Thursday, May 18, 2017

Is Frontloading a Real Issue for 2020?

Recently, in a couple of posts about the possibility of California shifting up the date of its next presidential primary, FHQ mentioned that any move in the Golden state alters the delegate allocation calculus. And that is true. Any time a state worth approximately ten percent of the total number of delegates uproots its primary and moves it to another spot on the calendar, that has implications for how candidates and campaigns approach the primary phase of the presidential nomination process.

Moreover, I went on to note that these decisions -- and especially one out of such a delegate-rich state as California -- do not happen in a vacuum. Other states, or rather political actors in them, take notice. Again, if past is a guide, then California changes cause other states to reconsider their positions on the calendar.

But past is not always prologue. And that prompted James Pindell of the Boston Globe to ask a variation of the title question in an email exchange we had last week. Is frontloading a real issue?

To start, the true response to that question is, "I don't know." I don't. When and if California does bump its primary up from June to March, states will begin testing that hypothesis. And the true test will be in 2019, the year before the next presidential election (a time when most of the decisions on presidential primary movement tend to occur).

One response to a California move is the one FHQ has laid out: a big, delegate-rich state shifts to an earlier point on the calendar and sets off a sort of chain reaction similar to what happened in both 2000 and 2008. But Pindell was right to push back against that as the only explanation. It can also be persuasively argued that some of the lessons learned from the de facto national primary experience in February 2008 included some form of, "We spent all of that money to hold an earlier presidential primary and/or got lost in the shuffle of 20 or more states."

In other words, "Maybe we should [have] save[d] some money and/or [have] be[en] more selective about where our primary ends up on the calendar." After all, that is the same retrospective, fight the last war mindset under which the national parties operate in their rules decision-making. State legislators, like those decision-makers within the national parties, can only use the data they have, and the most recent data -- the experience in the most recent cycle -- often colors the decisions made.

All of that was particularly true following 2008. A number of states, Arkansas, California and New Jersey among them, that were part of the Titanic Tuesday on February 5, 2008 opted to revert to later dates in 2012. However, one external factor forced states to revisit their calendar positions in 2012: the national parties informally coordinated a more uniform primary calendar. The practical implication was something FHQ discussed for much of 2011. States that had held February contests in 2008 had to change their dates because February was off limits to all but Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina under the national party rules in 2012.

Those that did not abandon their February dates ran the risk of taking the delegate hit that Florida, Arizona and Michigan ultimately took heading in the 2012 primary season. Yes, those three states and a number of additional non-binding caucus states broke or skirted the rules and held contests in the late January through February period. Yet, the vast majority of formerly February primary states saw the new national party delegate selection rules and sought relief from possible sanctions in the form of later primary dates.

So, rather than cast 2012 primary movement at the state level as solely a function of financial/budgetary concerns, it is more all-encompassing to frame it as, "Well, if we have to move anyway because of rules changes, why not just (re)consolidate our primaries in the traditional later positions and save some money in the process?" That was the case in states like Arkansas, California and New Jersey.

But other states had a different decision-making calculus; one dominated by partisan state government control. Among those formerly February primary states, if the state was Republican-controlled, it was more likely to shift back, but shift back to a lesser degree than Democratic-controlled states. Those Republican states tended to shift from February to March while the Democratic states pushed back even further to April or later. The impetus for that was that 1) Republicans saw significant gains at the state government level in the 2010 midterms and 2) the Republican Party was the only party with an active presidential nomination race in 2012.

The lesson of de facto national primary in 2008, then, is a bit more complicated. And, in fact, in 2016  there was some potential unraveling of it. On the one hand, the national parties crafted rules that brought repeat offenders like Florida, Arizona and Michigan in line. The parties got what they wanted there: a clear February for the four carve-out states. But those three offending states made minimal regressive pushes. All three ended up at various positions in March and were joined from the other end of the calendar by states that got lumped into the SEC primary narrative (with minimal legislative action). Alabama moved up a week from its 2012 position, the Arkansas legislature shifted a consolidated primary from late May to March, and Texas reverted to its March date in 2016 after courts mandated a May 2012 primary because of a redistricting dispute. North Carolina also took a circuitous route to a mid-March primary date in 2016.

The Florida, Arizona and Michigan shifts are one thing. Each was already early in 2012 and stayed that way in 2016 relative to most states. All three remained around the 50% delegates allocated mark on the calendar. But Texas and North Carolina played a role in where that point on the calendar ended up by clustering in March 2016.

If California ends up in March 2020, then that mark shifts up even further.

And that brings this discussion full circle back to the question that Pindell posed. Would other states move to earlier dates for 2020 because of that prospective California-enhanced clustering? While that is a question that is affected by partisan concerns (the balance of power after the 2018 midterms) and budgetary limitations (consolidating, separating and funding primary elections), part of the answer will also be based on the perceptions of 2020 within the various state houses across the country.

When these presidential primary scheduling bills come up in state legislative committee hearings or on the floor of a state House or Senate, the resulting discussions are rarely about delegate math or where the state is or would be positioned on the calendar relative to some seemingly arbitrary 50% delegates allocated mark. Most state legislators just do not have the time, energy or inclination to be that savvy about a primary date. Instead, the talk is about the economics of attention-seeking. Sure, there is some griping about Iowa and New Hampshire. What primary scheduling discussion would be complete without that? But most of them involve a serious discussion about how a move to a date clustered with regional partners or alone would grab the attention of the candidates and the media. That not only forces the candidates to address issues that are important to the state/region, but also means the candidates and media will spend money in the state as the campaigns sweep through.

Part of the state legislative decision-making calculus ahead of 2020 will be the perception of how 2020 may proceed. If the current conventional wisdom holds, then 2020 will be a year with a wide open Democratic field of candidates that forces a race that lasts the whole length of the primary calendar. Moves like the ostensible shift in California can potentially disrupt that conventional wisdom (as can the nascent national party delegate selection rules).

If that feeling holds -- that regardless of California's move, the Democratic race is destined to be competitive throughout -- then there is little urgency to move to an earlier date. There will be attention to seek wherever a state sits on the calendar. However, the motivation to frontload increases when and if the feeling changes to one where the race will end sooner rather than later. [Or if, say, a number of (newly) Democratic-controlled state governments opt for earlier dates so as not to cede influence to other states/regions. And/or alternatively, if the feeling, as ahead of 2004, is "wrap this race up and focus on a general election against an embattled incumbent".] Attention-seeking states under those conditions would be more likely to move up, if they are willing and able, to take any piece of the pie rather than hold steady on a later date and run the perceived risk of getting nothing. Something -- even if it means advertising dollars spent in local markets and not actual candidates on the ground [Visits are finite.] -- is better than nothing.

So, is frontloading an issue for 2020? The answer now is unclear, but hinges greatly on both partisan control on the state level following the 2018 midterms and the perception (in 2019) about how long the race will remain competitive. A California shift potentially affects that latter variable, feeding a possible frontloading contagion.

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