Monday, June 3, 2019

The Nationalization of the Presidential Nomination Process and Candidate Visits

Over the weekend, FHQ scoffed at a line in Jonathan Martin's New York Times story on the cavalcade of Democratic presidential hopefuls heading to the California Democratic Convention to speak. And although Super Tuesday remains on the same first Tuesday in March date that it was three years ago (and four years before that), Martin raises some interesting points about the nationalization of the presidential nomination process that are worth considering.

But also worth considering is the fact that this Golden state gathering was, at best, weak evidence of that nationalization phenomenon. Martin takes it as fact that since the two dozen Democratic candidates for the presidential nomination have already visited 33 states and territories that the race has, voila!, nationalized. It certainly appears that way. Yet, there remain several lingering questions/points.

The first is that map included in the story -- the one with the dots -- indicated the number of candidates who have visited the various states and not the number of visits candidates have made to those states. That depiction, while noteworthy on some level, is misleading. It makes a state like California look like it is much closer to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina than it actually is. California is closer to the carve-out states in the number of candidates, but not really in the collective number of visits by the candidates.

That is consistent with the pattern of visits during the 2008 cycle, the last competitive Democratic presidential nomination cycle with a sizable number of quality (and qualified) candidates. California notched the fifth most visits during that cycle, behind (in order) Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida. All four had earlier (and in some cases non-compliant) dates on the 2008 presidential primary calendar than did the California primary scheduled on Super Tuesday.  The Golden state was well behind Iowa and New Hampshire in the number of visits that it got from candidates of both parties and less behind both South Carolina and Florida. Still, big, delegate-rich, and Super Tuesday California managed the fifth most visits.

And that comparison to 2008 is important because it highlights another shortcoming in Martin's piece. If 14 Democratic candidates trekking to San Francisco on the same weekend to speak before the state party convention is evidence of the nomination process nationalizing, then it is evidence of that trend compared to what? Martin drops this line:
This weekend was no aberration: Democratic presidential contenders have already combined to visit more than 30 states and territories for public events, far more than in any past nominating contest when candidates would spend the vast majority of their time in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But does not really back it up.

The easiest, albeit apples to oranges (to some degree), comparison is to the 2016 Republican process. The parties are different, but some of the conditions are the same. There was a large field of Republicans vying for the GOP nomination in 2015-16. There also was a minimally altered primary calendar of events over which the nomination race would be contested.

That 2016 Republican race, too, drew similar reactions. But instead of California, candidates, their campaigns, other political actors and the press talked about the SEC primary and how it was disrupting the regular rhythms of the nomination process. But the pattern witnessed then was that while there were visits to SEC primary and other states throughout 2015, as actual voting neared attention shifted toward the early states. In other words, the pattern normalized, still weighted -- and fairly heavily -- toward the early states.

One thing that the SEC primary of 2016 and the California primary of 2020 share is a certain branding. And not just branding, but a concerted and early effort to draw attention to the contests. Then Georgia secretary of state, Brian Kemp (R) was talking up the possibility of an SEC primary as early as February 2014, and thereafter there was a fairly constant drumbeat not only about the possibility, but of the formation of and coordination behind that regional contest for Super Tuesday 2016. Kemp and other southern secretaries of state pushed the idea and pushed it hard by hammering home the idea that the South was where the most loyal Republicans in the country are and that the path the nomination went through those voters. Campaigns took notice.

Similarly, California made an early splash in the 2020 presidential cycle by beginning the process of shifting the more-often-than-not June primary up to March. The argument in an April 2017 press release on the bill was the following:
“A state as populous and diverse as California should not be an afterthought. Moving up the California primary in 2020 makes sense and will give California voters a more significant role. By holding our primary earlier, we will ensure that issues important to Californians are prioritized by presidential candidates from all political parties,” said Secretary Padilla. 
“California is the largest, most diverse state in the nation with one of the largest economies in the world,” said Senator Ricardo Lara. “Yet Californians’ voices are silenced when it comes to choosing presidential nominees. California is leading the nation on clean air, criminal justice reform, and expanding healthcare for all, and moving up our presidential primary will ensure our state’s voters are heard in the national debate.”
Now, there has been a lot of ink spilled over the potential impact of the California primary move. Much has focused on the structural impact: the shift of so many delegates to an earlier point on the calendar, the impact of early voting, among others. But almost all also mention the diversity that California (and for that matter other Super Tuesday states) bring to a process that includes not only a diverse Democratic primary electorate, but a diverse field of candidates. Again, candidates have, as they did four years ago with the SEC primary, taken notice.

But does that represent a nationalization of the process or evidence of a nationalization of the process? One way to approach this is to reject the null hypothesis; that candidates appearing in states other than Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina is not because of a nationalization of the process.

And FHQ would argue there are at least two factors standing in the way of us rejecting the null in this case. They are two factors that I raised back in 2015 in the context of similar lines of argument about the SEC primary. Candidates are not going to states other than the four carve-outs because of some nationalization process. No, instead, they are heading to California and Puerto Rico and West Virginia and other states because...
  1. It's the field [size], stupid. More candidates means more potential overall visits. More candidates also means that if everyone is heading to Iowa, then perhaps no one is heading to Iowa. In other words, the value of an Iowa visit is less if one are venturing around the Hawkeye state with 23 other candidates than if one is competing there with five other candidates. Candidates have to stand out and if they are all going to Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, then them may be less likely to stand out. And standing out is something that these 24 Democratic candidates have to do. 
  2. Calendar certainty. Another related factor is that the calendar formation for the 2020 cycle has been not only orderly but slow compared to past cycles in this century. It is a lot easier as a candidate and/or campaign to make a decision to go to California if that campaign has a fairly good idea about where it fits in the calculus of winning the nomination. California's position on the calendar is no more nor less known now than it was in the lead up to 2008, for example. But 2019 does not feature the sort of rules defiance that 2007 saw. There is no Florida. There is no Michigan to disrupt the early calendar as was the case in 2007. That left campaigns at that time with a dilemma. They could only plan ahead so far when the beginning portions of the calendar remained in flux as the Florida and Michigan issue was unresolved. All that was known to campaigns at the time was that Iowa and New Hampshire would be first. All subsequent contests were obscured by the uncertainty. Contrast that with 2019. The carve-out states indeed have February carved out. And a delegate bonanza hits just after on Super Tuesday in early March. Other states may yet join Super Tuesday -- but that is unlikely at this point -- but the basic outline of the calendar has been preserved. A slow on-ramp through February toward Super Tuesday. That certainty helps campaigns plan and plan ahead for the next steps in the sequence.
To be fair to Martin, he is absolutely right that cable news (nothing new) and online tools (especially social media) help to if not nationalize then uniformize the coverage of presidential campaigns. But whether that has a nationalizing effect on the process itself is a trickier question to answer. It creates more national appeals from campaigns or attempts to go viral, but that is hardly evidence that the "stranglehold on the time, money and attention of the White House aspirants in the year leading up to the primaries" that Iowa and New Hampshire has been broken. It is probably a bit premature to come to that conclusion. If anything, the expectation should be that attention will ramp up in the earliest states beginning in the fall. They are, after all, the first voting moves in the sequence. But if there is a break in that pattern -- a reversion to carve-out state-focused campaigning as fall works its way to winter, then we may have some evidence of a break in that stranglehold.

As it stands, it is still pretty good to be first. And campaign visits data will continue to reflect that.

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