Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Frontloading and Its Consequences

David Leonhardt goes after the Iowa Caucuses and the New Hampshire Primary in a column today, citing a new article by a couple of economists (which I'm afraid I haven't read yet) that emphasizes the importance of those two states in the nomination process. Jamelle Bouie makes the conventional argument about small states and the opportunity for voters to examine candidates on a human-sized scale; Matt Yglesias suggests solving the problem of anti-urban bias by substituting Massachusetts for New Hampshire.

Let's see...the first thing I'd emphasize is that as the nomination process has evolved, Iowa and New Hamsphire -- indeed, the primaries and caucuses as a whole -- are less important than they once were, and support from party actors more important. Endorsements, money, favorable publicity, and other resources that party actors bring are only minimally state-dependent. Technology has probably also made location less important, as it's a lot easier to be a Romney or Pawlenty volunteer these days even if you live in a state that doesn't vote early.

The second thing that I'd emphasize is that while the frontloaded presidential nomination system and the malapportioned Senate do have a small-state and rural bias, the presidential general election generally has a bias the other way, since the states receiving the most attention are the big, close states: in recent cycles, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, each of which has plenty of urban and suburban areas.

I'd also stress, with Bouie, that changes in the system should be made carefully. Parties work best -- coalition-building works best -- under conditions of stable, well-known rules and procedures. So I tend to be pretty conservative about major structural reforms. On the other hand, it is certainly true that minor changes to the system have been a constant over the last forty years, and given the limited powers of national formal party organizations, continued constant change is a certainty as well. On the whole, I'm mostly ambivalent about Iowa and New Hampshire...someone has to go first and reap the benefits (a national primary is a terrible idea, so don't start up with that), and I'm not really convinced that a rotation system for those spots changes the fairness of the situation at all. And I do like tradition (although we shouldn't overdo it; Iowa dates back to 1972, and even New Hampshire only goes back 60 years, to 1952, as a significant event). All in all, I don't think changing it is worth the fight. There are other, more pressing process changes worth spending energy on.


  1. Sigh.

    If Iowa and New Hampshire are a problem for the parties and their objective of nominating a candidate who can win (and that's not always the objective), they will change it.

    This notion of one person/one vote is absurd in the context of nominations.* The courts have continually found in favor of the parties in any dispute involving the nominations process (at any level). As party business, then, it is up to the party to decide if the process is problematic. To this point, I have yet to hear anyone blame Iowa or New Hampshire for producing a particular nominee. Now, it may be that all the current doomsday forecasts are right and Iowa Republicans "lurch" to the right and select a Bachmann or a Cain or whoever and make the RNC reconsider Iowa's position. But I wouldn't hold my breath waiting on that.

    That said, Iowa and New Hampshire came up at the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting last summer, but all agreed that the party's objective was to renominate and reelect Obama. They tabled the discussion of Iowa's and New Hampshire's positions for 2016.

    * Yes, that is a slightly controversial thing to say, but it isn't necessarily the parties' intent to be fair, so much as it is to complete the nomination process. Insofar as it appears as if there is some/enough fairness, it will usually suffice.

  2. One quibble: A lot of those big, close states in general elections (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin) are actually LESS urban than the US as a whole, thanks to their populations in small towns over a wide area. Not only are they less urban than Democratic strongholds like California, New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts, they are less urban than the GOP states of Texas and Utah (which is almost all desert or Salt Lake City).

    Plus, those closely contested Rust Belt states don't really have to deal with rapid population growth. My impression is that presidential candidates go there promising to preserve the way of life in small-town Ohio, not Cleveland.

    You can get a Census Bureau chart on the urban/rural split in each state here: It's still not updated for 2010, but I'm sure that Ohio has not been urbanizing quicker than Texas in the past decade.

  3. OK, those are both really good points.


  4. Iowa and New Hamsphire...are less important than they once were...Endorsements, money, favorable publicity, and other resources that party actors bring are only minimally state-dependent

    Tell this to Rudy Giuliani.

  5. RE: (a national primary is a terrible idea, so don't start up with that) Can you expand on that? Or point me in the right direction if you've discussed it previously...

  6. CSH,

    Rudy was vetoed by organized groups within the party over policy differences. Plus there's no getting around the Iron Law of Politics that NYC Mayor is a dead-end job.


    I haven't written about it...basically, it would tend to be very difficult for parties to control nominations if we had national primaries. Lots of opportunities for mischief, more influence most likely for the's just a mess. I'm trying to think of a good place to go for the full argument. If Josh is still reading, maybe he can recommend something?

  7. Maybe it should be a mess for the parties... does a strong party increase or decrease the value of representation? You seem to be on the side of increase... I guess what I mean is; Could weaker parties lead to more progressive legislation?

  8. At the risk of making it look like I'm trying to push people toward FHQ, yeah, I can recommend something RE: the national primary (or primary reform more generally).

    I had a series of posts I wrote back in the summer of 2009 on the various (not all of them) reform ideas. I don't directly address the national primary in a stand-alone post, but I do make pretty much the same points Jonathan does above. The parties would lose some control in the transition to a national primary. There was a reason the parties didn't particularly like 2008. Part of it was the idea that frontloading was out of control -- nearly pushing the process into the year prior to the election. But the other part of it was that neither side liked the de facto national primary on February 5, 2008. The parties actually worked together informally to craft their rules for 2012 and the RNC actually allowed for the creation of a committee to examine rules changes outside of the convention for the first time ever.

    Here are those posts for those interested:
    National Primary with a twist

    Two birds, one stone

    Congressional action

    Congressional action, part II

    Rotating Regional primaries

  9. If a law was proposed, that basically said:
    1) any state can put its primary in April, May or June,
    2) if a state had its primary in May or June last time, it may also put it in March this time,
    3) the US Senate may allow states to hold their primaries earlier than points 1 and 2 allow with a 2/3 majority

    Would that be a good thing?

