Friday, February 13, 2015

Bernie Sanders and Vermont's Attempt at Challenging the New Hampshire Primary

Favorite sons and their influence on state delegate selection rules are in the news these days. But it is not all Rand Paul requesting Kentucky Republicans to switch to a caucuses/convention process.

News out of Vermont that legislation had been proposed to move the Green Mountain state presidential primary to the same date as the New Hampshire primary came out of left field the other day. For starters, Vermont has never really been a big player in the presidential nomination process. The state is just not that delegate-rich, and it has always taken a backseat to its eastern neighbor on that front. In recognition of that Vermont has not been much of a primary calendar mover over the years. Since abandoning beauty contest primaries and/or caucuses after 1992 for binding primaries in 1996, Vermont has been stationed on the first Tuesday in March.1 Not even when former Vermont Governor Howard Dean sought the Democratic nomination in 2004 did Vermont relent in holding onto that early March position.2

The record is pretty clear, then, that Vermont has not really been a factor in nomination races nor on the primary calendar. But what is different about 2016? Why is there interest in moving the presidential primary in Vermont and challenging New Hampshire's long-held first in the nation status?

One fairly convincing idea is that the move is intended to help Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who is considering a challenge to a potential Hillary Clinton campaign for the Democratic nomination. This sort of action is not foreign to the history of presidential nomination politics. There was talk of Utah moving its primary to benefit Mitt Romney in 2012. Part of the rationale behind Illinois' uncharacteristic shift out of its traditional third Tuesday in March calendar position for 2008 was to provide then-Senator Barack Obama with a counterweight to Hillary Clinton wins on Super Tuesday. President Carter's reelection campaign sent envoy Hamilton Jordan to Georgia (and Alabama) to talk to legislators there about moving their primaries to dates that serve as a counterbalance to any gains Ted Kennedy might receive from early contests in New Hampshire and Massachusetts in 1980.

States moving primaries or caucuses around to help presidential candidates from that state is nothing new.

What helps the idea along that this is what is happening in Vermont with Bernie Sanders is that the bill came from a state legislator not in the Democratic or Republican parties but from a state senator -- Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D-28th, North Middlesex) -- who is a member of the Progressive Party. Now, Sen. Sanders is an independent (who caucuses with Democrats) from Vermont in the United States Senate, but that does not mean he is not often associated with the Progressive Party in Vermont  or that the party does not claim him as one of their own.

Now a former Progressive Party gubernatorial candidate and current state senator has introduced legislation in the Vermont legislature to move the Green Mountain state presidential primary to the same date as the New Hampshire primary. FHQ will not advance into the strategic considerations of what a Vermont primary on the same day as New Hampshire would mean for a contest between Clinton and Sanders.3 However, it is interesting to consider how home state legislators will address such a bill. The Progressives are a small cadre of legislators in both chambers of the Vermont legislature, so they would need help moving this bill. Would some Democrats join them to help Sanders and/or promote Vermont's position? Would some Republicans get behind the effort to promote Vermont or potentially hurt Clinton (whether it actually would or not)?4 Could a little of both happen and get the bill close to passage or over that hurdle?

In the end, considering those questions is nothing more than a thought exercise. There are too many ifs involved at this point to even really consider passage of the bill. But even if it becomes law, Bernie Sanders might be the only one campaigning (if he chose to) in a throwback beauty contest primary in Vermont while all the attention remains further east in New Hampshire.

1 Even during the beauty contest primary years, the primary fell on the first Tuesday in March (see 1976, 1980 and 1988). Actually, the fact that the Vermont primary was not binding in those years is the only reason that it escaped penalties from the national parties. The Democratic Party, for instance, did not allow non-Iowa/New Hampshire contests to be held before the second Tuesday in March. That did not change -- moving up a week to the first Tuesday in March -- until the 1992 cycle.

2 The primary could have been moved as early as the first Tuesday in February in 2004. That was the year that the DNC joined the RNC in allowing non-Iowa/New Hampshire states to conduct nominating contests in February. The RNC had allowed a handful of February contests as early as 1996. It should also be pointed that the Vermont House was under Republican control at the time and the chamber may have been less amenable to a change in the primary date intended to help a Democrat, even a Vermont Democrat.

3 It really is moot. New Hampshire is more than adept at fending off these types of challenges.

4 There are not enough Progressives and Republicans to overcome the Democratic majorities in either chamber.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is unlikely that the Vermont legislature will choose to move the primary date. The first Tuesday in March is Town Meeting Day in Vermont, meaning that polling stations are already set up to record votes for municipal officers and town budgets. Moving the Presidential primary off of that date and incurring additional cost to the state makes little sense.