Primary Madness: The Eternal Campaign

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics October 13th, 2011
Now that the Republican presidential primary calendar has been moved into January, the Crystal Ball this week is taking a special, in-depth look at why it happened, what it means for the campaign and how it can be prevented next time.

With 13 months still to go before the end of another presidential cycle that began the day after the last one finished, it’s worth asking: Does it have to be this way?

The First Amendment guarantees candidates an unfettered campaign of indeterminate length. If you wanted, you could today declare for president in 2016 or beyond. A handful of ambitious politicians have doubtless already written the announcement in their heads. Luckily for the rest of us, they will say nothing publicly.

This is not new. American history is replete with examples of lengthy campaigns and multiyear chess games. Thomas Jefferson conducted a quiet effort against John Adams for the four years he was vice president to Adams, having lost a close Electoral College battle to him in 1796. Andrew Jackson never stopped running for president after he believed he was robbed of the office in 1824 by John Quincy Adams. Both these long-distance runners were rewarded with the White House.

What is novel, though, is the growing length of the overt public campaign for party nominations. For that we can largely thank Jimmy Carter.

Before 1976, extensive private preparations notwithstanding, candidates almost always waited until the actual calendar year of the election before announcing their candidacy. Carter changed that when he practically became a resident of Iowa, site of the country’s first nominating contest, shortly after he left office as governor of Georgia in 1975. His successful strategy became the new norm, copied by candidates in both parties since.

Two factors increasingly drive candidates to jump in early. First, the amount of money required to wage a credible national primary campaign has skyrocketed. Jimmy Carter raised $13.6 million for his 1976 primary campaign (including some federal matching funds); in 2008, Barack Obama raised $414 million. Even after adjusting for inflation, Obama raised about eight times more than Carter. Many of the legal restrictions on donations, such as low individual contribution limits, are being circumvented by the creation of “super” political action committees (PACs), but for most candidates it still takes a long time to raise tens of millions.

There’s also the nominating calendar. From 1920 until 1972, the New Hampshire primary led off the presidential selection process on the second Tuesday in March. This helped to limit primary season to less than four months, until early June.

Then the great rush to the front of the primary pack began, fueled by states’ desires to get the money, media and electoral influence that come with early voting. In 1972, Florida tried to grab New Hampshire’s franchise, setting its primary for the same mid-March day as the Granite State’s. New Hampshire promptly moved up to March 7.

The leapfrogging has continued since and accelerated recently. In 1968, only New Hampshire held a March primary. By 1988 there were 20 March primaries. Inevitably, competition among states moved some of the March primaries into February, with a blizzard of 22 in February 2008. Chart 1 shows the number of primaries throughout the years and when they were held.
Chart 1: Number of presidential primaries by month, 1968-2012

Notes: *2012 dates are as of Oct. 12, 2011

Sources: CQ Press Guide to U.S. Elections Sixth Edition (CQ Press); Frontloading HQ

As in 1972, Florida has again been the trigger for the acceleration of the 2012 nominating calendar. Its insistence on Jan. 31 as its primary date has forced Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina to move into January or maybe even December. In 2008 the Iowa caucus was held on Jan. 3 — the earliest ever, requiring intense campaigning during the holidays. A repeat of that poorly timed event is now in the offing. The negative TV ads will suit commercial breaks during “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas,” but not much else. Season’s greetings.

To their credit, Republicans tried to bring some order out of chaos this year, devising a thoughtful plan that limited the length of the nominating season by delaying its start until Feb. 6. The GOP leadership also provided incentives, such as additional delegates at the August nominating convention, for states to pick later primary dates. As a result there are currently more primaries scheduled in April, May and June 2012 than any year since 1992.

Most states saw the wisdom in the new arrangement. It was fair to all candidates, giving the lesser-known ones time to raise money and gain recognition. The party’s voters had a rational, nicely paced schedule, so they could reconsider their choices as time went by and new information emerged. The goal is to pick a winner and a good potential president, after all. But then came Florida, willing to accept the penalties for breaking the rules — including halving its convention delegation — in order to get an early crack at settling the nomination.

