Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Coda on Mississippi and the SEC Primary or Sometimes Moving Up Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be

FHQ has been meaning to get to Geoff Pender's autopsy of Mississippi's failed attempt to join the SEC primary all week. The crux of it that internal Republican politics played some role in dooming the legislation to move the presidential primary in the Magnolia state.

Though it is a fun read, FHQ is less interested in the rivalry between Mississippi Lieutenant Governor  Tate Reeves (R) and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann (R). What is of more use for our purposes here is the argument each is making either to move the presidential primary or to keep it where it is on March 8.

Hosemann, a proponent of Mississippi joining the SEC primary coalition made the case to Pender this way:
Hosemann says moving Mississippi's primary from March 8 to March 1 and joining with Georgia, Texas and other Southern states would force presidential candidates "to come to the South and to Mississippi and tell us their views" and listen to ours. 
He said it would also be an economic boon, forcing campaigns to hire staff, travel and buy advertising, food and accommodations.
That economic stimulus message is one that is being used in neighboring Alabama in its SEC primary discussion in the legislature.

But Reeves countered with this argument:
Reeves said Mississippi joining would have opposite the desired effect: Mississippi would be ignored in favor of the larger states. 
"Texas has more electoral votes in the San Antonio media market than we do in our entire state," Reeves said. "That's not including Dallas, Houston … same thing with Atlanta. Where do you think a candidate is going to go … if they have to choose between Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, Atlanta or Hattiesburg?" 
As it stands now, Reeves said, Louisiana's will be the Saturday before Mississippi's Tuesday primary and Florida's a week after. He said this is more likely to precipitate stops in Mississippi. 
Reeves noted that in 2012, GOP candidates Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum all campaigned in Mississippi despite its late primary. Romney notoriously said how much he liked Mississippi "cheesy grits."
That cheesy grits comment and more importantly the substance of the debate between Hosemann and Reeves were matters that FHQ discussed in depth back in December before the legislative season revved up. [Reeves and/or Pender must have done their homework. FHQ was not consulted as a part of Pender's piece.] Here's how I concluded that post, singling Alabama and Mississippi out:
That raises questions if not red flags for a move for 2016 for those latter couple of states. Does a move away from a date that still finds Alabama and Mississippi dominant and to a date shared by a number of larger southern states net more or fewer visits in 2016 over 2012? If Ohio vacates March 8 to join a later March midwestern primary protect a more winner-take-all allocation plan, would it not be more beneficial to stick with a date you dominate versus a date shared with others? Is a visit to Texas -- a regional visit -- the same as a candidate visit in Alabama or Mississippi? 
These are tough questions to answer for state actors who have a limited state legislative session window in which to act in the spring of the year before the primary. And these folks tend to be risk-averse. Alabama and Mississippi would only gain by sticking with a later date is the nomination races are ongoing once they get to the second Tuesday in March. The field may be winnowed too much by then dropping the number of visits to either. 
This is the mindset that has dominated the frontloading era. Move up or get left behind. But it isn't clear in this instance that states in the South will receive the attention they crave. In the meantime, decision makers in both Alabama and Mississippi seem to have forgotten what they gained in 2012 with their sub-regional coalition. Surely "cheesy grits" would have proven more memorable to elected officials in the Deep South. [Emphasis and edits are FHQ's.]
The skepticism of moving away from March 8 there echoes Reeves' (or vice versa). The benefits of moving to March 1 are not clear. There is more to this than merely earlier equals economic gains.

Some states value relevance in the presidential nomination process more than others. But if you are a state legislator or some other actor with a part to play in moving the date of a delegate selection event there is a great deal to weigh when making such a decision. Being relevant depends on a number of things for which decision-makers cannot account. One thing state-level actors can control is the date. The later a contest -- primary or caucuses -- is held, the more a state is gambling (on just how relevant the contest will be in the process). Again, that entails something like move up or get left behind.

