Sunday, May 13, 2018

Democrats Chart Out 2020 Pre-Window Primary Calendar in Draft Delegate Rules

Update (5/24/18): The Rules and Bylaws Committee appears poised to alter the proposed rules change to bring the timing of the early states roughly in line with the calendar from 2016.

This past week as the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee (RBC) reconvened to begin adopting a draft of the 2020 delegate selection rules, it quietly tackled the basic structure of the primary calendar. Seemingly, nothing out of the ordinary occurred. Even at the time the RBC was considering Rule 12 (Timing of the Delegate Selection Process), FHQ remarked on how the privileged positions of the carve-out states, a controversial topic at RBC meetings in past cycles, took a backseat to a proposed amendment to another section of the rule.

After a reading of the full text of the short rule, then, the committee moved into a discussion that had little to do with Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. But the language of the adopted Rule 12.A is worth some time.

The calendar above depicts this, but here is the text of the draft Rule 12.A:
No meetings, caucuses, conventions or primaries which constitute the first determining stage in the presidential nomination process (the date of the primary in primary states, and the date of the first tier caucus in caucus states) may be held prior to the first Tuesday in March or after the second Tuesday in June in the calendar year of the national convention. Provided, however, that the Iowa precinct caucuses may be held no earlier than 29 days before the first Tuesday in March; that the New Hampshire primary may be held no earlier than 21 days before the first Tuesday in March; that the Nevada first-tier caucuses may be held no earlier than 17 days before the first Tuesday in March; and that the South Carolina primary may be held no earlier than 10 days before the first Tuesday in March.
There are a few things of note here:

1. First, if you are from New Hampshire, then you probably picked up on this when you saw the calendar at the top. A Nevada caucus just four days after the New Hampshire primary -- if Nevada Democrats opt to hold their precinct caucuses as early as the rule allows -- is a potential violation of the New Hampshire law requiring the Granite state primary to be at least seven days before any similar contest.

Now, I hear you. Who cares about New Hampshire's state law? Well, Granite state residents in general and Secretary of State Bill Gardner in particular care.1 And the latter would likely act in accordance with the law to protect the seven or more day buffer between New Hampshire and any other state (with a similar contest).

That is what Secretary Gardner has done since the primary scheduling responsibility was granted to the New Hampshire secretary of state's office in 1976.

2. While any looming New Hampshire versus Nevada showdown over 2020 primary and caucus scheduling gives FHQ flashbacks to October 2011 -- the last gasp of 2012 calendar chaos -- it does not mean a similar fracas will break out in 2019.

At this point it all hinges on at least a couple of different inputs; one similar to the 2012 cycle and one different.

The similar condition is that one phrase tucked away in the operative clause in the New Hampshire state law:
The presidential primary election shall be held on the second Tuesday in March or on a date selected by the secretary of state which is 7 days or more immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election, whichever is earlier...
While there were efforts to further clarify the similar election phrase back in 2010, they did not go anywhere in the legislature. And that left in place a law that affords the secretary of state some latitude in defining and determining what a similar contest is. Is a caucus a similar election? Technically, yes, but over the years some distinction has been made about delegate selection. In fact, the proposed change to the law in 2010 defined that distinction, exempting from inclusion as a similar contest any caucus or contest that (directly) selects delegates to the national convention.

But that only gives some insight into the thinking of some in the Granite state, not where it matters. The secretary of state ultimately makes that determination, and Gardner has always played it close to the vest where the primary date is concerned. Was Nevada a similar contest in 2012? The secretary certainly implied as much in the game of brinksmanship with the Nevada GOP.

But Gardner was taking advantage of a power almost unique to New Hampshire. There is one decision maker behind the primary date, and he or she can wait and has waited longer than any other state to settle on a date when conflicts arise with other states. Gardner knows this. The national parties know this. That was part of the reason why it was the Nevada Republican Party that got pressure from the Republican National Committee to back down from the the 2011 fight and opt for a date not just four days after the New Hampshire primary.

Note, however, that in the 2020 context, it is the Democratic National Committee and not Nevada Democrats potentially behind any such conflict between New Hampshire and Nevada. The national party is the actor setting the parameters for contest date selection.

Of course, the DNC has clearly regarded Nevada as a dissimilar contest to the New Hampshire primary all along. For 2008, the cycle in which Nevada and South Carolina were added to the pre-window period in the Democratic process, the similar section of the then-Rule 11 placed the Nevada caucuses before New Hampshire. The Democratic calendar that year was supposed to look like this according to the rule:
Monday, January 14, 2008: Iowa caucuses
Saturday, January 19, 2008: Nevada caucuses
Tuesday, January 22, 2008: New Hampshire primary
Tuesday, January 29, 2008: South Carolina primary
In the dust-up with Florida and Michigan that cycle, New Hampshire pushed up more than Nevada did to defend its first-in-the-nation turf. Nevada Democrats were not willing to move up and actually followed the Rule 11. Of the four carve-out states, Nevada was the only one on the list that ended up on the date described in the rules-based calendar outline above.

