Friday, March 17, 2023

Invisible Primary: Visible -- Karl Rove's Faux Certainty on 2024 Unknowns

Thoughts on the invisible primary and links to the goings on of the moment as 2024 approaches...

FHQ will have to hand it to Karl Rove. His latest attempt to wade into and use the rules to frame an upcoming battle for the Republican presidential nomination is much better than his last in 2015.

But that does not mean that it was tethered to the reality of the evolving rules for the 2024 cycle. Let's dig in.

On the calendar, Rove creates an imaginary tiff between Iowa and New Hampshire:
We don’t yet know exactly when these contests—Iowa is a caucus, the others are primaries—will be held. Iowa Democrats want to allow mail-in ballots in addition to in-person voting. New Hampshire believes this would make Iowa a primary, which would mean New Hampshire’s contest would have to move ahead of Iowa’s because it holds the nation’s first primary by law. Hawkeye State Republicans want to stop mail-in ballots so Iowa remains first as a caucus.
First of all, Iowa Democrats, in pitching the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee last year to stay among the earliest states in 2024, tried to sell them on an all-mail caucus process. Secondly, what Iowa Democrats do has next to nothing to do with what Republicans in the Hawkeye state may or may not do. The parties there, despite the state law, do not have to conduct delegate selection events on the same date. If Iowa Republicans truly take issue with the Democrats' process, then the party can schedule earlier caucuses. 

And there is no indication that New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlan (R) has any problem with what Iowa Democrats plan to do. That is because there is no Iowa Democratic plan yet. So, there may or may not be any issue here at all. Let's cross that bridge when and if we get to it. 

Then Rove moves on to South Carolina:
Even if that’s worked out, South Carolina may force the schedule earlier. Democrats are trying to shift the primary there from Feb. 24 to Feb. 3. The state GOP likes the later date, which is far enough into the calendar that South Carolina often settles the presidential nomination—as it did in 2000 for Republicans and 2020 for Democrats. Still, if South Carolina Democrats vote Feb. 3, New Hampshire could move its primary for both parties earlier. Then Iowa Republicans, and maybe Iowa Democrats, will move their caucuses ahead of New Hampshire’s primaries.
Trying? February 24?

None of that makes any sense. The DNC has adopted rules for 2024. Those rules include a waiver for South Carolina Democrats to hold a primary on February 3. The national party required South Carolina Democrats to pledge to request of the state a February 3 primary date, otherwise a waiver would not have been granted. And remember, in South Carolina, the state parties -- not the state government -- choose the primary date. This is a done deal. There is no trying. South Carolina Democrats will hold a February 3 primary. As in Iowa, Republicans in the Palmetto state are not really affected by what Democrats in the state do. They can opt for a separate date (and more often than not have, as has become the custom in South Carolina).

And where does February 24 come from? Seriously. That is not set in state law. The primary date is not set in law at all in South Carolina. It was not set in DNC rules either. There were no rules on the early calendar until this past February and they have only ever called for a February 3 primary for Democrats in South Carolina.

Look, the beginning of the calendar is unsettled. Little of what Rove mentions is of any consequence right now. What the early calendar hinges on now is what Nevada Republicans do. If they opt for the new February 6 primary, then Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina will have January contests. If Republicans in the Silver state opt out of that primary, then later (than February 6) caucuses might keep South Carolina Republicans out of January but not Iowa and New Hampshire.

Next, Michigan does not get a pass in Rove's inventory of early calendar snags either:
In Michigan, Democrats moved their primary from March 12 to Feb. 27 by law. To avoid having their delegates slashed, the GOP will instead select them at a convention after March 1.
For once, Rove got something right. Michigan did shift its primary up for 2024 to align with the new carve out created in the 2024 DNC rules. But switching to a convention to avoid RNC sanction is just one of several messy options for Michigan Republicans (and the RNC).

Rove then moves on to what he calls the second phase of the calendar:
On March 9, there are four small contests and then on March 12 as many as five more states—Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, Washington and perhaps Hawaii—select 188 more delegates. 
FHQ challenges Rove to name those March 9 contests. There are no contests currently scheduled for March 9. There may be at some point, but as of this time there are none. And of the March 12 contests listed, Missouri has no primary or other contest scheduled for March 12. If current legislation is eventually passed, then the Show-Me state would fall on March 12, but we're not there yet. Idaho? Well, the Gem state primary may be on the move too. Hawaii Republicans are the rare party to actually spell out a specific date for their caucuses in state party rules. Most caucus states do not. Yet, it is Hawaii that gets the "perhaps" and not Idaho or Missouri. Yes, there is legislation in the Aloha state to create a Super Tuesday presidential primary, but it has not become law nor have Hawaii Republicans publicly shown any desire to opt into such a contest in lieu of their traditional caucuses.

And then there is that 188 delegates. Well, that has not been set yet. And Rove notes that at the top, saying, "final allocations will be set after this November’s off-year elections." It is true that the only states that are unknowns at this point in terms of the number of delegates they will have in 2024 are those with off-year gubernatorial and state legislative elections later this year. But Mississippi is one of those states. It is wrong to bring exact numbers to the table if they are exactly wrong. 

Why Rove? Why?

