Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Bill Introduced to Merge Democratic and Republican Presidential Primaries in South Carolina

Two-time South Carolina Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Vincent Sheheen (D-27th, Kershaw), has prefiled a bill in the South Carolina state Senate that would seek to consolidate the Democratic and Republican presidential primaries.

The legislation, S 204, would put some modicum of pressure on the two state parties (or any other party that received 5% of the vote in South Carolina in the previous presidential election) to mutually set and submit to the South Carolina Election Commission a single date on which the presidential primary would be conducted. If there is no agreement between the parties, then the presidential primary would be held in June with the primaries for statewide and local offices. That provision seems like a poison pill, but the bill provides an out for the parties, allowing them to select another date, so long as the party funds the election.1 State parties typically choose the state-funded option where available. But state funding of presidential primaries came late to South Carolina. There is a history in the Palmetto state of party-run primaries and caucuses. It was not until the 2008 cycle that the South Carolina legislature authorized and appropriated state money for the presidential primary.

Finally, if only one party opts to conduct a presidential primary -- most common when only one party has an active and competitive nomination race -- then that party can set a date with the State Election Commission.

Now, FHQ does not know if this bill will go anywhere in the legislature. Our hunch is no, but this thing is multifaceted with a number of implications. The benefits are clear. This is a potential cost-saving mechanism for the state. Instead of funding and conducting two separate presidential primary elections, this measure would exert pressure on the parties to opt into the one state-funded option. Again, state parties tend to be averse to funding their own contests once a state-funded option exists.

Let's assume for a moment that S 204 passes. What influence does that have over the state parties' decisions for 2016 and beyond? Well for one thing, Democrats and Republicans in South Carolina have not held concurrent delegate selection events ever in the post-reform era (1972-present). This legislation would change that; creating the perception of a if not an outright loss of scheduling flexibility (from the state parties' perspectives). The national parties protect South Carolina's position among the so-called carve-out states, but this legislation could -- again, from the state parties' perspectives -- negatively affect their ability to remain first in the South. That is certainly true if the state parties cannot agree on the date of a presidential primary, pushing the state-funded option back to June. [It is quite difficult to be first in the South in June.]

The problem is that there is a built-in conflict that could make agreement between the state parties a difficult enterprise. South Carolina Democrats and South Carolina Republicans have different motivations and even different restrictions from the national parties. Though it is not any sort of codified requirement, South Carolina Republicans have grown accustomed to being the third contest on the presidential primary calendar. There are exceptions, but South Carolina Republicans have more often than not been contest the candidates head off to after New Hampshire (since 2000).2

That conflicts with the restrictions placed on the South Carolina Democrats by the DNC delegate selection rules. Those rules call on South Carolina to be the fourth contest on the primary calendar behind Iowa, New Hampshire and then Nevada. If South Carolina Republicans want to be third and South Carolina Democrats have to be fourth, that makes agreement on a primary date pretty tough. And keep in mind what a moving target all of this may be later this year as the calendar movement is winding down. There is uncertainty built into all of this. The silver lining from the South Carolina perspective -- again, assuming this bill becomes law -- is that the state parties have until January 1 of the presidential election year to make the date decision.3 Consider also that Nevada Democrats and Republicans may not have a consolidated caucuses date as they did in 2008. If parties in the Silver state choose different dates that complicates matters. It may help South Carolina. It may hurt. To help the South Carolina effort, Nevada Republicans would have to opt for a later caucuses date than their Democratic counterparts.

This bill may or may not get out committee, much less pass and be signed into law, but it would offer a potentially interesting dynamic to the positioning of the carve-out states in 2016.

1 With or without that provision, state parties would always have the self-funding option. That is consistent with most of the body of case law on the subject of parties controlling the nomination process. More often than not, if there is a conflict between what the state party wants and what the state law calls for, the courts tend to side with the parties.

2 Michigan in 2008 is a good example of an exception. South Carolina Republicans were more concerned with staying ahead of rogue Florida that year than worrying about where the Great Lakes state was positioned on the calendar.

3 That deadline seemingly places a great deal of confidence in the calendar positioning being an orderly process for 2016 and that by extension the early states do not get pushed into January. If the parties wait that long to set a date, that leaves the state very little time to prepare for a hypothetical January primary election.

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