Monday, August 24, 2015

Is the SEC Primary Working?

Southern politicians keep saying and the press keeps reporting that the "SEC primary is working".

That statement tends to oversimplify the dynamics at play in this instance though. Is the SEC primary working? Well, it depends on how you define "working". Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill (R)(and others, mind you) seem to be defining it as presidential candidates being drawn into the states participating in the effort to cluster southern presidential primaries on March 1.

But are those states drawing in more candidates/visits than was the case four years ago (or if they maintained the same positions on the calendar they had four years ago)? FHQ has touched on this before, but it bears repeating given that this same line keeps coming back up regarding the regional primary scheduled for next March. The simple answer is yes. Southern states are witnessing more candidate stops than was the case four years ago.

However, there are several explanations to the more interesting "why" question that are too readily being glossed over by the "SEC primary is working" crowd.1

1) The importance of being early.
All things held equal, any state would rather be on March 1 than June 1. Holding an earlier primary or caucus may not have a direct impact on the course of the two presidential nomination races, but one would rather weigh in before the field has been winnowed too drastically or a nominee has been identified. It was this sort of thinking that prompted the frontloading of presidential primaries and caucuses in the first place.

But if you look at the group of states participating in the SEC primary at this time only Arkansas and Texas are scheduled more than a week earlier in 2016 than they were in 2012. There may be more visits that have been paid to southern states during the 2016 cycle, but it is not solely because any member of the collective or the group of them is much earlier than in 2012.

2) One for all and all for one.
Well, perhaps it is the forming of the coalition that provides the largest impetus for increased candidate attention. Again, though, on this mark, things are not all that divergent from the 2012 baseline. Texas reverting to the first Tuesday in March date that state law there calls for is a big factor.2 But the clustering does not seem to be having a direct impact on visits.

Instead, the SEC primary grouping may have succeeded most in claiming that spot on the calendar and warding off any would-be copycats from duplicating the strategy also on March 1. The impact of any cluster of states -- or any individual state for that matter -- is contingent upon the competition it has on that date. In 1988, southern states were similarly able to crowd onto an early March date without any competition or at least any competition that offered a similar cache of delegates.

Like 1988, southern primaries have no real threat to their position on March 1, 2016. Sure, there are other states with contests on March 1, but they are neither as regional cohesive nor do they offer the number of delegates that the SEC primary does.

It should be said that the South serving as the heart of the Republican Party does not hurt the effort. A northeastern primary on March 1 would not, for example, be able to compete with a southern regional primary effectively. There might be some draw there, but most would still visit the South.

3) Calendar certainty.
At this point four years ago, Florida had yet to set a date for its presidential primary. Arizona had just threatened to move into January. With those and other states unsettled, the candidates had no idea where exactly Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina would end up.

...only that they would be first. States that followed the rules on timing and otherwise would have been on the heels of the carve-out state contests paid the price for actions outside of their borders.

Campaigns behaved accordingly. If one knows the carve-out states will be first and that the snow globe that is the next step is still being shaken, then one -- the campaigns in this case -- will focus on what they know versus what they don't. That uncertainty likely meant fewer candidate visits to states that ultimately fell into position on the calendar (but only after Florida, Arizona and others did).

The 2016 calendar is much more settled now. Campaigns have an ability during this cycle to plan ahead -- visit states deeper into the calendar -- than they did not and could not possess four years ago. And they have the luxury of doing so much earlier in the process. States as far down the calendar as March 15 have reaped the benefits, but the states in the SEC primary coalition have been big winners because of the calendar certainty. The early cluster helped too.

4) It's the field, stupid.
Finally, it should not go without saying that the size of the field of candidates should be factored into this as well. After all, more candidates yield more visits. That is a big reason why there are more visits to the South by those vying for the presidential nominations next year.

Is the SEC primary working? If the measure of that is visits to the states in the coalition, then yes. But why that is happening may be a more interesting question.

1 It should be noted that these folks have every reason to give off the impression that the regional primary is working. They have an incentive to say that more candidates are coming. It tends to bring others in.

2 An unresolved redistricting process led to the courts forcing a later (May) Texas primary in 2012.

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