Will the Republican National Committee enforce its own punitive rules once a nominee is selected? It’s doubtful, given the decisive role that Florida might play in the general election. The Sunshine State is also hosting the GOP convention, another complication.

A half-dozen other states also came close to violating the scheduling rules this year, or may still. Under the current arrangement, each state is an independent agent, with its own self-interest paramount. No political party has the clout to change this.

A statute or constitutional amendment establishing a system of March-to-June regional primaries — with rotating order so that every state gets to be part of the first group every fourth election — would help. Even better, why not have the order of the regionals determined by lottery on New Year’s Day of the election year, so that candidates wouldn’t know until then where to begin their ground efforts? That would shorten the campaign season.

Of course, this reform is likely to be enacted on the 12th of never. Until then, we’ll just have to content ourselves with a crazy-quilt, eternal campaign — an electoral purgatory of our own creation.
Primary Madness: A Calendar We Can Believe In

Rhodes Cook, Senior Columnist October 13th, 2011

At long last, the 2012 Republican presidential nominating calendar is coming into focus. But it is not all that GOP schedule makers wanted. Rather than a February start in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, Florida’s recent decision to hold its primary Jan. 31 has moved all the other early-voting states forward a month.

There are shades of 2008, to be sure, with Iowa and New Hampshire voting in the wake of the Christmas holidays, if not before. (New Hampshire has not yet set its 2012 primary date; Iowa is looking at Jan. 3 but could be swayed by the Granite State’s decision.) And sitting at the end of January once again is Florida, waiting to act as “kingmaker” as it did in 2008 for John McCain.

Maybe the Sunshine State can reprise such a role in 2012, maybe not. For all the similarities to 2008 at the beginning of next year’s primary calendar, the layout of events that follows will be significantly different.

Rather than a heavily front-loaded calendar, as was the case last time, the 2012 schedule of primaries and caucuses will be spread out across the late winter and spring. As of March 5, 2008, roughly 40 states had voted. As of March 5, 2012, the number of primaries and caucuses that have been held could be as low as 10, according to the tentative calendar prepared by the website Frontloading HQ. That means that on March 5, about 40 states will have yet to vote.

The new calendar is designed to produce a long-running nominating campaign that will keep Republicans and their criticism of the president in the news for months on end, just what the Democrats achieved in 2008 with the enduring battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

In a real sense, the Republican calendar has been flipped. Why the rush to the rear?

Republican rules changes since 2008 have had a major impact. In concert with the Democrats, the GOP moved back the 2012 starting date for all but the four “carved out” early states from the first Tuesday in February to the first Tuesday in March. In the process, “Super Tuesday” has been bumped back a month from Feb. 5 in 2008 to March 6 in 2012, with next year’s event a scaled-down version of the “national primary” that was held last time. In 2008, Republicans in 21 states held primaries and caucuses on Feb. 5. In 2012, the number of states voting March 6 could be down to a dozen.

Many states have moved to even later dates on the 2012 calendar to accommodate a new GOP rule that prohibits states voting before April 1 from awarding their delegates on a winner-take-all basis. In 2008, any state, early or late, could turn their event into an attention-grabbing, high-stakes contest by giving all their delegates to the winner.

Not so this time. Statewide winner-take-all is out for the pre-April states. Proportional representation must be used to divvy up a hefty share of each state’s delegates. And for those that hold primaries before the official March 6 opening date, there will be a loss of 50% of their delegates. That not only goes for Florida, Arizona and Michigan (the latter two scheduled on Feb. 28), but also New Hampshire and South Carolina. They won seats in the penalty box by moving their delegate-selection primaries into January in response to Florida. Their actions were understandable, but were made unilaterally without authorization from the Republican National Committee.

On the other hand, early-voting caucus states such as Iowa and Nevada would lose 50% of their delegates only if they selected national convention delegates before March 6. That should be no problem for Iowa, whose famed opening round features precinct caucuses accompanied by a non-binding straw vote. It is the latter that draws the attention of the candidates and the media, but has nothing to do with delegate selection. Iowa’s national convention delegates are traditionally not chosen until months later at the state and congressional district conventions.

