Monday, June 6, 2016

More Past Primary Calendar Revisionism

Under normal circumstances, FHQ would greet early morning NPR references to the 1981 Hunt Commission -- the Democrats' 1984 cycle commission to reexamine presidential nomination rules -- with great excitement. Right or wrong, such references are few and far between. However, these are the waning days of primary season 2016, and with that comes the continued distortion of the evolution of Democratic nomination rules, post-reform.

Previously, FHQ has dug into this, initially pushing back against the notion that the 1988 Southern Super Tuesday was a concept designed to keep Jesse Jackson from being successful in his second run for the Democratic nomination. In the time since then, that line of attack has morphed into a broader criticism on the alignment of the primary calendar in 2016. Bernie Sanders, the Sanders campaign, his surrogates and supporters have at various points over the last several months latched onto the idea that southern, conservative contests were frontloaded on the calendar at the expense of states with more progressive voters.1

That conclusion ignores a couple of important points relative to the calendar.

The first is procedural. While it is true of the 2016 calendar that all of the southern states had voted by March 15, the blame for that cannot be attributed to the Democratic National Committee. Instead, it was Republican-controlled state governments that positioned those states' contests where they were on the calendar. Those Republican legislators were not making those moves -- and really, it was only Arkansas and North Carolina that moved into March2 -- to help Hillary Clinton. Sure, her name came up in state legislative committee hearings discussing bills to move primaries around, but it was always in the context of how an earlier date for the primary in [fill in the blank state] would help quickly produce a Republican nominee who could beat the former Secretary of State in November.

Motivation aside, however, the fact remains that the national parties are not making the schedules of contests. The states -- either the state parties or state governments -- retain the ability to maneuver how they see fit within the guidelines handed down from the national parties. And parameters of those guidelines are not overly cumbersome. Outside of the carve-out states, those rules are not detailed to the level of persuading/dissuading certain states to hold primaries at certain points on the calendar. It amounts to the definition of a window in which states -- all states other than the carve-outs -- can conduct primaries and caucuses. Basically any time between the first Tuesday in March and early to mid-June (depending on the party). That's it. There is nothing at the national level that says, for instance, Texas here and California there.

The second neglected aspect is historical. Detractors of the regional configuration of the 2016 calendar often trace the origins of so-called SEC primary to the early to mid-1980s. That, again, southern conservative and/or establishment Democrats manufactured a southern-heavy beginning of the 1988 calendar and that that has survived. The problem is that ignores a quarter century of calendar movement.

First, the DNC widened its window from the second Tuesday in March for 1988 to the first Tuesday in March in the 1992 cycle. That tugged Georgia out of the 1988 regional cluster not to mention that several states -- Alabama, Arkansas and North Carolina -- abandoned the conglomeration for later, pre-1988 calendar spots in 1992.

Then, over the next several cycles, both national parties allowed the calendar of contests to creep into February, widening the window even further. Yes, some southern states moved up, but that pattern was not unique to the South. Many states, regardless of region, shifted into February for 2004 and to a much greater degree for 2008. Importantly, Texas and Mississippi remained in March. The May North Carolina primary was even competitive late in the 2008 Democratic race.

Thereafter, the national party efforts to scale back the beginning of the calendar created partisan motivations at the state level but regional implications. February 2008 states moved their contests to later dates to comply with the new, informally-coordinated national party guidelines. Republican-controlled states sought to position their primaries and caucuses for a competitive 2012 cycle. As a result, those states were motivated to go as early as possible; usually March. Democratic-controlled states, on the other hand, were differently motivated. With an incumbent president seeking renomination unopposed, those states faced little urgency to settle into early dates. Instead, most shifted to April (Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island) or later (California and New Jersey) dates.

That created a calendar with a southern and interior western flavor early and coastal (west and mid-Atlantic/northeastern) presence later. The regional aspect was a byproduct of partisan moves at the state level, not some push from above by the national parties.

Despite the fact that the Democratic nomination was open for 2016, the same basic alignment carried over from 2012 to 2016. That had little to do with the DNC. In fact, the party barely altered the 2012 rules for 2016. But states made decisions on 2016 primary positions in 2015 based on what 2016 looked like at the time: a likely Clinton nomination. Like 2012, Democratic-controlled states did not have the motivation to budge from those later positions on the calendar. There was no perceived urgency to shift to an earlier position to impact or maximize state-level influence on a competitive nomination race. At the time, it did not look like there would be one.

