Friday, August 29, 2008

If Taking Away Delegates Won't Stop Frontloading, What Will?

Well, this is a bit of an emperor's new clothing moment. Alright FHQ, you complain about the lack of sanctions in dealing with the frontloading problem, but what would you do?

A fair question. I could go all political sciencey on you and claim that it is my job to explain what we see and to steer clear of the normative end of things. [It isn't my job to say what should be. That's up to the practitioners.] However, I'll at least attempt to explain why I think sanctions from the parties just won't work.

There likely isn't a good sanction for this just because of the cyclical nature of the problem. In the post-reform era, delegates have become largely meaningless...except when it is close. And that doesn't happen often (There are exceptions, don't get me wrong, but we won't see another 2008 for a while.). Delegates do decide the nominations, but that is after a party has quickly coalesced around one candidate -- usually the front-runners.

So the delegates don't matter because the compressed contests advantage one candidate over the others. But you can't take away meaningless delegates to get states to move in line with a more evenly dispersed calendar of contests.

What's the alternative? Revoking the primary? I don't think that will fly with the fairness crowd.

During a brainstorm in 2007 when Ohio was considering a primary move (to the same January 29 date Florida had moved to), I thought about close margins in the previous presidential election being a possible determinant of which states could go first. I don't think that passes muster either. Though, one interesting caveat is that both Iowa and New Hampshire were among the closest states in 2000 and 2004; among the few states that actually shifted parties in that time. That indicates that both have a partisan breakdown similar to the ultimate outcome of the election, but that doesn't lend itself to a partisan primary. Though the ideological spectrum in the state is like the nation's to some degree, the spectrum within each party may not be very well represented by anyone state's partisans. Such a plan would potentially work in a Louisiana-style, open primary. But I don't see that happening.

Another possibility is that turnout in the previous presidential election could set the calendar for the next cycle. And even if that didn't advantage the toss up states where competition drives increased turnout, there are still questions over whether that is a good thing or not. Turnout may increase, but is that a good thing? Are the decisions "better" as a result?

Neither of those plans would work, but both would require some intervention by the federal government. And that's something to take away from this. The GOP may be going through the motions in the hopes that Congress steps in in some way to solve this problem for them (...and the state parties and state governments). Yes, that is an odd statement to make about a party that would rather see less government intervention on the whole.

Along those same lines, part of what one commenter recently proposed made some sense. If the federal government got involved, it could technically withhold funding in the way it does highway funds for states that don't have the drinking age set at 21. Now a financial penalty would be effective, but that implies the federal government is in some way funding elections. And withholding funding for elections is a potentially dangerous business. It doesn't and wouldn't look good. But the burden would be on the states in that case. They would have to cover the expenses in that case or take it to court. My guess is a state would lose that PR battle, not to mention the court case.

In the end, the parties will find it difficult to solve this issue. It is just too complicated and too partisan. Some federal action could change that, though. The questions that emerge there are:

Is Congress too partisan to do anything about in the same way that the national parties are?

And more importantly...
Is Congress willing to step in and actually do something that, as Dan Lowenstein has argued, would be challenged but likely would be affirmed in the courts?

Of course Lowenstein concludes with what is essentially the same thing that the GOP seems to have settled on: a cap on further frontloading.

So what are the penalties that would work? That isn't clear to me (or many of the others dealing with this issue for that matter). But it will likely require some action from Congress.

As a footnote, I'll pose just one more question. Does the fact that the Democrats won't deal with the issue for another two years hurt the chances of something being done on frontloading prior to 2012? We know that the GOP has rejected an overhaul of the primary system. But we won't know the direction the Democrats are leaning until that report comes out down the road. This topic is hot now. It is on people's minds to some extent. However, does that heat fade; does that attention wane over the next two years. And will that affect Congress's willingness to weigh in then.

Some of that, I suppose, depends on whether any states begin the frontloading process and antagonize the system. States then may be hesitant to do anything. If Obama wins, though, we may see some Republican-controlled legislatures make movements in that direction. If Michigan, for example, wants its lot improved, Democrats there may want to go along with any Republican initiative to move the state's primary ahead of March 6, 2012. That may be enough to start the ball rolling on the federal level, if such a move incites any backlash and the issue is raised again.

A tip of the cap to Scott for taking the bait that I hadn't really intended as bait.

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Allen said...

I think taking away the delegate would work, but the discretion needs to be taking out of the picture. Early voting = 0 delegates, no exceptions, no appeals, no discretion.

Then I would add in a provision that, if there is a problem with the state legislature, the national party will consider helping the state party conduct either a mail-in primary or caucuses, with a certain application process and calendar specified.

Russ Piekarski said...

"Now a financial penalty would be effective, but that implies the federal government is in some way funding elections. And withholding funding for elections is a potentially dangerous business."

Maybe a better alternative is to have the national parties fund the primaries - but a state only receives the money if they adhere to the schedule. These are after all party events: they are choosing their nominees for the general election. And it should avoid the potential problem you cite above.

Of course, this requires a level of cooperation between the two parties that will be challenging to achieve.

Robert said...

I like your concept, Allen, but I don't think it will work. The winning candidate will cave, just like Obama did, particularly if the states involved are battleground states.

I'd like to see a solution, but I am getting to be as big a pessimist as Josh after reading this blog for the past year. I am afraid we are headed to a national primary which would probably eliminate the chances for a candidate like Obama or McCain.

Allen said...

The winning candidate will cave, just like Obama did, particularly if the states involved are battleground states.

Actually, Obama did not cave--he refused to seat the delegates when they had a chance of changing the outcome, and agreed to seat them only when the outcome was a foregone conclusion. In effect, the two states, MI and FL, had no voice in selecting the nominees.

But here's another solution that avoid some of the dicey politics: if the state fails to schedule a rule-compliant primary or caucus by a certain date, then the national party automatically conducts a mail-in primary on a certain date and that primary is used to select the pledged delegates. In addition, for candidates to appear on the mail-in ballot, they must not campaign in the state until after a certain date, so as not to give any legitimacy to a non-compliant primary or caucus. Make it written into the rules, so it happens automatically, and set the calendar in advance so it can happen in an orderly fashion.

SarahLawrenceScott said...

The whole public/private nature of primaries bothers me anyway. Why are states funding the political activities of parties?

But given that we have evolved a system like that, maybe the answer is to funnel funding through the national parties. Something like the public financing system, where tax money (with an opt-out checkoff box) goes to the national parties for the purpose of conducting primaries. If the state doesn't want to hold the primary when the national party wants, the national party returns the money to the state and leaves them on their own.

It would still be possible to circumvent the rules set by the national party, and in fact there wouldn't actually be a monetary penalty, since the money would flow back to the state. But there would be a headache in setting up a parallel election system to whatever the national party had established.

In some ways, I think the "headache" factor might be more effective than fiscal incentives. After all, when you're in government, it's someone else's money. But it's your headache.

Josh Putnam said...

Well, once again my response is too long for a simple comment. I've shifted it into a new post. I will say this here though:

Oh Rob, I'm not a pessimist. I'm a realist. This is an extremely complicated issue with which to deal. And I take seriously the job of describing those complexities here. This isn't news to anyone.