Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Will a Calendar Bump Up Mean More Candidate Visits in SEC Primary States?

Just this morning Alabama Secretary of State-elect, John Merrill (R) clearly added his voice to the chorus of SEC presidential primary supporters in an op-ed at Yellowhammer News. He repeated a variation of the refrain that has become one of the go-to lines during the frontloading wave of the post-McGovern-Fraser reforms era:
"The main goal of this effort is to create an environment that forces candidates to appeal to the an even larger and more complete constituency than they currently do. Southerners, and more specifically Alabamians, represent a largely conservative, working class group of voters, but because of the timing of our primary elections, our calls for more conservative candidates have gone unheard."
"As your Secretary of State and Chief Elections Official, I will do all that I can to help position the South — and more specifically Alabama — as a place that all Presidential candidates will make an effort to visit and meet our remarkable people." [Emphasis is FHQ's.]
This echoes what Merrill's counterpart in neighboring Mississippi, Delbert Hosemann, has said:
"With Georgia, and Tennessee and Arkansas and Louisiana we are putting together a group where we would have a super SEC Tuesday where basically the candidates would have to come through Mississippi before they got elected president of the United States. Both Democrats and Republicans." [Again, emphasis is FHQ's.]
But would moves by Alabama or Mississippi or Arkansas to earlier dates on the 2016 presidential primary calendar do anything to really improve the lot of southern states in terms of attention paid them by the various presidential candidates in 2016? That remains to be seen. Such moves have not been a cure-all for states in the South or elsewhere in the past. Both Merrill and Hosemann seem to be talking about this as an increase in visits/attention. That may be the case, but it could also be that these states are merely splitting up a finite number of visits -- or visits within a rather finite window of time -- and aren't necessarily gaining attention to issues of, say, the Deep South. Is a visit to Texas or Tennessee a proxy visit to Alabama or Mississippi, for example?

If the focus shifts to a micro-examination of just those states looking to move to March 1 to be a part of the so-called SEC primary the advantages -- as measured by candidate visits -- are not all that clear.

Total Presidential Candidate Visits by SEC Primary States (2000-2012)
1 Data from Ridout and Rottinghaus (2008). The 2000 data are via the Washington Post; gathered from October 1, 1999-primary season 2000. Hotline provided the 2004 data; gathered from June 1, 2003-primary season 2004.
2 Data from Frontloading HQ via Map the Candidates visits tracker.
3 Data from the Washington Post Campaign 2012 Republican Primary Tracker; gathered from June 2011-primary season 2012.
* For the calendar dates of the contests in these from 2000-2012 click on the year.

Clearly earlier is better (see Ridout and Rottinghaus 2008; Mayer and Busch 2003). Alabama and Arkansas were lodged in June and late May primaries respectively in 2000 and 2004 while Georgia and Mississippi were in March in those years. Georgia benefited. Mississippi did not. Georgia has consistently been scheduled on the earliest date allowed by the national parties during this period (save 2004) and was delegate-rich enough to draw attention from the candidates despite being on dates shared by a large number of states.

In 2008, all of the above states were scheduled on the first Tuesday in February with the exception of Mississippi which as a month later on the second Tuesday in March. All gained over the previous couple of cycles.1 Mississippi was later on the calendar but took advantage of the fact that it was the lone contest on its date in the midst of a tightly contested two-candidate race for the Democratic nomination.

As we look toward 2016, however, 2012 may be not only a decent guide but a cautionary tale for this. Arkansas was both late and after the point at which most of the Republican candidates had dropped out of the Republican nomination race.2 The Natural state got one lone visit from Herman Cain. The other states potentially moving to a March 1 SEC primary for 2016 were earlier on the 2012 calendar. Georgia incrementally gained over 2008 despite just one party having a contested nomination race and sharing the most crowded date on the calendar with 11 other states; the earliest date allowed by the national party delegate selection rules.

Alabama and Mississippi were together a week later. The Deep South duo's power in 2012 may have been their sub-regional contiguity and that together the two dominated a day that also included caucuses in Hawaii and the American Samoa (neither large draws).

That raises questions if not red flags for a move for 2016 for those latter couple of states. Does a move away from a date that still finds Alabama and Mississippi dominant and to a date shared by a number of larger southern states (Florida, Georgia and Texas among them) net more or fewer visits in 2016 over 2012? If Ohio vacates March 8 to join a later March midwestern primary, would it not be more beneficial to stick with a date you dominate versus a date shared with others? Is a visit to Texas -- a regional visit -- the same as a candidate visit in Alabama or Mississippi?

These are tough questions to answer for state actors who have a limited state legislative session window in which to act in the spring of the year before the primary. And these folks tend to be risk-averse. Alabama and Mississippi would only gain by sticking with a later date is the nomination races are ongoing once they get to the second Tuesday in March. The field may be winnowed too much by then dropping the number of visits to either.

This is the mindset that has dominated the frontloading era. Move up or get left behind. But it isn't clear in this instance that states in the South will receive the attention they crave. In the meantime, decision makers in both Alabama and Mississippi seem to have forgotten what they gained in 2012 with their sub-regional coalition. Surely "cheesy grits" would have proven more memorable to elected officials in the Deep South.

1 Some of that has to do with how and when the visits data was gathered, but some of that also has a great deal to do with how many parties had contested/competitive campaigns and how many candidates were involved in the race at the time of the primaries in these states.

2 Romney had not clinched enough delegates to assume the mantle of presumptive nominee, but was approaching that mark with only Ron Paul actively running in the later primary states.

Recent Posts:
Why Getting Arkansas into an SEC Primary is More Difficult

But Southern States Will Have to Be Proportional

Louisiana not inclined to join 'SEC' presidential primary day in 2016

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