Monday, June 27, 2022

A Loophole in Republican Rules That May Help Democrats in Their Calendar Shuffle

The DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee (DNCRBC) convened in Washington this last week to hear presentations from 16 state delegations and Puerto Rico pitching the value in putting their respective contests in the early presidential primary calendar window for 2024. 

There has been persistent chatter since 2020 -- and before that, if we are being honest -- about how or whether Iowa should still fit into the early part of the Democrats' process. And that was not different in the nation's capital this past week. Heading into the event even, the focus seemed to be on midwestern states -- Illinois, Michigan and Minnesota -- that might ideally replace the Hawkeye state as a regional representative among the early slate of states. But it is not clear that any of those potential replacements is an ideal, much less feasible, stand-in for the quadrennial lead-off contests the state parties in Iowa conduct. 

Each has a conflict with what it is the DNCRBC set as its guidelines for building an early window group of contests. Sure, Iowa Democrats have had its issues with competitive caucuses in the recent past, but there is no perfect candidate that can easily move in and assume an early calendar slot. Illinois convcievably can move to an earlier spot -- Democrats there control the state government. -- but the Prairie state has hardly been a battleground in the presidential races of the last generation. [There are campaign expense issues that candidates would have to contend with in Illinois that are not present in Iowa as well.] 

And both Michigan and Minnesota have Republicans standing in the way of any prospective shift to an earlier primary date. In the Great Lakes state, Republicans in control of the state legislature would have to relent to any change. Further west in Minnesota, the Republican barriers are different. There is no immediate need for change that would require state legislative action. Rather, both state party chairs, as described in current state law, would have to agree to a change of date for the presidential primary. Admittedly, there is less institutional resistance in Minnesota, but it remains a barrier to any alteration in the presidential primary date in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. 

It should also be noted that both the Michigan and Minnesota delegations indicated in their presentations to the DNCRBC that conversations with Republicans in their respective states had been started and were ongoing. And both came with endorsements of primary moves from former state Republican Party chairs and other former elected officials. But neither delegation was particularly forthcoming about just how feasible a date change was. Neither was willing to go public with any of those discussions for obvious reasons. The fear is that it might blow up those discussions on the Republican end and derail any movement toward a change. 

Those discussions -- that they are happening at all! -- are all well and good. But they obscure a major institutional obstacle to anything happening in either state in the Democratic process. Again, both delegations said discussions with Republicans were happening and ostensibly moving in positive directions. Furthermore, both added that they would keep the DNCRBC abreast of any relevant changes. 

Neither, however, noted the grim reality of just how unlikely it is that state Republicans could ultimately come to the table in a meaningful way. 

And it all is kind of ironic. Here they were, these two delegations among 15 others, pitching to the national party the virtues of their states being viable early, if not leading contests. Each was asking the DNC to add or keep them in to the early calendar window. But there was nary a mention of Republican National Committee rules guiding -- or CONSTRAINING -- Republican state parties in setting their rules for delegation selection (primary dates among them) and what impact that would have on the Democratic process.1

Namely, there was no mention of Rule 17 in the Rules of the Republican Party. As has been widely reported, especially in the context of these discussions of Democrats potentially shaking up their calendar for 2024, the RNC has already decided to carry over its early slate of states from 2020. In other words, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada (in that order) are protected in their early positions in the Republican rules for 2024, and other states are vulnerable to sanction if they try to encroach on the territory -- February -- set aside for those early states' contests. If the DNC opted to make Michigan or Minnesota the first state, or even a February state, then any subsequent primary move into that territory would reduce a delegation the size of Michigan or Minnesota -- 30 delegates or more -- to just 12 total delegates including RNC members. Republicans may be open to Democratic entreaties about a move in the abstract, but are significantly less likely to sign on to any deal that will have their own voices in the Republican nomination process greatly curtailed. This so-called super penalty has been incredibly effective in keeping Republican-controlled (to any degree) states in line since it was put in place after the 2012 election cycle. The potential hit has proven too prohibitive for state-level Republican decision-makers. 

