Tuesday, October 25, 2011

First in the Nation

I thoroughly enjoyed Alec MacGillis's "defense" of the New Hampshire primary, which was mainly an excuse for him to tell some good stories about First in the Nation events past and the Granite State in general. Good fun!

As far as New Hampshire, and for that matter Iowa...the argument for them is pretty basic. First, if we're to have primaries and caucuses, then (I would argue) a sequential system is better than a national primary, because it maximizes the influence of party actors and reduces the risks of accidents; in Polsby's terms, it increases the incentives for coalition-style candidates and reduces the chances of factional candidates winning. Second, because the key players here are (national and local) party actors, it's not all that important which states go first. Third, a stable schedule from cycle to cycle helps party actors maximize their influence. Fourth, there's at least a reasonable argument for the one-on-one campaigning available in small and mid-sized states. Therefore, given that Iowa and New Hampshire have been first for a long time and that both are small or mid-sized, we should keep them in place.

Since the modern system solidified in the 1980s, I think it's unlikely that a different sequence would have yielded different nominees in either party. It's probably the case that it would have changed the story of the nomination battle...it's possible to imagine John Glenn instead of Gary Hart losing to Walter Mondale in 1984, or Phil Gramm winning early before losing to Bob Dole in 1996, or George W. Bush clobbering someone other than John McCain in 2000. Or some forgotten candidates, a Bruce Babbitt or Pete DuPont, doing what Hart did in 1984 or McCain did in 2000. Would Clinton/Obama/Edwards have turned out differently had, oh, West Virginia gone first? I suppose with a contest that close it's certainly possible, but I pretty much doubt it. I do think that 1976 and 1972 could have produced different nominees on the Democratic side had the sequence been different, but that's mainly because I think the results in both of those years was basically random.

And that would be my main concern about significant change; it has the downside risk of producing random nominees until everyone is equally adept at working the new system. Remember, by "everyone" I'm especially concerned here with party actors. Their coordination problems are serious, and with an unstable system (as we had in 1972 and 1976) I think the chances of either coordination failure or a decision to withdraw from attempting to coordinate are disturbingly high.


  1. Jonathan--after having spent time in Iowa and New Hampshire during presidential primaries, I agree with your general argument, but I'm left with two questions:

    1.) What is your response to critiques that focus on those two states leads to a neglect of urban and minority issues, which respectively represent a substantial portion of our economy and our country? One would think that the location of economic/political power in urban, diverse areas would serve as a corrective, but I don't think that's worked in practice.

    2.) What do you think about the new entrants to the early primary calendar, Nevada and South Carolina? While these states are also oddballs, they do represent many more minority voters and, to a lesser extent, urban voters. I would support a compromise in which the order of these four is rotated every election cycle.

  2. I'm glad to see Louis's questions, and I'd like to add one of my own:

    Assuming that you're right and the sequence of primaries doesn't change who gets the nomination, doesn't it elicit certain policy promises from every candidate that often turn into real policies? I'm thinking of ethanol subsidies to please IA, which, whatever you think of them, would get less support from Republican presidential candidates if Mississippi or Wyoming or Maryland voted first. (I suppose there are also 48 sets of state-specific policies that are ignored slightly more than they should be, balancing the IA and NH preferences that get too much attention.)

  3. Interesting assumption as to the absolute good of party control.

    At several times, and for extended periods, the notion of the parties maintaining control (or even of parties at all) has been highly controversial in the USA. Party "machines" were, of course, a main target of the primary system itself - as well as of reforms like direct election of senators, or the institution of referenda and recall measures that the Progressives hoped to have extended to federal measures and offices.

    I believe that the blogger sees strong political parties, operating effectively behind the scenes of the great empty show, as a corrective to the ignorance, apathy, and unpredictability of the public. It almost goes without saying that this would be a highly elitist view.

    It's at least questionable whether the supposed corrective doesn't reinforce the tendencies it is expected to correct, and deserves to be treated as a source of the paralysis, irrationality, and corruption of the system that it dominates from beginning to end and top to bottom.

  4. I'm sorta looking forward to the first state that sets its primary date in the year preceding election year.

    Like, say, Arkansas says they want to pick presidential candidates in their regularly scheduled November election, where they pick county commissioners, school boards and presidential candidates for an election a year off. That would be fun.

    Now, which of these states will make the first move? ... ohhhhh the tension.

  5. That particular one would be strongly opposed by the party elites, the state party elites, and many possible candidates. The effect would be to award delegates to whatever candidate was ahead in that state four years before the presidential election, which comes down to having monkeys throw darts.

    That state would also lose any influence on the results three years later; the winner wouldn't care, and would probably be irrelevant anyway
    (e.g., Palin getting Random Red State's delegates in 2008 would merely mean that RRS was out of the game in 2012).

  6. No, it wouldn't be 4 years before the election, it'd be one year before it, and only 60 days earlier than where the first primary states are going now. The big hurdle is breaking the New Year barrier, and going the year before election year.

    We're probably going to be exploring such, I suspect. Some of these states will get the stick of it up their nose, and just do it. And eventually, candidates will have to ignore the outlier states.

  7. Jonathan,

    Like CKMacleod, I wonder why you assume party actor control is a good thing. If there is a piece where you have set out your thoughts on that matter more extensively, I'd be grateful if you could provide a link.

    In the UK, there is a movement towards open primaries for MP candidates in the Conservative Party, as opposed to the current situation where the selection is entirely controlled by party insiders. Would I be right in saying you think this is a bad change, as it weakens party actor control?


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