Sunday, July 5, 2009

And Another Thing About Those Winner-Take-All Primaries

In the car yesterday, I was thinking again about the possibility of the Democratic Party utilizing winner-take-all primary rules in some states in 2012. And killjoy that I am, I was probing the idea for unintended consequences. [I had plenty of time.] Perhaps you've noticed that the problems with the current system are the unintended consequences of its piecemeal construction and evolution over the last nearly forty years. Everything from frontloading to the proportional allocation of delegates on the Democratic side to the proliferation of primaries has developed in that span of time.

Anyway, it occurred to me that there is already a line of demarcation drawn between early states and late states and that that line has become quite a problem over time. In actuality, though, I suppose that the line between early states and earliest states is the one that is more problematic. However, that raises an interesting question: Instead of two classes of states based on when a state's primary or caucus is held (something that just recently led to Florida and Michigan going rogue), could the line between proportional states and winner-take-all states similarly set up two classes of states? And do the Florida and Michigan examples from 2008 make that more likely in the future?

Let's take a state like Georgia as an example. The Peach state is already situated on Super Tuesday (February 7, 2012 and every other first Tuesday in February from then on) and is a nicely-sized state from a delegate standpoint. But Georgia is stuck behind the Californias and New Yorks of the world on that particular date. "Fine, the Democrats are allowing winner-take-all rules in some cases (the later states), says the Georgia Democratic Party (because that would be the decision of the state party and not the state legislature). "Why don't we adopt those rules and differentiate our state from the pack?"

Why, indeed? Georgia would certainly provide a much larger delegate cushion with a winner-take-all format than other delegate-rich states using a proportional method of allocation.

Of course, there are a couple of caveats here. First, this sort of delegate allocation difference between states has been the norm in the Republican nominations for quite a while and has gone on without incident. It is, after all, an intra-party issue (between the national and state parties). Theoretically then, the national party should hold some sway over the state party. Florida and Michigan, however, demonstrated that that is not necessarily the case on the Democratic side. And that's the difference. The enforcement mechanism is not as strong for the Democrats as it seemingly is for the Republicans.

Secondly, I find it somewhat hard to fathom a situation where a state (party) like Georgia would buck the national party on the newly changed delegate allocation rules and not go ahead and challenge the party on the scheduling issue as well. If you're going to break the rules, go ahead and break the rules. In other words, why not have a winner-take-all primary that challenges Iowa and New Hampshire on the calendar?

Again, the enforcement mechanism would have to be prohibitive on this point. The backtracking the Democratic Party did on the Florida/Michigan matter was not helpful to its cause (as a national party); both states ultimately got their delegates back. States, then, are certainly less likely to take the party's word on it in the future. [Why not move forward if the party's just going to give our delegates back?] However, the candidate sanctions the Democratic Party used in 2008 kept the candidates (or most of them) out of both states. Yet, the candidates are not operating in a vacuum and would potentially be less likely to follow those rules in 2012 or 2016. The underlying issue is the same for the candidates as it is for states: If we can get a competitive advantage by campaigning here/moving forward, then why not go for it?

And that is the real point. Sure, allowing for winner-take-all primaries may open the door to a new form of rules violation, but the conundrum for the Democratic Party is determining a way of keeping states and state parties in line. The Change Commission is about superdelegates and caucuses and the 2012 calendar, but what lies under the surface is the idea that the national party has to have everyone on board. Their recommendations may represent the new rules structure, but that has to trickle down and be implemented by the state parties. They are the entities charged with structuring and submitting delegate selection plans to the national party for approval. But all of this is an intra-party struggle unlike the court battles witnessed over similar issues between the parties and state governments. The party took precedent in that case, but in a state party versus national party debate, legal challenges are of a different breed.

This is the real issue to be looking at as the Democratic Change Commission continues its work.

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Robert said...

The penalty to the candidates is that NH and IA could punish them at the polls, which would not mean much from a delegate standpoint but could affect their momentum.

Josh Putnam said...

Perhaps, but that depends on the extent to which Iowa and New Hampshire can "blackmail" the candidates into only spending time in those two locales. They've had a pretty good track record, so I wouldn't discount that too much.