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DNC Change Commission #1 – Timing of primaries and caucuses

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This is the first of three postings that discuss the rules issues the DNC Change Commission will consider at its (final) December 5, 2009 meeting.  [corrected]

The Change Commission Resolution adopted at the Democratic National Convention provides that, for 2012, most primaries/caucuses are to be held after March 1; those that are allowed to go earlier must occur after February 1; frontloading should be reduced; the Commission should review enforcement rules; and the DNC should work with the RNC on scheduling.  At the October Commission meeting, staff presented options, including moving back the starting dates and also encouraging regional clustering of contests.

The concern here is that the process starts too early, a few states (i.e. NH and Iowa) have a disproportionate influence, and too many contests happen too soon.  A later-starting, more spread out process would allow voters in different states to evaluate the candidates, voters in more than a handful of states would have a voice in choosing the party’s nominee, and the party can see how candidates progress over time.  A counter concern is that choosing a nominee early allows that candidate to prepare for the November general election that much sooner.  The consensus seems to be in favor of a few contests in February and the remainder spread out over a first tuesday in March to second tuesday in June window.

The timing issue discussion allows everyone to put on their political scientist hats and argue that we should have a national primary, or rotating regional primaries (Nat. Assoc. of Secretary of States Plan), or contests starting in smaller states and building to larger states (Delaware Plan), or group states according to various criteria into non-regional pods (California, Texas, Ohio, and Michigan Plans), or Dr. Larry Sabato’s constitutional amendment providing for a lottery/regional primary system, or any number of other interesting reform ideas that have been proposed over the past 40 years.  See generally S. Smith & Melanie Springer, Reforming the Presidential Nominating Process (Bookings Inst. Press:  2009).

All of these proposals have some drawbacks – the national primary favors the front-running candidate, who may not be the best candidate (and what happens if no candidate gets a majority?) and rotating primaries require constant legislative actions and confuse the electorate.  Even if these ideas were theoretically good, this Commission shouldn’t recommend serious structural changes that are simply not going to be enacted. 

Instead, the Commission should do what it was told to do – set March 1 as the starting date for most contests and allow some states, i.e., Iowa, NH, SC, and Nevada (and perhaps some others), to go after Feb. 1.  If we were writing on a blank slate, we wouldn’t need the early exception and we certainly wouldn’t pick Iowa and New Hampshire as the first states, but those states are going first and we’re stuck with it.  After years of failed efforts to move Iowa and NH back, the DNC in 2008 added the more diverse states of SC (significant African-American population) and Nevada (significant Latino-American and union member populations) to the early contest group.  This approach makes sense.

In 2008, Virginia, Maryland, and DC joined in the Feb. 12 Potomac Primary. This was a great idea that allowed the candidates and campaigns to focus on a manageable area and provided a good opportunity for the voters to get to know the candidates.  The DNC should encourage other voluntary regional groupings, but I wouldn’t provide incentives in terms of bonus delegates.  It will become too complicated to determine what constitutes a region and bonus delegates should be reserved for states which move back their contest dates.  The Potomac Primary states saw the benefits of joining together and did so.  The DNC should let other states form regional groupings without undue complication.

Here’s the rub – in 2008, 26 states held primaries and a total of 37 held contests before March 1.  How can the DNC convince these states, i.e., state Democratic parties, but more importantly state legislatures and governors (including those held by Republicans), to move back their contests?  The best approach seems to be to offer delegate bonuses and other incentives, as were discussed at the October Commission meeting (better hotels, floor placement), to state delegations that move back in the calendar.  States may learn a lesson from the 2008 campaign – many of those 20 states that went on Super Tuesday (Feb. 5) did not get as much attention as states that went later; thus it may be in a state’s interest to move back.  Moreover, the 2008 campaign highlighted the importance of delegate numbers – a later contest, with an increased delegate count, may be more attractive to a (surviving) candidate than an early contest on the same day as many others. 

One incentive that has been discussed in the literature, but not at Commission meetings, is rewarding candidates who win contests in late states with additional delegates as part of winner take all systems.  The Democratic Party has followed a long path to obtain a proportional representation system (with an appropriate threshold requirement) that provides fair reflection of voter preferences and there is no reason to reopen that discussion.  See E. C. Kamark, Primary Politics (Brookings Inst. Press: 2009) (excellent discussion of allocation and other party rules issues).

As contemplated by the Convention Resolution, working with the RNC and thus obtaining bipartisan support (remember that concept?) for the new schedule may be helpful in dealing with Republican legislatures and governors.  For example, if the DNC wants Virginia Democrats to move back the Virginia primary date, and our Republican governor and lower house don’t want to do so, the date won’t move.  Thus, at the least, the DNC and RNC should agree on a starting date – that doesn’t seem to be asking too much.  Ultimately, the most effective way to narrow the window would be federal legislation, ideally with RNC support.  At present, however, Congress has a lot of other things to do and inviting greater Congressional involvement in party processes may have unintended consequences.

But what to do about states that won’t move back their primary or caucus dates?  In 2008, with regards to Florida and Michigan, the DNC took away all their delegates, then gave back half of their delegates, and then gave back all of the delegates.  That’s not a good approach.  The RNC, in contrast, took away half the delegates (including in NH) and that was the end of it.  The DNC should apply the same rule and impose an automatic 50% penalty as to any states which hold their contests before the window, without DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee approval.