It is an open question right now how significant the early-voting states will be in 2012, beyond culling the field of candidates and providing some positioning for whoever is left. Part of the clout enjoyed by early states in the past has been due to the momentum they provided victorious candidates, enhanced by their proximity to delegate-rich Super Tuesday. In 2008, the latter event was held just one week after Florida, enabling McCain to bounce from one to the other and on to the GOP nomination in short order.

But in 2012, there will be a five-week gap between Florida and Super Tuesday, with a huge stash of delegates to be chosen after that. In short, February will not be the month of decision in 2012 as it was in 2008. Instead, it will be a month of reflection for the candidates, the voters, and the media, in anticipation of the long primary season ahead.

Texas, Ohio, Georgia, Virginia and Massachusetts are among the states scheduled to hold primaries March 6. Illinois will follow on March 20. Maryland and Wisconsin are booked for April 3, with the possibility of winner-take-all kicking in. On April 24, there will be a Northeast regional primary featuring New York and Pennsylvania. Two weeks later, on May 8, Indiana and North Carolina will weigh in. And on June 5, California and New Jersey will lead a contingent of states holding their primaries.

For California, it will mark a return to its spot near the end of the primary calendar, where a generation ago it acted as “kingmaker” in deciding a number of presidential nominating contests. If that should happen again in 2012, many Republican rules makers will feel vindicated, the action of Florida notwithstanding.
Chart 1: Opening events set the tone for GOP nominating process.
Since presidential nominations began to be settled a generation ago in the primaries rather that the conventions, a strong start in the early primaries and caucuses has been critical to success. The chart below highlights the results from the early-voting states in what arguably have been the most competitive Republican nominating contests of the last four decades: Incumbent Gerald R. Ford vs. former California Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1976; Texas Gov. George W. Bush vs. Sen. John McCain of Arizona in 2000; and McCain against former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Mike Huckabee of Arkansas in 2008. Also to be noted: The steady creep forward over the years of the earliest events, from late winter to just after New Year’s Day.

Note: The chart above includes the earliest primary states plus the most significant of the early-voting caucus states: Iowa in 1976, 2000 and 2008, plus Nevada in 2008. © indicates a caucus state; all other events are primaries.

Source: Race for the Presidency: Winning the 2008 Nomination (CQ Press).
Primary Madness: Deja Vu All Over Again

Josh Putnam, Guest Columnist October 13th, 2011

It’s hard to look at the events surrounding the 2012 presidential primary over the last several weeks and not come to the conclusion that it is, in Yogi Berra’s words, deja vu all over again. Not only is it a further and incremental progression of the now-40-year trend that has seen the beginning of the nomination process inch ever closer to the beginning of the calendar year, but the 2012 primary calendar is shaping up to be an almost exact repeat of the beginning of the 2008 presidential primary calendar. That latter point is particularly eye-opening because the national parties altered their rules in an effort to prevent such an early start to the primary process from happening again in 2012.

While others are quick to heap blame on the decision in Florida to hold the presidential primary in the Sunshine State on the final Tuesday in January, that blame is slightly misplaced. Sure, the Republicans at the center of the decision in Florida have a certain level of responsibility for pushing the calendar to the brink of December primaries and/or caucuses for a second straight cycle, but the problem runs much deeper than that. It is easy to blame Florida for the subsequent moves by South Carolina and Nevada Republicans, and ultimately, the moves by Iowa Republicans and New Hampshire. But one question remains: Why is it that Florida — and Arizona and Michigan before them — opted to keep their non-compliant primary dates when faced with the prospect of losing half of their delegates to the Republican National Convention in Tampa next summer?

The answer lies in the national party-level deliberations that took place in 2010 — deliberations over the rules that would govern the 2012 presidential nomination process. The Democratic National Committee has traditionally formed a commission to examine previous presidential nominating cycles and offer suggestions for changes to the process. It is these commissions over the years that have brought changes mandating proportional allocation of delegates, the introduction of superdelegates and the addition of Nevada and South Carolina to the early primary calendar.

