GOP Presidential Calendar: Should States Go Early or Late?

Republicans plan to punish states that schedule their presidential primaries too early in 2012. Should states schedule them early anyway?
by | June 29, 2010

Marc Ambinder has an intriguing look at proposed RNC rules that would punish states that hold early presidential primaries. A key part:

For at least 23 states, though, the new rule creates an instant problem: by state law, they must hold their primaries in either January or February. Since they do not hold their primaries during those months, they are out of compliance and risk losing half of their delegates. To remedy this, rules committee members proposed allowing the RNC to grant states "waivers" if they are bound by state law (which might be changed by a Democratic legislature, for example) to hold primaries at a different time. But these waivers, in essence, would grant enormous power over the entire process to the chairman of the committee; very few stakeholders in the process -- including presidential candidates -- want to see Michael Steele become the arbiter of their ascension.

Of course, there's an easy solution to this potential conflict between state laws and RNC rules. States could change their laws. But should they? One key question, I think, is whether the 2012 Republican nomination battle looks more like the Republican or Democratic nomination battle from 2008.

One clear lesson from the Democratic side is that contests that don't come with delegates attached are pretty close to worthless. No states had less influence over the Democratic nomination than Michigan and Florida.

However, that's not what the Republicans are talking about here. Instead, they'd only be stripping half the delegates from states -- as their side did to Michigan and Florida in 2008. That's enough to guarantee that all the candidates will be forced to compete, which is all it takes to have an important contest. In retrospect, Florida, along with South Carolina, decided the nomination in John McCain's favor. States may want to keep their early dates.

But, it's important to note another change. One reason the Republican nomination wrapped up so quickly is that the party tilted toward awarding delegates on a winner-take-all basis much more so than the Democrats. Under the proposed rules, any state that holds its contest before April would have to dole out delegates proportionately in 2012. So, states have a reason to go later.

In 2008, going later on the Democratic side definitely ended up making sense. States such as Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Indiana were lavished with attention from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Many Super Tuesday states -- even fairly large general election swing states that ought to have been important such as Minnesota and Colorado -- were nearly ignored by the candidates because their attention was split so many different ways.

On the other hand, proportional representation or not, the 2008 Democratic nomination fight was pretty aberrational. Both Obama and Clinton won almost the same number of votes (18 million). They were exceptionally closely matched. Both parties usually have wrapped up their nominations much earlier in the process in recent years.

If there's one clear lesson from 2008, it's this: States have the most power when they have a date to themselves or nearly to themselves. If a state goes early and has its own day (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada), it's sure to be important. If it goes late and has its own day and the nomination isn't clinched, it can be really important too.

I think there's a good case that (even though it didn't end up giving Clinton the nomination) other than Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, no state on the Democratic side was more important than Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania's great advantage was that it occurred on its own date, after six weeks without a contest. Those six weeks felt like some of the longest in American political history. States would do well to try to emulate Pennsylvania, although the schedule will only allow for so many six-week layoffs between races.

All of this assumes that state lawmakers' central goal is to maximize the attention their own states receive from the candidates and their own states' influence over the process. But, as Ambinder points out, that's a dangerous assumption. Some of the legislatures making the decisions will be controlled by Democrats (who obviously aren't likely to have a contested nomination fight of their own). Their primary goal might be finding any way they can to mess with the Republicans.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer  | 

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