Thursday, February 26, 2009

2012 Primary Reform: Previous General Election Margin as a Means of Setting the Calendar

FHQ was lucky enough to have Will Bower (of PUMA fame) stop by to add his primary reform system to the comments section of our recent 2012 Primary Calendar Projection. Below is my rather lengthy response to the shape of the system and his plan in particular.

It's funny, Will. I had this same thought during the summer of 2007 when a group of Democratic Ohio state senators introduced a bill that would have moved the Buckeye state's primary from March 4 to January 29 (the same day as the Florida primary). That would have put the decisive state from the previous two general elections near the front of the 2008 primary queue.

Having said that, let me offer one suggestion and some other comments.

Suggestion: I glanced through your original post on this subject as well as some of the comments and it seems to me that some people had issues with the potential for constant rotation.
So why not cut down on the some of the volatility inherent in focusing on just the previous election and focus instead on the last two/three election cycles? Average the margins in each state over that time and set the calendar by rank order accordingly. [I'd actually like to see how the calendar(s) would differ.] That would control for anomaly elections yet still allow for some movement but not a wholesale upheaval from one election to the next.

My impression is that there are generally two things we know about voters and their perceptions of the presidential nomination process:

1) They like knowing when they are going to vote. We already know because the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November is election day that the next presidential general election is on November 6, 2012.

2) They also like knowing that their vote has an impact. If you're voting in a primary held after the point at which a nomination has been decided, that vote isn't making that much difference.

The "easiest" remedy to these two potentially contrasting ideas is a national primary. Everyone knows when they are voting and that their vote matters. The disadvantage is that voter learning would be quite low with the end result that the front-runner would carry an even more decisive advantage into the election.

As I have documented in this space, there are also several rotating primary (whether regionally aligned or not) ideas as well. There are several drawbacks to these ideas:

1) It increases the likelihood of regional candidates that may not have broad appeal (Something that your plan admittedly addresses.).

2) Depending on the plan, it increases the travel constraints on the candidates (And no, I don't buy your argument that Iowa and New Hampshire are far apart. The candidates know that those states are going to be first and invest their time and money wisely well in advance (years not weeks) of those contests.). This also favors the candidates with the most money and name recognition.

3) Here's an issue that I haven't seen addressed anywhere in regards to these rotating primary plans. What happens when your party's nomination is not being contested in a year when your region/grouping is going first. Depending on the plan, it could take twelve years for the process to work its way around to you. And then, there's no guarantee that the same situation won't arise again. This also doesn't seem quite fair.

In a lot of ways, these plans have unintended consequences written all over them.

But the thing is we do have some evidence of support for each of these ideas. A survey of 1285 people conducted pre- and post-Super Tuesday in 2008 asked respondents about their support for primary system reform. Over 70% supported each plan with the national primary idea having slightly more support. Surprisingly though, when given the option, respondents preferred a regional primary system that continues to grant Iowa and New Hampshire an exemption over a such a system where their "first in the nation" status is stripped. [A national primary was still preferred to each.] For more on this survey and some other interesting analyses on it, please see the Tolbert, et al. piece in January's PS.

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But what about a primary system based on margin in the previous cycle? Yes, it is a potentially good way to vet candidates for the general election, but at the same time it insures that the spotlight is on the same group of states for the entire election year -- primary and general elections. There's something about that that doesn't seem fair.

The main issue I see is that to coordinate this or any of the rotating plans is requires either federal intervention or both national parties working in concert to impress upon state governments and parties that one of these plans is better than what we've currently got or a national primary. And I'm not convinced the parties would go along with this (whether it is the right plan or not). Let's assume for the sake of argument that this plan is adopted as is for 2012. That means that 14 of the first 15 states (and 20 of the first 25) will be states that were all red in 2004. Is the Democratic Party going to sign off on a plan that allows the Republican Party a chance to actively campaign and organize in all those formerly red states? Possibly, because it keeps them from organizing the way Obama did in red (caucus) states in 2008 in similarly cast blue states. But I doubt they would.

And even if the parties did, what would prevent cast-off, non-competitive state governments/parties from shifting their contests into more relevant positions? In other rotating systems, even those states would have their day in the sun every few cycles. It isn't like Utah, Oklahoma and Idaho can will themselves to be more competitive. Nor can Massachusetts, Rhode Island or Vermont. State governments dominated by particular state parties in those states, in fact, would resist that idea out of hand because it would entail helping the opposition party build itself. It is a lose-lose situation for those decision-makers; a situation that would make them seriously consider defying the calendar rules.

One thing to consider here is allowing for these states to have a seat at the table as well. Thomas Gangale's American Plan aligns states according to size but allows for a couple of the later groupings to shift into earlier positions. So instead of California being stuck at the end in perpetuity, the Golden state has a possibility of going as early as the fourth grouping of the process. That could apply to your plan as well, but it would mean shifting in some of the least competitive states into a more meaningful position.

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The first step is seeing what the GOP's Temporary Delegate Selection Committee comes up with between now and the summer of 2010. Their decision will have a large say in whether there will be significant reform before 2012 kicks off.


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1 comment:

Will Bower said...

There are great points, Josh... and I plan on looking over them point-by-point a.s.a.p.

I'll be back in a day or two. In the meantime, thanks for the discourse.