Friday, October 7, 2011

Q Day 2: Frontloading

D(ea)r Abby (and isn't that backwards? Shouldn't we be asking her questions? Oh well): has a really timely question on a day when the rumor mill seems full of the possibility of New Hampshire leapfrogging Iowa and moving to early December (!!!)
Is all this primary date switching business a recent phenomenon or is it just in the news more? What do you see as the eventual outcome? Will states continue to jockey for position every cycle? Or will we get some agreement to a new structure, such as a rotating schedule? Does Iowa really deserve some sort of protected status as "first in the nation"?
The jockeying for position know, I don't really know if there was any of it in the pre-reform days (1912-1968) when there were only a handful of primaries. But once the reformed system made primaries and caucuses the way that delegates were selected, the states had an incentive to frontload, and they've been doing it ever since, and it's been a big deal since at least the 1980s.

I think we're somewhat more likely to stabilize under current rules than to shift to a centrally structured system. That could be wishful thinking on my part, since what I'd like to see is stability around the current basic structure: a string of four early states, followed by a long sequence of election days, with (as we'll get this time) a not-too-big Super Tuesday.

I like that system because I think it promotes open parties and party control of nominations. The early small states have the relatively dubious virtue of forcing retail campaigning on the candidates (I suppose I like it, but I can't really recite any evidence that it does any good), but it also encourages activism, which I like a lot. I very much like the sequential system compared to the likely alternative of a national primary, which I very much fear could produce weird and random results. Put it this way: I'm pretty confident that Republican Party actors this cycle are okay with choosing between Romney and Perry and I'm very confident that the current system allows them to narrow to one of those two choices, but I think there's a real possibility that a national primary could produce a Cain or Bachmann or Palin or Trump.

As far as which of the small states get to go first...I'm fine with it being Iowa. Yeah, it's atypical, but they're all atypical. The current Iowa-NH-Nevada-South Carolina intended schedule seems as good as any to me.

Of course, for the details about what's actually happening and historical context and all you'll want to go to Josh Putnam's invaluable Frontloading HQ.


  1. I heard my name, so I'll chime in here.

    The jockeying for position began post-reform (1969-1972). I've got a nice contextual story of this in the works, but have not been able to address it with all the mis-information out there on the process. [I pick too many fights.] But stay tuned.

    I second Jonathan's notion that sweeping change is unlikely. The national parties may not totally like the current system because of its occasional unruliness, but they prefer it to the alternative that are inevitable ladened with unintended consequences. Flawed though the current structure may be, the parties know that it continues to output candidates who are well-positioned in the general election. The national parties want to win and when the current system begins to consistently prevent that from happening, they will be open to change. But as it is, they are more likely to tweak the system from cycle to cycle.

    So much more to say, but I'll leave it at that.

  2. The real problem with the system is post-Super Tuesday, where you have primaries as late as June in states like South Dakota. If Super Tuesday is likely to decide the outcome no one should go after Super Tuesday. Remember how Hillary Clinton complained about Florida voters being disenfranchised, when that state was stripped of its delegates? But at least they got to choose between Clinton and Obama! In 2000, 2004, 2008 (on the Republican side) there were still states left to vote after all candidates other than the nominee had dropped out. At best, you could cast a protest vote for Lyndon Larouche or something.

  3. Eh, Clinton complained about Florida and disenfranchisement because her campaign had no plan B for the "race is tied after Super Tuesday" contingency. That campaign fell victim to the classic post-reform frontrunner strategy. And yes, it is really easy to say that in hindsight.

    The parties did a good job of coordinating a basic calendar for 2012. Most states complied and unless one candidate sweeps the early contests, the GOP race is likely to stretch past Super Tuesday if only because there won't have been enough delegates allocated for someone to either wrap up the nomination or develop a seemingly insurmountable delegate advantage.