  10. Thanks for the links!

  11. How does a party manage to promote a candidate that underperforms in both states? Sure there's the "expectations game" but that seems more media driven and not endlessly manipulable.

  12. I'm not clear why the 'influence of party actors' is necessarily separable from the outcome of early primary/caucuses. Following wkdewey immediately above, it seems like the expectations game has a ginormous impact on how partisans perceive candidates, which must then feed into whom party actors support (IIRC, this blog has made essentially the same argument in a previous post deemphasizing early-campaign memes; it was pointed out that party influencers will coalesce around a candidate because, well, s/he is the candidate).

    IMHO, political campaigns are like relationships, careers, and other areas of life: it pays to underpromise and overdeliver. Giuliani attempted to set the bar low in Iowa/NH by not campaigning in either state; he proceeded to slide in beneath said bar, underperforming late polls in both states, and grossly underperforming his strong national profile. That was the end of him.

    Another relevant example is Edwards' 2nd place finish in Iowa: it would seem like an "overdelivery" considering Edwards demographic as big-time East Coast trial lawyer, but everyone knew Edwards had shaken just about every caucus attendee's hand over the previous 4 years, so his strong perfomance wasn't really an overdelivery in his particular case, and his campaign predictably stalled soon thereafter.

    I agree that "underpromising and overdelivering" is not something easily measured by scientists...but in order to convince me that Iowa/NH are irrelevant, you'd pretty much have to show me the viable candidate who told the truth about agriculture subsidies and didn't pay a steep price, either in Iowa or nationally.

    FWIW, I think this underpromise/overdeliver meme is extremely important in the case of Palin's unconventional campaign: with each subsequent influential voice that dismisses her, the bar for her to jump over gets lower and lower. Does anyone honestly believe a surprise Palin win in Iowa wouldn't shake up the race, shake up the establishment, and open a path for her to the nomination?

  13. Further re: Palin - if there's a path for her to the WH in 2012, it goes something like this:

    1) Strong incumbent President discourages quality candidates from the other party.
    2) Palin's outsider status/personal foibles cause her to be dismissed by influential members of her party.
    3) Other potential nominees implode around her, resulting from them being inherently disappointing, while Palin eventually outperforms extremely low expectations for her.
    4) The incumbent President is much weaker than expected; Palin not only wins the nomination but also the White House.

    Has that general narrative occured in our lifetimes?

    Intrade has Palin at 7% for the WH right now. I don't trade such markets, but if I did, I'd certainly take Palin at those odds.

  14. CSH: Bill Clinton was a former governor (winning elections in a competitive state for Dems statewide 5 times), former attorney general, and Rhodes scholar who had a 15/12% favorable/unfavorable rating in 1991.
    Sarah Palin had to try multiple colleges to cobble together enough credits, couldn't finish one term as governor of a state that is a near-lock for the GOP, and is, quite frankly, a national embarassment and joke, with a 25/53% fav/unfav.

    I'm not sure the comparison is apt.

  15. Matt - thanks for engaging the argument. I certainly agree that Clinton is a much more impressive person and politician than Palin, but I'm not sure how that works to his favor wrt who is better positioned to 'underpromise and overdeliver' (iow, don't the weaknesses you describe paradoxically put Palin in a stronger position to look good if she happens to do something impressive?)

    The difference in the negative ratings seems like it could be a show-stopper, but then I've no experience with how likely it is to change such opinions - is there precedent for a politician overcoming Palin-level negatives at this point in a campaign?

  16. CSH:
    I'm kinda torn.

    On the one hand, I think that Palin's negatives are so bad that there's no way she could win. She can overperform, but at some point, the level of the performance has to matter. She overperformed in the VP debate, but that didn't seem to be enough to change the narrative.

    On the other hand, I usually believe that the economy is the thing in the general election, absent a trainwreck candidate who's just unelectable. The question is wheteher Palin counts as a trainwreck. I think that she might be...those are some mighty bad unfavorables, and the media narrative on her seems to be both written in stone and generally a decent picture of her. (Naturally, I'm biased, despising every moelcule of her, so this could easily be me misreading it.)

    You're right about a lower bar making "passing" easier. This worked to Bush's favor in terms of the debates in both 2000 and 2004, Ahnold's favor in 2003, and arguably in Palin's favor in 2008. The Bush example shows that a "dumb" narrative can work in your favor twice, so surpassing a bar doesn't necessarily reset it. I guess, then, what I'm saying is that my opinion of Palin is so low that I'd expect her to not be able to clear the bar she's already set that low.

  17. I was thinking about this conversation a bit more before falling asleep, and I realized that my assessment of 7% on Intrade as "too low" was too rash. That might not be a bad number.

    For any candidate right now, P(winning the election)=P(winning the primary)*P(winning the general). Winning the general should be a 50/50 shot based on the economic/other factors you cite. Its possible that Palin's unusual weaknesses reset that bar, giving her, say, only a 1/3 chance of winning the general.

    If so, we're left with 7%=P(winning the primary)*33%, or P(winning the primary)~20%. A 20% shot at the nomination doesn't seem way out of the ballpark for Palin...but the big question remains: can she overdeliver vs. her low expectations?

    It's hard to say no, definitively, but its worth noting that her team hasn't found the right road yet. From ghost-written op eds on energy policy to populist screeds in new media, they haven't yet found the tunnel to pushing perceptions up from their current low standing. Doesn't mean they won't, of course.

  18. Somehow convincing Ms. palin to keep her mouth shut, when, as in the case of Paul Revere's ride, she has no idea what she's talking about, may be a fairly tall order for either the non-candidate or her non-organization.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Who links to my website?