Finally, Rove moves on to the final leg of his three-part calendar:
The situation changes dramatically on March 15, when the third period kicks off. If the field isn’t down to two by then, a clear front-runner will be all but impossible to beat. Primaries can then be winner-take-all. If there’s still a fractured, multicandidate field, Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio could decide the nomination on March 19. If one candidate leads in all four states, no matter how narrowly, he walks away with 325 delegates, more than a quarter of what’s needed for the nomination.
Credit where credit is due: Rove gets the winner-take-all description correct. States can be winner-take-all on or after March 15. In the past, some have been truly winner-take-all after that point on the calendar while others have not. That will likely continue to be the case in 2024. Among the states that are truly winner-take-all? Florida and Ohio. For now. But that could change in the coming months. State parties have not finalized their delegate allocation plans for 2024. Presumably, Arizona Republicans will be truly winner-take-all again if the party opts back into the presidential primary this cycle. But again, none of that is settled yet. Illinois? Well, the at-large and automatic delegates (a little less than a quarter of the total) are allocated winner-take-all based on the statewide results in the Illinois primary. But the remaining three-quarters of the delegates -- the congressional district delegates -- are directly elected on the primary ballot. That allocation may tilt toward the statewide winner of the primary, but will not necessarily end up sending all of the congressional district delegates the winner's way. 

The thing that is most bothersome about Rove's op-ed is the faux certainty with which he approaches a vast number of things that are not settled yet in the areas of the primary calendar or delegate allocation rules. It is unnecessary, and it is misleading. Write to include some of the many gray areas in all of this.

FHQ agrees that there will likely be three distinct phases to the Republican primary season in 2024. But it is unlikely to be broken down into early/proportional/winner-take-all as Rove does it in an effort to shoehorn it into his 2016 repeat narrative. Instead, the calendar is very likely to break into January and February contests as the first part. And again, if Nevada Republicans opt into the February 6 primary, then that will mark the end of the first phase. It would give way to a big gap in the action from February 6 until Super Tuesday on March 5. That is a long time without any new results. That is also a LONG time for candidates who have yet to win anything to make a case to donors, much less voters, that they can and should continue in the race. The winnowing pressure -- should that one month gap actually come into being -- will be great. And that counters the 2016 repeat narrative. 

If that is not enough -- that winnowing pressure created by such a lengthy break in the action -- then the Passover-triggered abandonment of April will neatly cordon off the second and third phases of the campaign. The second phase -- Super Tuesday, the rest of March and the first Tuesday in April -- will be the most delegate-rich phase. If winnowing has occurred from the first phase, then the second will be about either one candidate creating a net delegate advantage over the rest of the remaining field or yield to a Clinton-Obama type (or Ford-Reagan) battle to evenly split delegates. The former may or may not resolve things. If not, then the third phase -- overtime, consisting of May contests (remember, there will be no June contests in the Republican process in 2024) -- will likely resolve the battle. 

But if it is the latter, evenly-match race, then overtime may be about getting to the primary season finish line with the most (allocated) delegates to take into the convention. Regardless, that second likely gap in April presents another extended period of winnowing pressure. And it will likely be greater than the first gap. The initial gap will be more likely to weed out the low-hanging fruit, lesser candidates who really had no chance at the nomination to begin with. The second gap will be more likely to exert pressure on candidates who feel they are viable (and may have a case), but will face calls to bow out so the party can consolidate behind one candidate.

But, of course, the above refers to the most allocated delegates. It could be that some candidate is able to corner the market in the selection process and settle the score that way. The bottom line is that there are a lot of unknowns at this point. One established known is that Karl Rove should stop writing in the Wall Street Journal about the delegate selection process. 

Endorsement Primary No, Ron DeSantis is not yet formally in the Republican presidential nomination race, but that has not stopped folks from endorsing his nascent campaign. Chip Roy (R-TX) became the first member of Congress to throw his support behind the Florida governor's (not yet) bid. Nikki Haley has one congressional endorsement and Donald Trump has a handful. But most Republican members of Congress have yet to align with any candidate. [More on that below.]

On the travel primary front, former Vice President Mike Pence was in New Hampshire on Thursday, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is on his way to the Granite state and former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson will trek to South Carolina as will Haley and Tim Scott. [Speaking of Christie, he has noted that a decision on a White House bid will come in the next 45-60 days. That is a window that roughly covers the end of April and the first half of May.]

Yes, it is early. No, elected officials do not have to weigh in now (or at all). Yes, FHQ discussed non-endorsements in the Republican nomination process earlier this week. Politico has more evidence of that from among a group that will continue to be particularly conflicted as things evolve and 2024 approaches: the Florida Republican congressional delegation.

On this date... 2012, Missouri Republicans took their second bite at the apple. Following a non-binding primary -- after majority Republican legislators could not agree to eliminate a presidential primary that was not going to be used -- Republicans began gathering in caucuses across the Show-Me state to actually kick off the delegate allocation/selection process. Non-binding events were an issue for Republicans in 2012, one the national party has spent several cycles attempting to resolve. 2019, Kirstin Gillibrand formally entered the Democratic nomination race after previously forming an exploratory committee in January. 2020, Covid began to affect the presidential primary calendar. Three of four scheduled primaries carried on, but Ohio became the earliest scheduled state to make alternative plans, ultimately pushing back into April. Other states had already delayed delegate selection events or had begun the process of delaying them, but Ohio's original primary date was the first/earliest to come up on the calendar and be affected.

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