Arkansas Moves Toward Later Presidential Primary

Three cheers for the Arkansas House of Representatives! The Associated Press has the news: LITTLE ROCK (AP) -- The Arkansas House of Representatives voted unanimously ...
by | January 28, 2009

Three cheers for the Arkansas House of Representatives! The Associated Press has the news:

LITTLE ROCK (AP) -- The Arkansas House of Representatives voted unanimously to return the state's presidential primary election to a May date.

...

Four years ago, the Legislature voted to hold the state's presidential primary on the first Tuesday in February, while still holding primary contests for state races in May. But 20 other states followed suit, and Arkansas saw little attention during the 2008 Republican and Democratic primaries for president.

Arkansas seems inclined to restore some small semblance of sanity to the comically front-loaded presidential nominating process. Arkansas' primary was a flop in part because each party had a home-state candidate (Mike Huckabee and Hillary Clinton) who took the state out of play.

But, the cold shoulder candidates showed the state was part of a trend. A group of mid-sized Super Tuesday states -- Colorado and Minnesota come to mind -- received scant attention because the candidates were splitting their time between so many different states.

This move should give Arkansas a greater chance at relevance. May was the month that North Carolina and Indiana played a crucial role in the Democratic contest.

It's also a small step toward a better nominating process. The problem with extreme front-loading is that it guarantees that the nominations will either be decided too quickly or too slowly.

If one candidate sweeps the early primary states, even if he or she isn't a particularly strong candidate or is someone who deserves greater scrutiny, the momentum can carry the aspirant to Super Tuesday wins that, in a matter of a month, make him or her the presumptive nominee. That's what happened with John Kerry in 2004, who won a surprising victory in Iowa, followed up with a win in his own backyard in New Hampshire and was then propelled to the Democratic nomination before he was ever really scrutinized (all of the focus had been on Howard Dean).

You can make a case that something similar happened to allow John McCain to win the Republican nomination this year. McCain was an afterthought in most of the Republican debates in 2007, since he was regarded as perhaps only the fifth most likely candidate to win the nomination. Super Tuesday occurred so soon after McCain's narrow wins in South Carolina and Florida that the opposition never had time to regroup.

On the other hand, front-loading was also a big reason the Democratic primaries dragged on so long this year -- with a big assist from the party's absurdly proportional delegate allocation rules. Obama and Clinton were evenly matched heading into Super Tuesday, leading them to pretty much split the Super Tuesday states. So many delegates were handed out on that one day that it became extremely difficult for either candidate to score a knockout blow afterwards. Remember the six-week wait leading up to the Pennsylvania primary?

Arkansas on its own can't solve these problems, but if the state does move to May that would be one small step in the right direction.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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