Four years later, the DNC made adjustments to that calendar outline. Not only did the party push back the pre-window portion of the calendar from January to February, but also flipped Nevada and New Hampshire in the 2012 version of the then-Rule 11 relative to 2008.
Monday, February 6, 2012: Iowa caucuses
Tuesday, February 14, 2012: New Hampshire primary
Saturday, February 18, 2012: Nevada caucuses
Tuesday, February 28, 2012: South Carolina primary
That calendar should look familiar. Other than the South Carolina part, this is the exact spacing between the first three contests as is proposed for 2020. Nevada was supposed to have been just four days after the New Hampshire primary. Again, however, Florida, as it had in 2008, upset the applecart for 2012. When the Sunshine state scheduled its primary for January 31 that did not leave enough calendar space in which to schedule all four carve-out state contests 1) with the spacing state actors in those states preferred, 2) on the preferred days those four state customary hold contests, or 3) in line with the DNC calendar rubric above.

But what 2012 did produce was a rough model for the DNC to follow for 2016.2 Basically, Iowa, then New Hampshire eight days later (as prescribed by Iowa law), followed by Nevada on a Saturday outside of New Hampshire's seven day buffer (again as prescribed by New Hampshire law) and with South Carolina bringing up the rear a week later than Nevada, also on its typical Saturday.

3. So what is driving the change to that 2016 model for 2020? What changed? Why change anything if the spacing is just right for the carve-out states?

The short answer is that that spacing is not just right for the four carve-out states.

To explain this scroll back up to the adopted Rule 12.A above and give it another glance.

Got it?

The DNC, then,  codifies the positions of the pre-window states by tethering them to the point on the calendar when the window opens; the earliest point when all the other states can begin holding their primaries and caucuses. First is Iowa, 29 days before the first Tuesday in March. That is unchanged relative to 2016. New Hampshire is next, allowed to hold its primary no earlier than 21 days before the first Tuesday in March. That, too, is the same as it was in 2016.

But while Iowa and New Hampshire retain the same positions on the 2020 calendar relative to both the (same) opening of the window and 2016, Nevada and South Carolina do not. Both of the other two carve-out states saw their positions relative to those two points -- the (same) opening of the window and 2016 -- move up by a week. Rather than holding its caucuses ten days prior to the first Tuesday in March (as was true in 2016), Nevada can now schedule its first determining step as early as 17 days before that point on the 2020 calendar.

Similarly, South Carolina in 2016 was allowed to schedule its primary up to three days before the first Tuesday in March. But for 2020, Democrats in the Palmetto state can hold its primary up to ten days before that point on the calendar.

What gives?

Before looking at it too closely, FHQ just assumed that the change was based on a different combination of days and dates in 2020. But that was not it. There are four Tuesdays and four Saturdays in February; enough to allow a repeat in the spacing from 2016. That was not the driving force in the change, and that means that there was an active push within the RBC to make a change.

To sandwich all four carve-out states into February and give each of the four the space they prefer from each other, one then ends up with something like 2016. But that clearly was not satisfactory to all those involved. While the four early states were provided enough of a buffer between themselves, the last contest -- South Carolina -- was not getting much space between it and the next round of contests; typically a big cluster at the point on the calendar where the window opens.

And this point has been clearly, although implicitly, made throughout the RBC meetings this year. Former DNC chair and South Carolina member on the RBC, Don Fowler, has raised the California primary moving from June to March at nearly every RBC meeting in 2018. And typically Mr. Fowler's comments have hinted at doing something about that; about California (and all of its delegates) being so early. And California is not alone on that date. This is not the first time that California will have been so early on the calendar, but it will be the first time that the primary in the largest state in the country has coincided with the primary in the second largest state Texas. The list does not stop there either. Already there are eight states with contests on March 3, 2020 and with the two most delegate-rich states among them, that group is likely to expand.

If you are an actor at the state level who wants your early contest to have maximum impact, then having a contest just three days prior to a likely huge cluster of contests is no way to do it. That is a good position if you want candidates to spend little time and even less money in your state before running for the nearest airport to jet off to some other state with more delegates at stake. That is why New Hampshire insists on the seven days between it and the next contest (not the preceding one): to maximize the impact of the contest on the shape of the race, but also to ensure that the candidates and their campaigns are not tempted to skip (or more likely minimize) the Granite state primary in favor of greener more delegate-rich pastures.

However, in giving South Carolina its own buffer, the DNC is potentially encroaching on another state's insulation. Nevada has gotten pushed into New Hampshire's territory on the calendar, and the question remains, do actors in the Granite state -- specifically the secretary of state there -- see Nevada in that position as a similar contest?

The DNC clearly does not see Nevada as a similar election. But if 2011 is any guide, then New Hampshire secretary of state Gardner is likely to see things differently than the DNC. Although, what is likely to be different in 2019 than it was in 2011 is that the calendar is unlikely to see any states outside of the four carve-out states force those states into January, much less close to pushing into late 2019. That potentially greatly reduces the pressure at the beginning of the calendar. New Hampshire may not threaten a move into 2019 in its own defense -- it would not have to -- but it could move up a week to give itself the at least seven days state law requires or two or three weeks if Iowa has already laid the groundwork for February 3 caucuses.

Regardless, this general outline of a calendar from the DNC puts all eyes squarely on New Hampshire. What else is new?

FHQ's 2020 presidential primary calendar has been updated to account for this proposed calendar. Tentative dates have been added for the four early states.

1 Yes, Gardner is facing a challenge in his bid to retain the secretary of state position this year, but Gardner or not in 2019, whoever is in that position is likely to do the same thing: keep the primary at least seven days ahead of the next contest.

2 FHQ says rough because Iowa was pushed to a Tuesday caucus in 2012 since it was forced up against the New Year's holiday. That meant Iowa was just a week before New Hampshire rather than the eight days it has preferred.

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