All of that is nuance completely glossed over in the misguided foundation to the comments Sanders supporter, Nomiki Konst, made in the Morning Edition segment on NPR mentioned above. The more egregious shortcomings were in Ms. Konst's comments with respect to California ahead of the primary in the Golden state on June 7:
KONST: Yes, I have. I just got back from California. I spent five days visiting 12 cities with other surrogates from the campaign, just campaigning, trying to reach different communities that hadn't been reached.

You know, California, by design, in the '80s, if many listeners may recall, there was a Hunt Commission, which was sort of the counterreform effort after a few reform commissions. And at this Hunt Commission, the establishment spoke up and said, you know, we want to have our say in the party as well, not just the voters. And that's when they created - they came up with the idea of superdelegates.

And they also put some of these primaries, the more conservative states at the beginning of the process and more liberal states, like California, all the way at the end. So even though California is the largest state, by far the most progressive state, it was put at the end to prevent a more progressive grassroots candidate - and that was actually spoken of at the commission - from taking the nomination.

And that worked, I think, it the '80s because it was a much more conservative country. The Democratic Party today is 70 percent more progressive than it was 10 years ago. You have more independents. Forty-three percent of this country are made up of independents now. The Democratic Party's hemorrhaging membership every single year. And in the past 10 years alone, we have lost over 1,000 seats.
That whole passage is misleading on a number of levels. It draws from the foundation of the regionalism argument above, but also attempts to cherrypick an out-of-context situation with California and ram it into some party elites-gone-wild narrative tethered to the creation of superdelegates. The result is this twisted version of what supposedly happened in 1981-82 with the Hunt Commission.

The reality looked a bit more like the following:

First, the Hunt Commission is often viewed as a backlash to the reforms of the 1970s. While the pendulum did swing back toward more of an institutionalized party voice in the process, it was evidence of the continued experimentation on the part of the DNC to find the right balance between an open process and winning White House. Yes, it brought superdelegates, but it also brought back a relaxation on the prohibition of loophole primaries (directly elected delegates) and retained not only the "window rule" but the exemption of Iowa and New Hampshire from that rule. It also should be noted that the recommendations that came out of the commission were the hammered out mainly by surrogates for latent Mondale and Kennedy candidacies and a bloc of labor supporters on the commission.

Second, counter to Konst's contention, California was not "put at the end" of the calendar. That is simply false. The members of the commission from California raised something of a stink over the fact that Iowa and New Hampshire were exempt from the window rule. There were rumblings if not a state-level effort to move California to an earlier date, but that never materialized. That was due to a number of factors, but none of them were the DNC "putting" California at the end. Again, as described above, it was within the power of the state government to move the date of the primary. That never happened. And that may have had more to do with that fact that there were some in the Golden state who pushed for California to take New Hampshire's first in the nation spot. The aim was too high in other words and California kept its early June consolidated primary.

Relatedly, one other item that was conveniently left out of the commentary on NPR was that for four cycles -- 1996-2008 -- California occupied a range of non-June primary positions; all the way from late March 1996 to, yes, (not-so-southern) Super Tuesday in early February 2008. And if the national parties' calendar limitations were not already obvious, neither the DNC nor the RNC had much luck "putting" Florida and Michigan in compliant positions on the 2008 calendar.

The one coda FHQ would add to this is that the Hunt Commission came after an election. Its recommendations are not the direct function of a primary battle, bitter or otherwise. They certainly were not made in the immediate aftermath of primary season or even the 1980 national convention. Rather, those recommendations for rules changes for the 1984 cycle were a byproduct of two prospective campaigns -- Mondale and Kennedy -- trying to push rules that would benefit themselves. That is an important, parallel lens through which to view this as well. It was not all Establishment Strikes Back.

...and neither was 2016 either. At least it wasn't in terms of California's position on the calendar.

1 Never mind the fact that as older, conservative Democrats in the South have aged out of the electorate and been replaced by younger, conservative Republicans, the Democratic electorate across the South has become much more minority-based and more liberal/progressive.

2 Yes, Texas "moved" but the Lone Star state having a late May primary in 2012 was a function of redistricting issues, not a conscious effort to "backload". The Texas statutes have had the primary there scheduled for a Tuesday during one of the first two weeks of March since 1988. Texas' shift then was a reversion rather anything engineered (by the DNC, Republican legislators or otherwise).

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