  4. I think the retail component of the cycle is crucial. It's where candidates are forced to act and react, as opposed to just falling back on tightly controlled press conferences (disappearing anyway!) and wholesale paid media. Think of the moments that were valuable data for party actors: Obama's Iowa JJ dinner speech; Hillary's verklempt NH kaffeeklatsch; the Big Dog's Jesse Jackson comparison; the Oprah! tour. The Dean Scream; The Comeback Kid; Hymietown, for which Jackson had to atone at a synagogue in NH; Muskie (not) misting up on the steps of the Manchester Union-Leader. Whether or not they accurately reflect on a candidate's fitness for office, these events are a big part of the winnowing process. There would be far fewer of them in a regional or national primary.

  5. The next big thing for the D's is that they have to get rid of this awful travesty of super delegates to national conventions.

    This is ademocratic, and an abomination, and I can't believe the Left sits still for that nonsense. But it does give us a hint of their mindset, I suppose. Your betters know better than you, donchyaknow.



    There isn't much you can do about states jockeying for position, even if some of these philistines start primarying before Thanksgiving. Ultimately, candidates will start ignoring them, and deemphasizing them, if they cramp their campaign style. Already, candidates skip Iowa and NH sometimes. That practice would expand.

  6. wkdewey,

    Three things about the poor saps in South Dakota (as some might put it). One is that they trade the chance of winnowing for the very small chance to tip the balance in close races, which is at least not a crazy-in-principle trade-off. The second is that the role of the primaries as I see it is mostly to produce information for party actors and then to ratify the collective decision of party actors, so it's not really the case that voters in IA and NH decide everything. And the third is that there's an illusion going on here about what voting can actually do from the point of view of individual voters. If you really want to be a meaningful participant, become a party actor.


    There's nothing at all undemocratic about the superdelegates. Also, no one skips Iowa and New Hampshire and wins the nomination.

  7. Boy do we ever have a chasm between us.

    Super delegates are ademocratic and an abomination. Again, I can't see how the Left tolerates this. It's just a travesty. But it is a statement as to what they are at heart, I believe.

  8. Don't forget that in many cases primaries for state offices are tied into the presidential nominating elections. Could be some state office holders don't want a 10-month general election campaign for their own offices?

    One little story that I thought ran under the radar last cycle was that John Edwards dropped out before Super Tuesday with about 17 delegates. With the Dems proportional representation system, I thought it was plausible that Edwards could have cobbled together another 150-200 delegates out of the 1700 or so up for grabs that day.

    The whole Edwards' affair scandal aside, I wonder if the party really wants to promote a system where a liberal Ron Paul type could not win states, but pile up enough delegates to potentially become a kingmaker?

  9. Also, no one skips Iowa and New Hampshire and wins the nomination.


    And you should be careful with these types of absolutes. They're true until they're not, and if those little states leave the herd, it'll likely start being untrue.

    It's only natural that folks will start gravitating towards the main herd, if a few strays wander off the pasture. The confluence and sudden sequence of primaries is what makes the first states of importance. Remove the confluence and sudden sequence and cramped schedule... and that importance is bound to diminish.

  10. ...I wonder if the party really wants to promote a system where a liberal Ron Paul type could not win states, but pile up enough delegates to potentially become a kingmaker?


    Yeah, and kingmaker is the super delegates' job!

    You gotta have a super delegate union card, and no steeeenking liberal Ron Paul is ever gonna get one of those, you may depend. ;-)

  11. Thanks for totally ignoring the substance of my post in order to make yet another hacktastic concern trolling post, Anon. Cheers.

    But the superdelegates only would become an issue if they tipped the nomination to a candidate that didn't win the primary contests. A political truth that Obama used to great effect over the course of a grinding process that he all but clinched (a lead in delegates won in primaries/caucuses) by the end of February.

    The expectation is that the superdelegates would only act en masse in a case like the Edwards scandal popping up, if Edwards had been the leader for the nomination. The SDs are a backstop against some very extraordinary event.

    I'm wondering what happens if in 2016, you end up like this:

    Candidate A - 1850 delegates
    Candidate B - 1700 delegates
    Candidate C - 300 delegates

    If C gives their support to B, what do the superdelegates do then? Even with no scandals involved, it would make the Obama/H Clinton tussle look like thumb wrestling.


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