Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Paths of Presidential Primary Frontloading

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At various points during the tenure of this site, FHQ has referred to the process that is the frontloading of presidential primaries. [As the site is called Frontloading HQ, we should probably do more of that. But I digress...] To this point, though, the piecing together of that process has been left to reader. I thought it might be helpful to take a step back and discuss this at a time in the presidential election cycle when frontloading is dormant until at least early 2010 (if not 2011) and the talk of the field of Republican candidates is still a low whisper (unless Sarah Palin is the topic of conversation).

The basic theory of frontloading, as I'm laying it out, is based on a twofold approach. Frontloading decision-makers, whether they are state governments, governors, secretaries of state or state parties, are faced with varying levels of obstacles from state to state that affects both a state's willingness and ability to move its delegate selection contest. But while there are obstacles to frontloading, there are also benefits to the moves or else the presidential primary calendars from 1972 to 2008 would have remained static. In this cost/benefit analysis, the costs disproportionately affect a state's ability to move while a state's willingness to shift to an earlier date is influenced by both the costs and the benefits of the frontloading move.

Now, I should note that much of this is predicated on the idea of a rational-acting decision maker. Faced with costs that outweigh benefits, a state's decision maker will opt to stay put. Conversely, states with more benefits relative to costs, are more likely to move, all things held constant. That said, the goal here is to look at the behavior of these various political actors over the course of the last nearly four decades and generalize. Certainly there are instances where, say, Zell Miller and Bill Clinton were good friends from their days in the Democratic Governors Association and that relationship got the ball rolling on Georgia's move -- one advantageous to Clinton after New Hampshire -- to the first week in March in 1992. However, the point is to construct a theory here that can help us to set a certain level of expectation concerning why some states move and others decide not to.

Let's start by taking a walk through the flowchart that led the post. It captures the topmost layer that best evidences the obstacles to frontloading. First off, the national parties, as they are doing now with the Republican Temporary Delegate Selection Committee and the Democratic Change Commission, set the rules of the presidential nomination process from cycle to cycle. That includes rules covering the timing of delegate selection events. Those rules are then filtered through the state party level, where the decisions are made regarding how (and more importantly for our purposes, when) delegates will be chosen in a given state. Those decisions are then submitted to the national party for approval (...at least on the Democratic side. There is a bit more leeway granted states within the Republican process.).

At the outset of the the McGovern-Fraser era, the easiest way for states to check off the guidelines set forth was to hold a primary election concurrently with those primaries for state and local offices. That did two things: First, it brought state governments into the process and then, once presidential primaries proliferated, institutionalized their presence in the process. But that presence in the process is not uniform across all states. State parties have an easier decision to make if the state is footing the bill for the primary election, but at the same time are potentially hamstrung by where the state government holds its primary or moves its primary to on the calendar.

This effectively sets up a barrier between primary states and caucus (and party-run primary) states. Sure, state parties can opt to hold a caucus or primary on its own, but most take advantage of the state's elections infrastructure. That's why that path -- from state party to state legislature to governor to primary move -- is highlighted in gray; that is the road most traveled in terms of presidential delegate selection contest movement. It is the most traveled, yet most obstacle-laden path simultaneously. Obviously, if a state party prefers a caucus or party-run primary to a state-funded affair, it has the ability to move the contest wherever it pleases. The institutional roadblocks are minimized. The same is true for states where either the governor (Arizona and New Mexico) or secretary of state (New Hampshire) has the ability to single-handedly make the frontloading decision. Again, the roadblocks are minimized.

But in the case of the state government making the decision, the road is far bumpier. State governments have to be concerned with divided government (inter-chamber or inter-branch), whether and if the state's presidential primary is separate from its primaries for state and local office, and where the primary was in the previous cycle. All those structural factors separate the states that can move and those that can't or won't move.

If you'd like to read a more in-depth treatment of this, I have a paper [pdf] I presented at the Western Political Science Association's meeting last year. However, the data only goes through the 1996 cycle. Soon, I'll be able to update those numbers for you through 2008.

...if you're interested (and probably even if you're not).

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