If every state, or at least the majority that are/have been willing and able to move earlier on the calendar, then the outcome is the sort of Super Tuesday herding of contests typical of calendars like 2008 or 2000. That sort of logjam highlights the fact that all states are not equal when it comes to delegate-richness or ease and convenience of access (to the states) for candidates and the media. When given a choice, rationally-acting candidates tend to opt for bigger states over smaller states.

Yes, those campaigns are chasing delegates, but it is also true that there are only a finite number of candidate visits that can be paid to states. If the herding of contests is large enough, that forces candidates on the air in lieu of visits to some states, usually smaller ones. This is what makes the regional primary idea so attractive. It can somewhat circumvent that problem, offering a reduced geography (and a potential homogeneity of issues) to cover as a means of attracting visits and spending.

Yet, depending on which states are involved -- how much intra-regional herding is taking place -- the same dynamic as above may still play out but on a smaller scale. That is the argument being made by Reeves in and about Mississippi moving forward a week on the 2016 presidential primary calendar. The campaigns can see the delegates available. Do you go to Georgia that has just a handful of delegates fewer than Alabama and Mississippi combined or do you fit in trips to Alabama and Mississippi, too? Furthermore, is a visit to Georgia or Texas or Tennessee a regional visit, playing as well in Georgia (in person and in resulting news coverage) and Alabama and Mississippi? In other words, is a regional proxy visit enough?

What may be "good" for the campaigns may not end up paying the dividends that folks in Alabama or Arkansas or Mississippi think they will.

If I was advising Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi (and FHQ is not), I would suggest a two-tiered regional primary. Texas and Tennessee have already staked a claim to March 1. State laws in both have provided for those dates since the last presidential election cycle. Georgia will more than likely join them on March 1. Those three are the three most delegate-rich states on March 1. Let them have it. They are going to take the attention anyway.

Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi should form an SEC Light primary. Separate, they cannot curry much favor. The same is true if they were to share a date with the big boys on March 1. But if all three go together on a date a week later (March 8), that likely yields some attention from the candidates. Collectively, the three together would also be more delegate-rich than the states they would be competing with on March 8 (Idaho, Hawaii and Michigan). That two-tiered regional primary -- three tiers if one wants to consider the Louisiana primary scheduled between the two Tuesdays -- may serve to maximize regional influence, particularly if it solidifies/ratifies the decision made in those earlier southern contests. That, in turn, slingshots some candidate into the post-proportionality window part of the calendar (...or Florida) a week later on March 15.

Small states can only get so much out of this process. Not every state is Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Given that reality, if you can't beat the big boys, go a week later (if the state's you'd be competing with are alone and geographically dispersed). That is the sweet spot that is available to Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi. But it only works if they are together. If Mississippi is the lone southern state on March 8, then Secretary Hosemann is probably right to be taken aback by Reeves' suggestion that Mississippi would fare better.

In truth, it probably would not matter much either way. Mississippi would be ignored.

...unless they had some regional partners.

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David Van Risseghem said...

Texas and Oklahoma don't take too lightly to the FHQ effort to coin a new phrase for Super Tuesday.
The anchors of the Big XII were a part of the original group of Democrat southern legislatures who created Super Tuesday in 1988.
And as their top state universities are members of the Big XII, they will not be happy that anyone refers to Super Tuesday as the "SEC Primary"
Now, if folks wanna refer to the "Big XII Primary", that's very understandible! ;)

Josh Putnam said...

I've actually struggled to find the right balance on this particular issue since the SEC primary proposal was made. Texas and Oklahoma were already on March 1 by state law. And while the SEC has a foot in Texas, it does not in Oklahoma.

It is a clever branding maneuver by Secretary Kemp in Georgia and it has taken hold with Texas and Oklahoma or not. I'm with you, David. It is better described as a southern regional primary.

But that ship may have sailed already and under an SEC banner.