Tuesday, February 26, 2008

What Could Have Been: New Jersey

February 26 wasn't always this lonely. It wasn't always about Cleveland debates and looking forward to primaries in Texas and Ohio. No, for a couple of years (between 2005 and 2007), New Jersey's presidential primary was situated on this, the fourth Tuesday in February. Traditionally one of the states to bring up the rear in early June, New Jersey's legislature opted to position the state's presidential primary three weeks behind Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, then the only three states scheduled for February 5. Once the momentum began to build behind the February 5 Super Tuesday in late 2006 and into 2007 though, the New Jersey legislature moved forward again, joining what even then in April 2007 was shaping up as a logjam in early February.

The intent of the move was to give New Jersey voters an opportunity to weigh in on who the two parties' nominees were to be for the 2008 cycle. And you can't blame the legislature for assuming that the Super Tuesday model would hold for this cycle as it has since basically the 1992 phase. To move and still not be consequential would have looked bad. But the nominations were not wrapped up on Super Tuesday, and that assumption and subsequent gamble may not have paid off as it could have if New Jersey had remained on February 26. Yes, the intent of the move was fulfilled, but residents of the Garden state (at least the Democratic and independent ones) could have been far more important to the Democratic nomination had the brakes been put on the second move.

Just for the heck of it, let's play out this bit of counterfactual history. If New Jersey had kept its presidential primary on February 26, it would have been the only event on that date; the only game in town. Typically that means a ton of media coverage and candidate attention. In 2008 though, that attention would have grown exponentially. Let's call it New Hampshire, part II. In addition, think about the current race for the Democratic nomination. Obama has rolled off eleven straight victories since Super Tuesday (Yes, the Virgin Islands and Democrats Abroad count. They do provide delegates after all.). Clinton may have still faced those same eleven defeats if New Jersey had been on February 26, but at least a contest in some naturally hospitable territory would have been on the horizon. In addition, it could have served as a nice springboard into the contests of next week; possibly throwing the outcome of the nomination into further doubt (Clinton wins next week could still do that, but with a New Jersey win, it would have been easier.). Now sure, a Clinton win in a February 26 New Jersey primary could have been spun by the media as a contest she should have won, thereby shifting the focus to the margin of victory and delegate totals. However, you can't underestimate how important potentially breaking Obama's winning streak ahead of March 4 could have been to the Clinton camp. It could have fundamentally altered the course of the race.

Finally, and most importantly, a February 26 New Jersey primary would have meant that political junkies wouldn't have to sit idly by waiting two weeks for the next round of contests.


Robert said...

I agree with you about New Jersey. There were many states that moved their primaries up to super Tuesday for greater impact and ended up having lower impact. It will be interesting to see if there is some backloading in 2012.

Josh Putnam said...

I don't think we'll see any backloading in 2012 for a couple of reasons.

First, the last time we saw such a massive movement of primaries was in 1988. Since the result that year was seen as a failure to the Democratic-controlled legislatures across the South. Some states, like North Carolina, Alabama and Arkansas decided it was a one shot deal in 1988 because of that and returned to their traditional dates. Indeed, in the cases of North Carolina and Arkansas, both moved everything up (presidential and state & local primaries). So the movement just wasn't seen as a success for those states.

And that brings me to the second point. I don't get the sense that New Jersey or any other state that moved to February 5 regrets it. Their voters had a say in the nominations. In the back of their minds, most of the decision makers on this issue know that 2008 will more than likely prove an aberration and that a return to the Super Tuesday model is likely in future cycles. I may be wrong on this (2008 has had a way of doing that.), but I do think we'll witness a return to Super Tuesday deciding the nomination(s) in 2012.

I mean, we are already seeing also-rans like Kentucky and Indiana talking about moving to the first Tuesday in February for 2012. The interesting thing will be following the Rules and Bylaws committee at the Democratic convention and its equivalent on the Republican side. If they move that window at all, it could force a lot of state legislatures and state parties to move forward again or even back.

That'll keep me blogging through the summer at least.