on regional and racial grounds). The Democratic Rules and Bylaws Committee managed that question prior to the 2008 cycle by adding Nevada and South Carolina to the mix. The RNC followed suit in 2012. South Carolina was already a mainstay and Nevada Republicans had moved their caucuses up to coincide with the Democratic caucuses in the Silver state in 2008. That may not be a solution, but codifying and protecting the status of those four states manages the representativeness issue.

That also points out an additional shared value across the two national parties: a desire to provide an "on ramp" to the process for the candidates. That small state start emphasizes the retail politics that theoretically levels the playing the for underdog candidates. In practice, it allows for an alternative to an ads air war that would potentially tilt the environment toward a well-funded and/or establishment candidate. [Cohen mocks the "on ramp" but again this is a goal of the process that both parties share.]

The problem, then, in the eyes of the national parties is not the exaggerated Iowa/New Hampshire issue. No, rather it is the tiny group of states that have the willingness and increasingly the ability to challenge the early states' status. The national parties have moved toward managing the Floridas (willingness and ability), Michigans (willingness and an early consolidated primary), Arizonas (willingness and ability) and even Georgias (ability but no as of yet demonstrated willingness) over the last two cycles.

Kick Iowa and New Hampshire (and Republicans, Richard Cohen!) all you want. The parties have moved on to managing other issues.

...and in some cases issuing hard to implement remedies.

1 A prospective caucusgoer in either party can also go to and register for a given party at the precinct caucuses level. See Section I.A.1 of the Iowa Democratic Party Delegate Selection Plan and Article IX.2 of the Republican Party of Iowa Constitution for the specifics of same-day registration.

2 In particular, if both parties have a contested nomination race, New Hampshire independents have a choice of the primary in which to participate. That would tend to muddle the moderating impact (see for instance, 2000 and 2008). Yet, when there is an incumbent in the White House and the out-party is the only party with a competitive nomination contest, those independents only have one option and would have a greater -- theoretically moderating -- impact on the outcome.

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