Thursday, September 4, 2014

State GOP parties jockey for primary calendar advantage

This was the headline that greeted FHQ this morning in my inbox from the Washington Times.1 And it is absolutely true. State parties are turning their sights toward 2016 to some extent and are beginning to consider calendar positioning in light of the now-solidified national party delegate selection rules (from both parties).

The wheels kind of fell off the wagon in Ralph Hallow's piece after that. There is a lot of information in there. Unfortunately a lot of that information is wrong, partially wrong and/or misleading. So let's play fact check with this Q&A style.

Q: Are state parties jockeying for position?

A: Again, to some extent they are. Granted, that does not really provide the full picture of what is going on here. The presidential nomination process is a coordination problem. Often this problem is discussed in terms of the varying interests and voices within a party settling on a presidential nominee. But the idea applies to the rules making process and the states' reactions to them as well. [Collectively, both are are part of the invisible primary.] State parties have a role to play in the coordination of the calendar, but that role is exaggerated in the Washington Times piece.

As FHQ has said, this is a sequential process; the rules making and state-level reaction. The national parties have done their part by finalizing the delegate selection rules that will govern the process in 2016. However, it isn't the state parties that will act alone in making the decisions on calendar positioning now. State parties have the final say, but more often than not state governments -- state legislatures and governors -- will choose to move the date (if they can agree on one). State parties have the final up or down vote on the matter but rarely opt out of the date the state government has selected. Most state parties have a very difficult time turning down a state-subsidized primary election when the alternative is the state party footing the bill for a primary or more likely caucuses on a date of their choosing.

Do state parties opt out of state-funded primaries? Sure, but it is the exception rather than the rule. Idaho Republicans, for instance, opted out of the the May state-funded primary in 2012 in order to hold earlier March caucuses.

The thing about Hallow's article is that the focus early on is mostly on the supposed tension between Nevada and South Carolina for the third spot on the Republican calendar. But that sample skews the perception of who is really in charge of setting the date. Nevada Republicans hold caucuses for the purposes of selecting and allocating delegates to the presidential candidates. State parties control caucuses. Rare is the state that has a law or laws on the books that affect the date of caucuses. South Carolina has traditionally held a party-run (and funded) primary. That practice changed in 2008 though. The parties retained the date setting ability while handing off the funding to the state government.

But Nevada and South Carolina are unique as are Iowa and New Hampshire. Sure, they are all carve-out states. But that is a function of the national parties protecting the status of those four states as well as the mechanisms at the state level that allow those states adapt and react to states that might or actually threaten those protected calendar positions. In each and every case -- four of four -- the carve-outs have removed the state legislature from the primary/caucus date selection equation. That allows them to react/adapt more quickly. In states like Florida or Texas -- which are mentioned in the article -- that is not true. Neither the states nor the state parties there are jockeying for positions on the calendar simply because preexisting state law has set those dates already. Texas' spot on the first Tuesday in March has been the law since the 2008 cycle. They haven't moved at all and the state party won't be jockeying for position they already have.

Q: Is Nevada really the biggest threat to South Carolina's position on the Republican calendar?

A: Right now? No. South Carolina has enjoyed being about third on the Republican primary calendar since 1980. But Palmetto state Republicans are not always third (see 2008. Michigan was in between New Hampshire and South Carolina). Actually, being third has occasionally taken a back seat to being the first primary contest in the South. This is a good question for Matt Moore, the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party: What is more important, being first in the South or third on the calendar? In the past, the former has seemingly been more important, but South Carolina has been lucky that in a number of years the two -- first in the South and third on the calendar -- have overlapped.

There are two reasons why this Nevada threat is overblown (fun though it may be to FHQ in the dog days of summer before things move into high gear in 2015).

1. North Carolina has tethered its primary to South Carolina's. The Tarheel state primary is to follow on the Tuesday after the (presumably Saturday) South Carolina primary. In addition to the two conditions above that South Carolina prioritizes, Republicans in the state also like there to be a week in between it and the next closest southern primary. The North Carolina law violates that at the moment. [That may or may not change during the state legislative session next year.] But North Carolina is a bigger problem for South Carolina than Nevada.

2. Even if the North Carolina situation is settled and South Carolina gets its way, what is to prevent a repeat of 2008 from occurring? The Nevada caucuses of both parties and the South Carolina Republican primary were on the same date that year? South Carolina Republicans could easily gamble on Nevada Republicans having trouble pulling off flawless caucus meetings for the third cycle in a row and win the attention of the candidates and media in a head-to-head with Nevada.

How bothersome Nevada is to South Carolina is up to South Carolina. Protecting that third position as rigidly as is being implied by Hallow would be a new development in view of South Carolina Republicans' past actions.

Q: Are Texas and Florida seeking to "create a Mega-Tuesday election on the first day in March"?

A: Nope. Both are and have already been scheduled for the first Tuesday in March. They are both already there. Other states may and probably will join them, but Texas and Florida won't be moving again to a spot they already occupy.

Q: Does every state with a contest between March 1 and March 14 under the RNC rules have to "award its delegates in proportion to the percentage of the total vote each candidate received in that state"?

A: No, no, no. A thousand times no. An element of a state's allocation has to be proportional if it holds a contest prior to March 15. But proportional means a lot of things under the Republican rules. Even if a state fails to follow those guidelines, the RNC will only proportionally allocate a state's cache of at-large statewide delegates, not the full set of delegates. This is more a pet peeve of FHQ's than anything else. But the proportionality requirement is complex at the end of the day.

Q: Will the carve-out states be penalized by the RNC if they hold a primary or caucuses before February 1?

A: Not necessarily. It all depends on when the next earliest state is on the calendar; the fifth state. If that state has a non-compliant February primary, then the carve-out states can go as early as a month before that February date. February 1 is only on the radar because if the RNC and DNC rules collectively work, then the next earliest contest will be on March 1. But some states may opt to defy the national party rules and hold contests prior to March 1.

Q: Is the Republican National Convention scheduled for June 2016?

A: Not yet. It may be, but the RNC has yet to finalize the dates. Both June 28 and July 18 have been talked about.

Q: Is 1141 the magic number of delegates a Republican candidate needs to clinch the nomination (as Texas Republican Party chairman, Steve Munisteri described)?

A: 1144 was the number in 2012, but it changes every cycle depending on if a state voted for the last Republican presidential candidate, if it elected a Republican governor, how many Republican senators a state has, how many Republican representatives a state has and which party controls the chambers of a state's legislature. It changes every cycle. The snapshot of time in which those things are gauged will be in 2015. As of now, the magic number would rise from 1144 to 1209. That number is still likely to change after the 2014 elections.

Look, states will move around. That movement will have consequences, both intended and unintended, on the Republican (and Democratic) nomination process(es). But let's talk about states that will actually potentially move rather than states that are already seemingly locked into March 1 primary or caucuses dates.

1 The headline was subsequently changed.

Recent Posts:
Revisiting the 2016 Republican Delegate Selection Rules

Update: 2016 Presidential Primary Calendar (8/26/14)

So, It Turns Out Arizona Has Actually Moved Its Presidential Primary Back on the Calendar

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