One possible workaround was raised at the DNCRBC meetings in Washington this past week, albeit without acknowledging the Republican super penalty. Minnesota Democrats presenting before the DNCRBC noted that their state law says there needs to be bipartisan agreement on an alternate primary date, but not that there could not also be a second date for a second, later and compliant Republican primary. Minnesota does not have a recent history of presidential primaries split by party (on different dates). Michigan does, but the catch for either or both attempting to push things down that path is that it costs money. Perhaps there will be enough money in state coffers to allow for that, but that certainly is not guaranteed. 

There is also the prospect of Republicans opting for a state party-run and funded contest -- either primary or caucus -- while Democrats use the state government-run and funded primary in the first (or just an early) slot. Depending on the dynamics of the Republican race at the time a decision needs to be made (some time next year after the DNC will have to make a decision on its early slate of contests), Republicans may be open to a lower turnout, state party-run process. But there, too, it is not clear that state Republicans would go along with a plan that would allow state Democrats to have an early contest alone. 

And bear in mind that the DNCRBC is going to finalize its decision on the states that will be codified into the 2024 rules as the early states in early August. It is one thing to come to some tentative deal with state Republicans by then, but another to trust that it will hold over time and not hurt Democrats after that. That is not about anything underhanded Republicans may do in the meantime. Instead, it is an acknowledgment that these decisions have to be made early in order to insure that they can be effectively implemented on the state level. Dynamics may change in the Republican race that may provoke a change of heart from state-level Republicans. 

It very simply is a tough agreement to come to (and that is without considering how much emphasis both parties will place on 2024 and how much tension that may create).

Great. Thanks FHQ. You have once again thrown cold water the parties' reform plans. What else is new? 

Look, these are difficult changes to make because of the variety of interested actors and vested interests involved. If it was easy to change, then these things -- like some state other than Iowa being first -- would have been dealt with long ago. But they are not easy changes. It is easy to say, "Hey, put some other state in there," but it is an entirely different thing to actually do it. 

But all is not lost. Michigan or Minnesota going first as the sole midwestern representative may be, but not adding either one or the other as a minor tweak to the early state lineup. 

Let me walk through the steps because, again, the Republican rules constrain just how much latitude any decision-makers have in this at the state level. No one is likely to willingly walk into that super penalty. But there is a way to potentially work around it that could add a state like Michigan or Minnesota to the end of the early window (if the DNC so desires). 

Back in 2014 when Republicans made changes to the rules that were adopted at the 2012 national convention in Tampa, rules makers set March 1 as one of two lines of demarcation. No state not named Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada could hold a contest before that point on the calendar in 2016. The other line was March 15, on or after which states were allowed to allocate delegates in any fashion. [Before that point, states were mandated to use a proportional method.]

And that was fine. 

In 2016. 

In 2016, both March 1 and March 15 fell on the traditional days on which most nomination contests are held, Tuesday. But here's the thing: the party never tweaked those lines of demarcation in the rules timeline after 2016. Those rules -- that specific language -- carried over to 2020, but were not all that consequential then with the Republican presidential nomination largely (or meaningfully) uncontested. 

Now, however, as 2024 approaches, the Republican National Committee has chosen to once again carry the bulk of those rules over to a third consecutive cycle. The guidelines continue to prohibit February on the calendar to non-carve-out states and sets a proportionality window that closes as the clock strikes midnight to usher in March 15. Only, neither March 1 nor March 15 are on Tuesday in 2024. They both fall on Friday. 

By now, one can no doubt see where I am going with this. Democratic rules set the beginning of what they call the window -- the period after traditionally exempt states like Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina hold their contests -- as the first Tuesday in March. In 2024, that first Tuesday in March is March 5, the date that is very likely to be deemed Super Tuesday in the next cycle. But under Republican rules there is a four day window before that point in which states could schedule contests and not be subjected to the super penalty. You know, states like Michigan or Minnesota where state Republicans would not necessarily be inclined to agree with Democrats on a primary move if it meant opening themselves up to losing around three-quarters of their delegation to the national convention. 

Again, that helps neither state slide into the first slot, replacing Iowa, but it does open the door to one or the other of Michigan or Minnesota being added to the early part of the 2024 calendar

However, even that novel approach to shuffling the calendar is not foolproof for Democrats as their August decision on the early calendar approaches. There are a couple of issues, one on each side of the aisle, that may cause some problems. The first is easy enough. The RNC may change its rules to close that loophole. Rule 12 allows the party to change certain rules -- those pertaining to delegate selection -- up to September 30 of the midterm year ahead of any presidential election. [And after tens of people read this post, it could happen!]