The Republican National Committee, however, has followed a different path. Unlike the quadrennial midterm year rules tweaking that the Democrats did, the RNC was content to hammer out its rules for the next cycle at its convention four years prior. That course of action has become less and less sustainable as the speed with which changes occur in, usually, the year leading up to a presidential election year increases. In other words, the Republican Party was less flexible than the Democratic Party in addressing any need for rules changes on the fly. It was for that reason that the RNC opted during the 2008 convention in St. Paul to create a committee similar to the one the Democratic Party has had for every cycle following the McGovern-Fraser reforms — reforms that fundamentally shifted the manner in which presidential nominees were to be and have been chosen.

Independent of each other, the Democratic Change Commission and the Republican Temporary Delegate Selection Committee met to discuss the 2012 rules throughout 2009 and 2010. Each made recommendations to their respective national parties. There were subtle changes to both sets of rules and an informal understanding between both parties that the start to 2008 was too early and needed to be avoided in the future. The answer — at least as the parties saw it then — was to have Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina kick primary season off in February and allow other states to hold nominating contests at a point of their choosing between the first Tuesday in March and the second Tuesday in June.

As rules go, this was a noble attempt to fix one of the biggest perceived issues with the 2008 nominating process: the calendar. Yet, the parties faced a difficult coordination problem with a host of states that, as of the beginning of 2011, had primaries or caucuses scheduled for non-compliant dates in February or earlier. Theoretically, there was little in the way of incentives — or, for that matter, deterrents — to get those states in line with the new rules. Each of those states faced the same calculus: stay early and have an influence over the nomination but lose half the delegation, or move back and run the risk of ceding influence to the earliest four states but save the full delegation. Of the 20 states that had to make some move to comply with the new timing rules, 17 moved back. Three, however, did not, and honestly, the national parties — the Republicans in particular — should feel lucky that it wasn’t any worse than Florida, Arizona and Michigan. It very well could have been more.

The reality is that it would have only taken one state valuing influence over penalties to overturn the applecart, creating the maneuvering witnessed over the last few months. The rules changes to the 2012 calendar, and particularly the coordination between the two parties, was a necessary but not sufficient step to fix the problem. The next logical step is for there to be some coordination of penalties across the parties. Both Democrats and Republicans still have a separate set of penalties, and the Democratic Party may have stumbled onto a penalty regime that will work if applied — yes, actually applied — across both parties. Whereas the RNC will cut a state’s delegation in half, the DNC goes one step further and penalizes candidates who campaign in non-compliant states before the primaries in those states. Candidates who campaign in rogue states, according to the Democratic rules, would lose any delegates to the convention won in that state. That has the effect of removing from states one of the main incentives for holding an early primary or caucus: attention. If the candidates are not visiting the state, neither is the media, thus rendering the contest virtually meaningless. If that rule is applied across both parties, it stands a better shot of keeping the states in line than if the process continues with differing penalties in both parties. Look no further than Florida in 2008. Democrats were at the mercy of Republicans in the state, operating under a different set of penalties. Florida Republicans who moved the primary took their penalty and in the process subjected Florida Democrats to a much stiffer penalty. (Yes, some Florida Democrats in the state legislature in 2007 initially voted for the plan to move the primary to January.)

The obvious criticism here is the same as what faces the current rules regime: What happens when the nominee seats the delegates at the convention regardless of penalties and in the interest of party unity? Hypothetically at least, if both parties have the same set of penalties, both are more likely to stick to them. A clause exists in the Republican rules for 2012 that allows the party and states to hold primaries and caucuses whenever they choose if the Democrats did not follow through with rules preventing early contests. A similar clause could be added to both national parties’ rules in the future.

Fundamental, sweeping change is not likely because of the need to coordinate action among state governments, state parties and the national parties. The process is seemingly too institutionalized 40 years in. That said, there are ways to address some of the problems associated with the current system that does not also open the door to the inevitable unintended consequences attendant to any large reform. To prevent a constant threat of December primaries and caucuses, the next logical, pragmatic course of action for the national parties is to build on what they started after 2008. But the coordination needs to extend beyond the rules to encompass the penalties as well.

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