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Primary Madness: Deja Vu All Over Again

A Commentary By Josh Putnam

Friday, October 14, 2011

It's hard to look at the events surrounding the 2012 presidential primary over the last several weeks and not come to the conclusion that it is, in Yogi Berra's words, deja vu all over again. Not only is it a further and incremental progression of the now-40-year trend that has seen the beginning of the nomination process inch ever closer to the beginning of the calendar year, but the 2012 primary calendar is shaping up to be an almost exact repeat of the beginning of the 2008 presidential primary calendar. That latter point is particularly eye-opening because the national parties altered their rules in an effort to prevent such an early start to the primary process from happening again in 2012.

While others are quick to heap blame on the decision in Florida to hold the presidential primary in the Sunshine State on the final Tuesday in January, that blame is slightly misplaced. Sure, the Republicans at the center of the decision in Florida have a certain level of responsibility for pushing the calendar to the brink of December primaries and/or caucuses for a second straight cycle, but the problem runs much deeper than that. It is easy to blame Florida for the subsequent moves by South Carolina and Nevada Republicans, and ultimately, the moves by Iowa Republicans and New Hampshire. But one question remains: Why is it that Florida -- and Arizona and Michigan before them -- opted to keep their non-compliant primary dates when faced with the prospect of losing half of their delegates to the Republican National Convention in Tampa next summer?

The answer lies in the national party-level deliberations that took place in 2010 -- deliberations over the rules that would govern the 2012 presidential nomination process. The Democratic National Committee has traditionally formed a commission to examine previous presidential nominating cycles and offer suggestions for changes to the process. It is these commissions over the years that have brought changes mandating proportional allocation of delegates, the introduction of superdelegates and the addition of Nevada and South Carolina to the early primary calendar.

The Republican National Committee, however, has followed a different path. Unlike the quadrennial midterm year rules tweaking that the Democrats did, the RNC was content to hammer out its rules for the next cycle at its convention four years prior. That course of action has become less and less sustainable as the speed with which changes occur in, usually, the year leading up to a presidential election year increases. In other words, the Republican Party was less flexible than the Democratic Party in addressing any need for rules changes on the fly. It was for that reason that the RNC opted during the 2008 convention in St. Paul to create a committee similar to the one the Democratic Party has had for every cycle following the McGovern-Fraser reforms -- reforms that fundamentally shifted the manner in which presidential nominees were to be and have been chosen.

Independent of each other, the Democratic Change Commission and the Republican Temporary Delegate Selection Committee met to discuss the 2012 rules throughout 2009 and 2010. Each made recommendations to their respective national parties. There were subtle changes to both sets of rules and an informal understanding between both parties that the start to 2008 was too early and needed to be avoided in the future. The answer -- at least as the parties saw it then -- was to have Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina kick primary season off in February and allow other states to hold nominating contests at a point of their choosing between the first Tuesday in March and the second Tuesday in June.

As rules go, this was a noble attempt to fix one of the biggest perceived issues with the 2008 nominating process: the calendar. Yet, the parties faced a difficult coordination problem with a host of states that, as of the beginning of 2011, had primaries or caucuses scheduled for non-compliant dates in February or earlier. Theoretically, there was little in the way of incentives -- or, for that matter, deterrents -- to get those states in line with the new rules. Each of those states faced the same calculus: stay early and have an influence over the nomination but lose half the delegation, or move back and run the risk of ceding influence to the earliest four states but save the full delegation. Of the 20 states that had to make some move to comply with the new timing rules, 17 moved back. Three, however, did not, and honestly, the national parties -- the Republicans in particular -- should feel lucky that it wasn't any worse than Florida, Arizona and Michigan. It very well could have been more.

The reality is that it would have only taken one state valuing influence over penalties to overturn the applecart, creating the maneuvering witnessed over the last few months. The rules changes to the 2012 calendar, and particularly the coordination between the two parties, was a necessary but not sufficient step to fix the problem. The next logical step is for there to be some coordination of penalties across the parties. Both Democrats and Republicans still have a separate set of penalties, and the Democratic Party may have stumbled onto a penalty regime that will work if applied -- yes, actually applied -- across both parties. Whereas the RNC will cut a state's delegation in half, the DNC goes one step further and penalizes candidates who campaign in non-compliant states before the primaries in those states. Candidates who campaign in rogue states, according to the Democratic rules, would lose any delegates to the convention won in that state. That has the effect of removing from states one of the main incentives for holding an early primary or caucus: attention. If the candidates are not visiting the state, neither is the media, thus rendering the contest virtually meaningless. If that rule is applied across both parties, it stands a better shot of keeping the states in line than if the process continues with differing penalties in both parties. Look no further than Florida in 2008. Democrats were at the mercy of Republicans in the state, operating under a different set of penalties. Florida Republicans who moved the primary took their penalty and in the process subjected Florida Democrats to a much stiffer penalty. (Yes, some Florida Democrats in the state legislature in 2007 initially voted for the plan to move the primary to January.)

The obvious criticism here is the same as what faces the current rules regime: What happens when the nominee seats the delegates at the convention regardless of penalties and in the interest of party unity? Hypothetically at least, if both parties have the same set of penalties, both are more likely to stick to them. A clause exists in the Republican rules for 2012 that allows the party and states to hold primaries and caucuses whenever they choose if the Democrats did not follow through with rules preventing early contests. A similar clause could be added to both national parties' rules in the future.

Fundamental, sweeping change is not likely because of the need to coordinate action among state governments, state parties and the national parties. The process is seemingly too institutionalized 40 years in. That said, there are ways to address some of the problems associated with the current system that does not also open the door to the inevitable unintended consequences attendant to any large reform. To prevent a constant threat of December primaries and caucuses, the next logical, pragmatic course of action for the national parties is to build on what they started after 2008. But the coordination needs to extend beyond the rules to encompass the penalties as well.

Josh Putnam is a visiting assistant professor of political science at Davidson College specializing in campaigns and elections and the author of Frontloading HQ, a blog about the presidential primary process.

Josh Putnam is a guest columnist for the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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