Secondly, presumably adding a fifth state into the mix in the Democratic presidential nomination process really creates a time crunch for the party and those five states. If there is only a window from the first Monday in February to Super Tuesday in early March in which to schedule those contests, then things get dicey.  That is more true in light of state-level scheduling laws. Iowa's law calls for its caucuses (or "caucuses" now that they are likely to more caucus-in-name-only on the Democratic side) to be eight (8) days before any other contest. In New Hampshire that lead time is seven (7) day before any other "similar contest." Oh, and Nevada's new law that established a stand-alone presidential primary starting with the 2024 cycle schedules the date of that contest for the first Tuesday in February, a day after the Iowa caucuses have been in recent cycles. In other words, there some tension there that needs to be ironed out. 

And let us not leave South Carolina out of this discussion either. While the above three traditionally early states have some conflicts to fix at the beginning of the pre-window period, Palmetto state Democrats may take issue with any contest that may slip into the end of that period. For starters, if South Carolina retains an early spot on the calendar, then its recent Saturday before Super Tuesday date would fit into that Republican rule loophole window described above as well. Now, South Carolina Democrats may not mind shifting to a slightly earlier date, but that may also disrupt the regular rhythms of the overall South Carolina presidential nomination process and the perceived impact the state has on the course of a Democratic nomination. 

Typically, South Carolina Democrats and Republicans have not held simultaneous presidential primaries. That is partly a throwback to the not-so-distant past practice of the state parties funding and administering those contests and partly a function of Republicans slotting South Carolina into the third position on their calendar and Democrats scheduling them fourth. For the DNC to keep South Carolina fourth and add a fifth state into the pre-window would likely mean moving South Carolina up a Saturday in February and onto the likely Saturday of the Republican primary in the state. That would mean a lesser expenditure for the state now that it funds and runs the primaries, but again it breaks with the traditional pattern in the state and may not win buy-in from both state parties. 

Additionally, South Carolina Democrats may not want to give up that prime spot on the Saturday before Super Tuesday. Rep. Jim Clyburn's endorsement of Joe Biden was seen as a turning in the Democratic race in 2020. [Some of us would argue that turning point happened the week before in Nevada when Biden placed second, but that view is not as widely adopted.] Biden's subsequent win in the Palmetto state was a springboard into the Super Tuesday states that had more diverse constituencies on a day that had a decidedly southern flavor and emphasized the black electorate. South Carolina may or may not have played a direct role in Biden's subsequent success on Super Tuesday, but if Democratic leaders in the state think it did, then they may prove stubborn when confronted with possibly giving that slot up to another state. 

And even if South Carolina Democrats prefer being fifth in the order to keep that springboard position prior to Super Tuesday, that does not leave a lot of wiggle room to fit in a state like Michigan or Minnesota (if they want to get state Republicans to the table). In fact, it leaves only Friday, March 1. Back-to-back contests may not be workable for either state if that emerges as the only option to DNC-level decision makers.

Great. Thanks again, FHQ. You have now provided a solution to the initial problem and have even thrown some cold water on it

Yeah, I have. 

But that is indicative of the thicket into which rules makers wade when they set out to tweak their rules every cycle. It just is not that easy. States and state laws are involved. State parties of all stripes and their rules are involved. Voters' interests are involved. The national parties' rules are also at the confluence of all of those actors. It is an intricate jigsaw puzzle that requires a deft touch to alter and sometimes that does not wed well with consensus building. 

So, as the DNCRBC continues to tackle this issue it has set before its members, bear all of this in mind. Change may be forthcoming -- even big changes to the early window -- but do not be surprised if those tweaks are minor and/or incremental. That is just the nature of the process. 

1 There was a mention of the RNC rules, but that came early on the proceedings before the state presentations began. During a discussion of Rule 21 -- the challenge rule that describes the penalties for delegate selection rules violations in the Democratic process -- DNCRBC member, Elaine Kamarck, noted a convention stage Republican mechanism that basically prevents a state party from using (in the case of this discussion) a non-compliant method of delegate allocation. States can set non-compliant rules, but cannot effectively employ them at the convention on the roll call vote for the presidential nomination. 

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