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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.

4 thoughts on “DNC Change Commission #1 – Timing of primaries and caucuses”

  1. Thanks – I’ve made those corrections. 26 was the number of primaries, but 37 was the number total. The DNC rules have forbidden the first step of any process that elects delegates from occuring outside the window, so although the GOP did not penalize Iowa under its rules, the DNC would have, if it had not given Iowa an exception.

  2. This can become real tricky. Regional groupings like the “Potomac Primary” makes sense. Candidates can focus on a section of the country at one time and cut down on expenses if they don’t have to criss-cross the country all the time. Possible downside… which regions go first? One region could push their “favorite son” to the head of the pack at the expense of a more qualified and electable candidate. Florida has a lot of retirees from New York; an arguement could be made that they could be grouped together as a “region”.
    Whatever changes and rules get set, they must be enforced. 2008 set a bad precedent, the threat of being stripped of delegates must be real. And the candidates themselves need to make the point to the state comittees that it doesn’t help them if they win a state but don’t get the delegates.
    Working with the RNC… good luck, but try to eliminate “open” primaries. Think of it like sports play-offs. Would the Cowboys allow the Giants to field the offense and defense? A person only gets to play(vote) for the team to which they are registered.

  3. This is a great overview of many of the main points, Frank. Thanks.

    From a pragmatic standpoint, closing the window in which delegate selection contests can be held is probably the mostly easily attainable goal. One thing that I haven’t seen discussed anywhere is that this first week in March mandate by the DNC (from last year’s convention) is basically reversing the party’s actions ahead of the 2004 campaign — when February contests were allowed for the first time. Now granted, we need to provide some context there. The RNC had over the course of the 1996 and 2000 cycles opened their window to include February primaries and caucuses. The DNC’s move in 2004, then, was simply a reaction to that. But both parties have reaped what they sowed over the last 10-15 years.

    The Change Commission, provided the mandate called for in the rules, will likely move forward with March beginning point for all non-exempt states (all except IA, NH, NV, SC). How big a problem will the DNC have with compliance if they don’t hammer out some sort of compromise with the RNC on this point? You mentioned the conflict in Virginia, but what other states fall into that same or a similar category? Currently, there are eight states that would potentially stand as obstacles to any action by the DNC not matched by the Republican Party. That is a significant potential roadblock and on something that seems rather a simple change on its face.

    The initial frontloading moves in the 1996-2008 period were easy. There has always been an incentive to move forward, but getting states to move back when others will be allowed to stay where they are, it certainly easier said than done. [And I’m not saying you’ve said it will be easy.] What are the carrots? What are the sticks? You’ve got them laid out here, but I have one thing to add to your Florida/Michigan penalty point. The DNC rule initially was exactly like the RNC’s (a 50% delegate loss) in terms of the states (The DNC added an extra penalty to candidates campaigning in those states that the RNC didn’t have.). When Florida changed their date, the Rules and Bylaws Committee decided to make an example of them (one that was so effective Michigan ignored it) by stripping the state of all of its delegates. The problem wasn’t the stripping of all of Michigan’s or Florida’s delegates, but the midstream rules changing that took place (50% reduction to 100% loss to the allowance of a full delegation).

    Oh, and I count 37 states that had contests before March 1 in 2008. But that’s just nitpicky.

    I agree with you on your point about congressional intervention — they’re sidetracked — but for a wider discussion of whether Congress even has the ability to intervene see Dan Lowenstein’s chapter (or an abstract of it) here.

    Thanks again, Frank. Great post.

  4. You wrote “The RNC … took away half the delegates (including in NH and Iowa)…”. The RNC did not penalize Iowa. Florida, Michigan, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Wyoming received a 50% penalty for violating Republican Party Rule Number 16. That rule states that the process of selecting National Convention Delegates must not begin before Tuesday February 5, 2008.

    Prior to February 5, 2008, West Virginia, Iowa, Nevada, Louisiana, Hawaii, and Maine elected delegates to the next step. However, no penalties were applied since no National Convention Delegates were actually allocated.

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