If primary season began today, where would the various primaries and caucuses fall on the calendar?To answer that, let's first think about another couple of related (if not redundant) questions. What do we know? What information do we have? FHQ answers these questions first before it sets a preliminary calendar. And what we know at this point is what state laws or state party bylaws tell us. In the vast majority of primary states, state law clearly lays out a date on which a presidential primary election is to be conducted (using state funds). The exceptions are the carve-out primary states of New Hampshire and South Carolina along with a handful of other states that have options layered into state law that provide (or were created to provide some scheduling flexibility).1
Caucuses are slightly different. State parties set the dates of the caucuses/convention process and often that is not something that is codified in the state party bylaws. In fact, those states where a date is codified well in advance of a presidential election year are the exceptions. Hawaii Republicans, for instance, set a date in their party bylaws. Colorado and Minnesota have caucus processes that are guided by state law insofar as the dates are concerned.
Currently on FHQ's calendar, there are 35 states with known primary dates. But that is not the extent of our knowledge on the matter. We also know that...
- Colorado parties have a choice between the first Tuesday in February and the first Tuesday in March for their precinct caucuses.
- Minnesota parties have to agree on a date for Democratic and Republican precinct caucuses in 2016 by the end of February 2015. If they cannot come to an agreement, the caucuses will be conducted on the first Tuesday in February.
- The carve-out states are protected by the national party delegate selection rules. The DNC has set specific dates for Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, but the RNC lets the process play out between those four states (and others). The RNC, however, does protect the carve-outs. And in 2016 that protection is more robust. Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina have a month before the next earliest contest in which to schedule their primaries or caucuses. If New York law is not changed, then the carve-out states would have a window of a month before February 2 -- when the New York primary is scheduled -- to set the dates of their contests. The other part of that protection is that the national parties have more severe penalties they can use in 2016. The DNC gives its Rules and Bylaws Committee the power to increase the baseline 50% delegate penalty and the RNC rules would strip rogue states of all but 9 or 12 delegates depending on the delegation size.
- New Hampshire will want to be before every state but Iowa.
- Iowa will want to be first.
- South Carolina will want to be ahead of all southern states by at least a week (more likely ten days if the parties in the Palmetto state stick with Saturday primaries).
- North Carolina is a problem right now. The primary in the Tarheel state is tethered to South Carolina's. The state law passed in 2013 calls for the North Carolina primary to be the Tuesday after the South Carolina primary (if the South Carolina primary is before March 15. It will be.). If South Carolina plans to keep a Saturday primary, the Tuesday after that -- and thus when the North Carolina primary would be scheduled -- would violate that seven day buffer the South Carolina parties like (but is not called for in law).
- New York moved for 2012 from February to April, but came to February back when the law expired at the end of 2012.
- Michigan has signaled that it will move out of the end of February.
What that means is that the states that are on the calendar from March-June have contests scheduled for 2016. The dates are set in stone unless they are changed. That is why the currently convening state legislatures are important to the calendar formation process.
[...and this is a significantly big BUT...]
The carve-out states plus North Carolina currently have no specified dates. Given what we know from above, though, we can make educated guesses about where they would end up on the calendar. The first domino to fall would either be South Carolina or Nevada. South Carolina would be more problematic because of how the North Carolina primary is anchored to its primary. South Carolina would not, for instance, opt for a Saturday, February 27 primary and allow a North Carolina (and other southern states already schedule there) to hold contest just three days later on March 1. South Carolina would at the very least draw North Carolina into the penalized portion of the calendar (i.e.: February), so that the potential penalty would pressure the North Carolina state government into making a change to the law (or barring that, force the state parties to conduct caucuses to avoid penalty).
FHQ has South Carolina on Saturday, February 13, but that could just as easily be a week later on February 20. [We have made the editorial decision to hold off on such a move until after Michigan moves its primary. ...if Michigan moves its primary.]
There will be some interesting cross-party jockeying between South Carolina and Nevada as well. The DNC rules put Nevada first among the two (third overall on the calendar), but South Carolina Republicans have, by custom, gone in that third position on the Republican calendar. The point is that South Carolina and Nevada represent four contests, not two. That's four contests -- different potential dates for each party in both states -- that have to get squeezed into that month-wide window the RNC rules provide.
FHQ currently places a unified Nevada set of caucuses ahead of a unified set of South Carolina primaries (until more information is known later in 2015).
Iowa and New Hampshire will ideally (from their perspectives) settle on dates earlier than the others once the dust has settled on all of the above.
Right now that means, speculatively...
Monday, January 18: Iowa
Tuesday, January 26: New Hampshire
Saturday, February 6: Nevada
Saturday, February 13: South Carolina
Tuesday, February 16: North Carolina
All of that is speculative. Repeat: SPECULATIVE. Given what we know, though, that is a reasonable guess about where those contests would end up.
...today. That's the huge caveat.
Much will change between now and when Iowa and New Hampshire settle on dates for 2016 later this fall. As information changes, so will the calendar.
1 And even then, New Hampshire is a state that has options. State law calls for a March primary or allows the secretary of state the discretion to set the date if the presidential primary in the state is not the first primary on the calendar. South Carolina state law only guides the funding of the presidential primary in the Palmetto state. The state parties select the date or dates on which the primaries will be held.
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