Yesterday's post on the GOP's presidential nomination reform plan and the possibility of a national primary triggered an interesting discussion (between readers Rob and Bill) and question. Rob decried the pitfalls of a national primary and so doing indirectly pointed out how the primary system in the post-reform era has conditioned the American electorate. The first two experiences following the McGovern-Fraser reforms (1972 and 1976)) witnessed two "long shots" win the Democratic nomination. The result has been that some within the electorate think of this system in terms of its ability to nurture competition and allow for seemingly unknown (yet potentially well-qualified) candidates emerge to vie for the nation's highest office. As the primary system has become more frontloaded, that conception has been threatened. The compression of the calendar, the conventional wisdom holds, creates an easier road to the nomination (Unless you consider 2008. But that's something completely different.).
Something about Rob's rejection of the national primary elicited a dig of sorts from Bill who questioned (in so many words) that if the a national primary is so bad, how come it works in November every four years? And that raises a tangential and counterfactual question: What if the general election was conducted in the same way that primaries have been conducted in the post-reform era? How would that potentially affected the outcome of those general elections? Let's assume then, that states can hold their presidential elections anywhere from the Tuesday after Labor Day to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. And let's go just one step beyond that to assume that states have yet to frontload their contests to the earliest possible point (Tuesday after Labor Day)--the motivation to do so would be the same in that context as it has been in primary elections from 1972 onward. While we're assuming, we have to also assume that the Constitution provided no guidelines on how this process was to be conducted (though we'll leave the electoral college in place). Just for the fun of it, let's use the primary calendar of 1980 as a guide. There was a fairly even dispersion of contests through the March to June window that year.
What is the result? Well, which state goes first is huge. Does that state lean one way or the other along the partisan spectrum? Is their an incumbent involved? Interestingly, Iowa and New Hampshire have been competitive in the last two general elections, so they are ideal (in some ways) first states in this scenario. A state that is solidly red or solidly blue is more likely to be discounted by one candidate, but a state that is evenly divided between the parties becomes an interesting battleground, especially for a candidate challenging an incumbent. Winning or posting a close finish would be a boon to a challenger heading into subsequent states (And simply winning a "state you're suppose to win" would even be beneficial to a challenger as well; more so than it would be to an incumbent.). Winning early then, for a challenger, is important in swing states. Voters in those states who might ordinarily opt for the incumbent (or the status quo) when they are undecided, may be more apt to consider a challenger if that candidate has done well early. Such a system would allow a challenger to potentially cast doubt on an incumbent's ability to win with early victories.
The big question is, how all of this could have affected the outcomes of past races? The closer elections are the ones most likely to see a shift (at least in who the winner was). More comfortable victories or landslides may have seen some states change at the margins but without affecting the outcome (Remember we still have the electoral college here and those electors end up serving essentially the same purpose as delegates to national conventions in this sort of system.). So Mondale or McGovern could potentially have been able to win more than one state each or Gore could have bested Bush (He certainly would have focused more resources on Tennessee.).
How else would having the primary system in place for the general election have affected things? What say you, loyal readers of FHQ? This is a fun one for discussion.
I'll be back late tomorrow with a new set of electoral college maps accounting for the new polls that have come out this week.