Monday, October 3, 2011

"Avoid[ing] front-loading of primaries and caucuses in the current cycle proved fruitless."

That's John DiStaso of the Manchester Union-Leader post-South Carolina earlier today.

Man, I couldn't disagree more. This has been one of the most frustrating things about the conversation around the primary calendar in 2012. This cycle has been unlike any other for primary movement in general. After over a generation of states gradually pushing their primaries and caucuses forward -- closer and closer to the beginning of the process -- that take away is understandable. But it is wrong. In the sense that states have set non-compliant dates in 2011 and pushed the early four states up to the beginning of the calendar year, 2012 is a repeat of 2008 and seemingly a continuation of the past.

But folks, that isn't frontloading. That's "front". The "loading" part has been completely absent. What marked the 1972-2008 period was that not only were states moving their nominating contests to earlier dates, but they were clustering more and more around each other on the earliest allowed date. This was most pronounced in the hyper-frontloaded 2000 and 2008 calendars. 2004 was an exception to the rule because in that cycle Democrats opened the window in which contests could be held to include February. Some states took advantage of the opportunity and moved up to February, decreasing the volume of states on the first Tuesday in March -- still Super Tuesday that year. But with both parties nominations at stake in 2008 a great many states were motivated to move into February and most moved to the earliest allowed date: the first Tuesday in February.

Go and look at that 2008 calendar again. Now go look at 2012. The first Tuesday in March 2012 -- the earliest allowed date -- is still the date on which the most contests are being held, but only marginally so. That isn't Tsunami Tuesday. Heck, that is a Super Tuesday a month later than in 2008. There is no similar compression there [in 2012] to either 2008 or 2000. Better yet, go and look at the first 2012 calendar FHQ put together in -- yeah, I'll admit to it -- December 2008. There are twenty primary states scheduled in January or February based on state law at that time. That was before the informal coordination of the rules between the RNC and DNC in 2009 and 2010 -- rules that put in place the early four states in February, everyone else in March or later rules regime. Following the establishment of the rules, fifteen of those primary states moved back in in order to comply.  Two -- Arkansas and Illinois -- had already moved back by the time the rules were crafted, leaving Florida, Michigan and Arizona as the only states that stayed in either January or February.  And if that wasn't enough, none of the three have moved up. Hardly even the "front" mentioned above. But I'll gloss over that.

Was the effort to combat frontloading fruitless? No, it wasn't. A .850 winning percentage is not the record of a loser. It speaks otherwise. FHQ should also add that we don't buy the RNC's goalpost-moving reaction to Florida last week either.
"While the primaries will now start earlier than planned, the overarching goal of the current rules was to allow more states and voters to have a role in choosing the next Republican nominee for president. This goal will be met," said RNC spokesperson Kirsten Kukowski.
In a scenario where all it takes is one state to overturn the applecart, though, all it took was Florida to jump into January to destroy the best laid plans at the RNC. And another RNC official alluded to as much later:
"One state changed the dynamic," said an RNC official, speaking of the calendar goal.
In other words, there is such a small margin for error that it is almost impossible to claim victory from a rules perspective in any cycle. Again, where the problem lies is with the penalties, not the rules. But that is a story for another time. The bottom line is that this calendar, even in the most pessimistic of views, is not a frontloaded calendar. No states moved forward and there isn't nearly as much compression at the front as there was four years ago. Look closely at what follows Florida in February -- not much. This is an early calendar, but it is not a frontloaded one.  Frontloading takes moving forward and clustering, neither of which we've gotten.

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