Friday, July 29, 2011

Was California's Early Primary the "Bust" or Were There Other Factors Limiting Its Impact?

FHQ has expected all along that California governor, Jerry Brown would sign AB 80 and eliminate the separate, February presidential primary and consolidate the contest with the primaries for state and local offices in June. Again, that isn't surprising.

What strikes me is some of the reactions to the June move in the article FHQ just linked to in the Sacramento Bee. Specifically, I take issue with some of the doom and gloom statements about the largest state in the union being an also-ran -- no matter what, seemingly -- in presidential nomination politics.
"We've learned that shifting a date doesn't matter," said Jaime Regalado, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University,Los Angeles. "Only if we had a more competitive balance between the two parties, then I think we would play a larger role ... Then they simply wouldn't drop in, parachute in to get money and leave."
"The idea of the early primary was a huge bust," said Tony Quinn, a political analyst and former Republican legislative aide. "We're just out of luck when it comes to affecting presidential politics."
FHQ disagrees strongly with both of these points. The problem isn't that "shifting a date doesn't matter" or that the move was a "bust". Both completely miss the point. The issue is that California has not been proactive in moving the date on which its presidential primary is held. Legislators in California have typically played follow the leader as opposed to being a leader in terms of setting a primary date.

Let's look back at California's primary moves in the post-reform era:
  • 1996: Moves from the first Tuesday in June to the last Tuesday in March
  • 2000: Moves from the last Tuesday in March to the first Tuesday in March
  • 2008: Moves from the first Tuesday in March to the first Tuesday in February
The 1996 move was one where the outcome was mixed. Non-exempt states could hold contests as early as the first Tuesday in March. Yet, California opted to move not to the front, but instead merely to the upper half of the calendar. In fact, on the Democratic side, that was a point on the calendar before which just over 60% of the delegates had been allocated.1 The reason the reviews were mixed on the impact of the move was that it didn't affect California as much as it affected other states and future calendar positioning. The 1996 California move saw the most delegate-rich state pick up and move from the very end of the calendar to the middle. That had the potential of fundamentally reformulating the calculations for candidates as their campaigns looked at the calendar. Most importantly, it helped to shift the point at which, in this case, approximately 75% of the delegates in both party were allocated.

The 1996 move coupled with the 2000 move to the earliest allowed date -- first Tuesday in March -- ushered in what FHQ calls the hyper-frontloaded era; an era of primary movement marked by states reacting to each others' moves within one cycle as opposed to reacting from one cycle to the next. And California's two moves of 1996 and 2000 were at the root of that. All those delegates at stake in the Golden state shifted the overall point at which 50% of the delegates had been allocated to an earlier point than it had ever been. The importance of that 50% number is that it is the earliest point at which some candidate can clinch the nomination.2 For the purposes of positioning primaries and caucuses on the primary calendar, this had a tremendous effect. To say that states -- those that had a desire to -- were scrambling to get to as early a point as possible, may be overstating matters, but if a state was moving after 1996, it was moving to the earliest allowed, first Tuesday in March date (or earlier for some Republican contests, as RNC rules allowed February contests).

If state governments and state parties wanted their voters to have an impact on the nomination races, it behooved them to schedule primaries or caucuses in the window of time in which the races were most likely to still be competitive. First of all, that's ahead of the 50% delegates allocated mark. And secondly, that more often than not left states with only one option: the first Tuesday in March.

In many respects, none of that is California's fault. Actors in the state responsible for setting the date of the primary were only acting in accordance with national party rules. And despite its size and delegate-richness, the Golden state was still just one among many states on crowded Super Tuesdays in both 2000 and 2008.

A couple of things. 1) FHQ is not suggesting that California should have gone rogue like Florida, though that certainly could have been one of their options. 2) Like many states, California missed out on a prime opportunity in 2004 (noticeably absent from the crowded Super Tuesdays listed above).

2004 saw the DNC change the party's delegate selection rules, allowing, like the Republican Party, non-exempt states to hold primaries and caucuses as early as the first Tuesday in February. Some states took advantage of the new rules and shifted into February, but the bulk of the early states remained back on a slightly diminished Super Tuesday. It was only slightly diminished in 2004 because there were still delegate-rich states like California and New York scheduled for that date.

FHQ made the argument in 2009 around a speculative Indiana move for 2012, that the Hoosier state, too, had missed its chance in 2004. The underlying theme in that three part analysis was that Indiana could have moved up to February in 2004 and maximized its impact -- attention gained -- among a less-packed collection of states (at least relative to its traditional first Tuesday after the first Monday in May primary date). Less crowded and early is a good combination for gaining candidate/media attention.

...or it has been.

In the recent past, as I described above, states have had little choice but to hold contests alongside of a bunch of other states if they wanted to go early. That formula has begun to change, though. First of all, a limited group of states is now willing to sacrifice delegates in order to go early and hopefully (from their perspective) alone on a date that is non-compliant with national party rules. That is one way. But the other way is something we have witnessed post-2008; states moving back to comply with national party rules, but moving back beyond the earliest allowed date. And in some cases states have been motivated to do that and to coordinate contests with other neighboring states similar to the Potomac Primary in 2008. In other words, if you can't be alone with the spotlight only on your state, why not at least go with other, similar neighboring states?

The landscape of the calendar is changing from what the system had built toward in time since reform up to 2008. California was always behind in its efforts to have as big an impact on a presidential nomination race as the state government and state parties, given their size, might otherwise have wanted. By consolidating their presidential primary with those for state and local offices in June in 2012, California may be, once again, missing out on an opportunity to schedule a stand-alone contest on, say, the last Tuesday in March or in mid-April.

While there were factors that ran counter to what California was hoping for in an earlier primary, there were things that were in the decision-makers' control over the years that were ignored or not understood. Was an early primary a bust in California? Yes, probably, but that could have been avoided with something other than a follow-the-leader approach to primary schheduling. know, with hindsight being what it is.

1 No, the Democratic Party did not have an active nomination race in 1996, but that figure in the link is worth showing fairly closely approximates the delegates allocated on the Republican side. According to Hagen and Mayer (2000) about 65% of the delegates at stake had been allocated in the 1996 Republican race by the time it reached California (see In Pursuit of the White House 2000, Figure 1.10, p. 38).

2 Now due to the rules of both parties -- complete proportional allocation of delegates on the Democratic side and at least some proportional allocation by the Republicans -- it is virtually impossible for one candidate to have amassed all of those delegates at stake. However, in recent cycles, there was enough of a compression of contests on Super Tuesday to give a frontrunning candidate a technically insurmountable edge in the delegate count (see Norrander 2000 for more).

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