28 September 2011

Primary Chaos

In elections past, the Iowa were held in late January or early February. Reporters gave considerable attention to Iowa, which boasts of prickly votes who want to be courted on an individual basis.  The Hawkeye Cauci were a test of a candidates organizational strength in motivating supporters to turn up and argue with their neighbors on a cold winters night.

But other states were jealous of the undue influence of that Midwestern four-letter state in winnowing the presidential field. So states like Florida and Michigan moved up their primary process into January.   During the last Presidential cycle, both Democrats and Republicans suffered from an accelerated primary schedule which challenged the primacy of the traditional Iowa Caucus lead off followed by the New Hampshire Primary.  So in 2008, when both major parties had wide open contests for the nomination, Iowa moved its Caucus to January 3rd.  The parties wanted to protect the primacy of Iowa and New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Democrats threatened not to seat delegates from states violating this pecking order, making Florida’s and Michigan’s contests into beauty shows, which not all candidates actively campaigned.  In the end, Democrats relented and seated these delegates at their convention and counted their votes to some degree.

Republican political insiders regretted the accelerated 2008 GOP Primary process which allowed a maverick candidate who peaked in late January and early February to ride the wave to the nomination but who proved to produce weak support from the conservative base.  So Republicans altered their 2012 primary delegate counting system switching from the traditional winner-take-all system to proportional allocation for primaries before April.  This was intended to alleviate the race of states to leapfrog the early states.

Alas, as Robbie Burns mused: “The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley (often go awry)".  Florida is poised to move its Presidential primary to late January, which will motivate Iowa to move its Caucus from February 3rd 2012 to early January, either January 2nd or January 9th.  By law, New Hampshire’s primary must be held 7 days after the Iowa Caucus, so it would also shift to mid-January.  This primary chaos will likely cause Nevada and South Carolina to move up the calendar for their contests.

This primary acceleration is unfortunate since the GOP presidential field still does not seem settled.  There is continued pressure from well connected Republicans from the eastern seaboard for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) to throw his hat into the ring, despite Christie’s firm rejections last night at the Reagan Library. Some conservatives who have not been satisfied with the current field still yearn for former Gov. Sarah Palin  (R-AK) to announce her candidacy.  The early primary schedule makes it nearly impossible for last minute candidates to join the field in a traditional campaign.

Another danger of the early picking process is a repeat of 2008.  Senator John McCain (R-AZ) won the first primary in New Hampshire with 37%.  Even though former Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) won Michigan, it received little attention since it did not count.  Romney won heavily in the Nevada caucus but did not run in South Carolina, where McCain barely beat former Governor Mike Huckabee (R-AR).  What really decided the race was the Sunshine State primary. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani unwisely staked his entire campaign on doing well in Florida.  But at the last minute, then Republican Governor Charlie Crist (R-I-D?) unexpectedly threw his support behind Sen. Mc.Cain leading him to victory.  The Maverick Arizona Senator rode “Big Mo” to victory on Super (Tsunami) Tuesday on February 5th and the primary race was effectively over.

McCain winning the nomination had several flaws.  While McCain’s come from behind candidacy was remarkable, his perceived centrism and striving to work with Democrats did not set well with the broken glass conservatives necessary to organize victory in November.  In addition, primary voters in large and important states, like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin effectively had their wills minimized.  There is also something to be said for an extended and intense primary process.  Voters learn about their candidates as to how they overcome adversity, how they present when they are exhausted and overextended.  Moreover, challenging a candidates issues causes them to sharpen their policies as well as to incorporate good ideas from vanquished opponents.

Aside from the risk of choosing an under vetted nominee or a candidate who does not connect with the base, an accelerated GOP primary process might open the door for untraditional or third party campaigns in the general.  The Tea Party will be uncomfortable if their key issues are undermined by a flawed primary process.  Former Governor Jon Huntsman (R-UT) seems well positioned for a self funded third party centrist campaign if he does not win the GOP mantle.   Gov. Palin has shown herself as being enamored to non-traditional ways of influencing the electorate (e.g. Facebook).  It is not out of the question that Palin could capitalize on an accelerated primary chaos which is no the Tea Party’s cup of tea.

While news junkies and politicos may enjoy playing primary chaos as a parlor game, we know who would win in the end and that is not a pretty result. We don't need to play that game again.

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