Monday, October 3, 2011

Frontloading Latest

The GOP calendar of primary caucuses is almost set -- you all know to follow Josh Putnam for the details and excellent analysis -- and I'm picking up plenty of wailing and lamentations about the apparent failure of the GOP to push the opening events back to February. Instead, it looks as if we're going to basically follow the 2004 schedule for those early events. Yup, that means Iowa sometime in the first couple of weeks of January, perhaps on the 2nd.

What puzzles me is why anyone cares. I do think that the parties have a major stake in the sequence of events; in my view, it's generally a good thing that they've managed to break up the mega-super-awesome-Tuesday that seemed to be gaining momentum over the last few cycles, with the threat of an eventual de facto national primary after a handful of early events. This year's version, scheduled for March 6, will have just 12 GOP contests. I think that's a good thing; others may disagree.

But whether Iowa is in early January or February or even March or December? Who cares? Either way, it's a four-year campaign. Either way, the voter portion of it is going to feel as if it's going on forever in the unlikely even that the nomination remains contested until the final primaries. Either way, in the more likely event that it's settled relatively rapidly, the nomination will be secured months before the conventions. I understand that reporters don't want to spend Christmas and New Year's in Iowa, and fair enough, but for the rest of us (including campaign staff that will be in Iowa for those holidays regardless of when the caucuses are held), it's just hard to see why one date is any different than the others.

Remember, it is most certainly not the case that the process "starts" in Iowa on whatever date is eventually selected. It started minute the networks called the 2008 election for Barack Obama -- or, perhaps, as soon as Obama moved out into a solid lead in the polls a few weeks earlier than that. By the time we get to Iowa, several candidates will have already abandoned their campaigns, and others will be done for all practical purposes. If timeliness is a problem (and I can understand arguments that it is, although remember that in most nations the party leaders are formally chosen well in advance of election time), it's a problem about early decisions during the invisible primary, not the dates of the primaries and caucuses.


  1. Theoretically, it matters to the campaigns. They will be in Iowa and New Hampshire -- Mars if necessary -- no matter what or when. The one thing that I would add to this is that there is a divide between types of candidates. The frontrunning campaigns have been operating under the assumption that this would start in January all along. But the other candidates... well, they have too, but they have less time to make their case in those states now.

    The obvious counter to that -- so obvious in fact that I'll make it -- is that dynamic really only reflects the winnowing or separation of the field that is going on during the invisible primary anyway.

    If it bothers the parties, they'll change it. That is my stock answer to all of these questions. I don't think the RNC likes this, but in the face of Florida last week the party essentially said, "Yes, but the rules have worked." They have, but not on Florida, Arizona and Michigan. And it only really takes one to unravel the best laid plans. Most states have complied with the national party rules -- particularly those that had February contests scheduled heading into 2011.

    What is missing and what will be the hard part moving forward into subsequent cycles is the parties coordinating penalties. The informal rules coordination this time was a necessary but not sufficient step to get the parties back to where they want this process to be: basically the same, but with more order and less changes from cycle to cycle.

    Good post.

  2. Josh/JB: any sense on whether/when the parties will figure out that last bit in Josh's comment: in '08, Florida Dems actually tried the logic that the evil GOP-controlled legislature moved the primary up, not us good Dems. Therefore, don't take away our delegates, even though we really encouraged them behind the scenes.

    It seems to me like the DNC/RNC haven't quite figured out the sanctions thing so that there aren't some rather odd incentive structures out there. I'm not sure the informal thing works long-term, as Josh notes.

  3. Matt,
    You're giving Florida Democrats in 2007 too much credit. Legislative Democrats voted overwhelmingly to support the move to January 2008. That completely undermined their "we're the good guys" argument with the DNC.

    If the parties can coordinate a uniform set of penalties - probably similar to the state and candidate penalties the Democrats used in 2008 - and stick to them, they both may have a pretty good shot at keeping states in line. Of course that's much easier said than done.


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