Thursday, May 14, 2015

The SEC Primary Has Nothing to Do with Georgia Being More Prominent in 2016

FHQ has found Adam Wollner's reporting at the National Journal this cycle enlightening. He and I have had a handful of conversations about the primary calendar and specific maneuverings by states, and I have cited him a time or two. But Wollner lost me yesterday right in the lede of his story on Georgia's newfound position of prominence in the race for the 2016 Republican nomination.

Basically, this is a story about candidates coming to Georgia. That is fine, but the hypotheses advanced as to why the early visits are occurring fell short in FHQ's estimation. Let's explore.
Hypothesis #1: Georgia has received more visits during the 2016 cycle because of its new position on the calendar. 
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp may or may not in 2015 formally declare the date of the Georgia presidential primary as he did by law in a press conference in late September 2011. He has not yet in any event. But as Secretary Kemp is spearheading the effort to form an SEC primary coalition on March 1 and has repeatedly discussed that date, we can assume that a very strong signal has been sent as to when the Georgia presidential primary will fall in 2016.1

Even if we assume that Georgia conducts a primary on March 1, that is not a new position for the state on the primary calendar. It would be the same first Tuesday in March date on which the Georgia primary occurred in 2012. I'm having flashbacks to grad school here, but if you have a variable (calendar position) that does not vary, then you do not have anything that can explain the changes in the dependent variable (candidate visits).

Calendar positioning is not driving any increase in candidate visits then. What else?
Hypothesis #2: The SEC primary that Georgia political actors have pushed has led to more candidate visits during the 2016 presidential nomination cycle. 
This SEC primary concept is a tough one to measure. The task is even tougher in view of the fact none of the states named in the original proposal have yet moved to March 1. Tennessee was already there by state law (changed in 2011). All signs point toward Georgia being there when the calendar dust settles. Louisiana declined to participate. In Alabama, there is bipartisan support for moving their primary up a week, but it is still in the legislative process. Arkansas and Mississippi failed to pass legislation that would have moved their primaries to March 1, but Arkansas may have a second go at it.

Perhaps the strong signal that Georgia is giving about holding a March 1 primary is what is driving this (at least relative to the other states). Perhaps, but that does not really have all that much to do with the SEC primary.

FHQ is not convinced that that is the reason why more candidates are visiting Georgia though. There are at least two other better alternate explanations.
  1. Other than Texas, Georgia is the most delegate-rich state likely to hold a primary or caucuses on March 1. The perception is that this is going to be a long, drawn-out Republican nomination race (FHQ is skeptical that that will be the case.). That, in turn, means the delegate count will again take on added importance. In that situation, candidates go where the delegates are or will be. Georgia is a place where there will be delegates at stake. 
  2. Speaking of Texas, something the Lone Star state has or will have in 2016 is something that Georgia had in 2012: a favorite son running for the presidential nomination. FHQ could not believe that Newt Gingrich was only mentioned in passing in Wollner's piece. If one wants to explain why Georgia might be getting more candidate attention in 2016 than it did in 2012, then a favorite son being involved in the previous cycle might be something at which to look. It tends to have a reducing effect on the number of visits from other candidates. That is especially true in the event that said state shares a primary date with a number of other contests. This was true for Illinois in 2008. Arkansas also lost in 2008 because it shared its February 5 primary date with twenty plus other states and Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee were on the ballot. 
But there's no Newt on the ballot in 2016 and no other Georgians either. There are or will be a number of Texans running though. And that may force candidates to keep their options open, looking at other delegate-rich states instead.


Before I close let's look for a moment at the lefthand side of this equation, the dependent variable. FHQ would urge a high level of caution in reading much into the number of candidate visits a state -- any state -- receives. Particularly, I would hesitate in comparing those raw numbers across cycles. It is dangerous and potentially misleading. Let's look at Georgia and the visits that have been paid to the Peach state in the time since the 2000 primaries.
Georgia primary visits:
2000: 2
2004: 32
2008: 38
2012: 47 
This makes it look like Georgia has seen a rise in candidate visits over time, and that even accounts for the fact that only one party had an active nomination in both 2004 and 2012. The key questions to ask are 1) was the nomination race still competitive when Georgia held its presidential primary and 2) how many states shared that date with the Peach state? The answer to #1 is yes across the board in all of those cycles. Georgia was still worth visiting, then. As for #2, that is likely what is driving this relationship; a greater number of visits. Georgia has had to share its primary date with a varying number of states over time.
Number of states to share primary date with Georgia:
2000: 16
2004: 9
2008: 23
2012: 10
Those numbers do not really make that point clear. There seem to be more concurrent contests when both parties have active nominations. That means a couple of things. First, Georgia is not always the top dog, uh, dawg, in terms of delegate-richness when it shares its presidential primary date with a large number of states (typically, though not always, on the earliest date allowed by the national party delegate selection rules). Often among those states are the likes of California, New York and Ohio; all more attractive, delegate-rich states. Georgia was the most delegate-rich state on March 6 four years ago.

But second, and perhaps more important, when both parties have active nominations that tends to mean more candidates who can provide more visits. And that is definitely true for 2016. There may only be a handful of Democrats seeking the party's nomination, but there are truckload of Republicans who are running. More candidates equals more potential visits to an early, delegate-rich state. This is a super important footnote for anyone who decides to look into candidate visits in the coming months and attempts to draw anything from the aggregated numbers.

Look at Georgia. It received about a 25% increase in visits in 2012 (versus 2008) despite only the Republicans having a competitive nomination race, a favorite son on the ballot and an uncertain calendar (that did not become certain until November 20112). Why? Georgia's primary was early-ish and was the most delegate-rich contest on its date.

1 No, FHQ does not have that date listed for Georgia on the 2016 presidential primary calendar and will not until there is a formal announcement. That said, I will leave what I said above stand. It is pretty clear that Georgia will end up on March 1 next year and that an announcement will, I would guess, probably happen sooner than the end of September this year. There just is not as much chaos to the formation of the 2016 calendar as there was four years ago.

2 That uncertainty matters less in the comparison of 2012 to 2008. 2008 had just as much calendar uncertainty. However, with the calendar far clearer for 2016, that allows the candidates to better map out visits to states they know will be early, but after the carve-out states.

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