GOP Primaries: How early can they go?

How Early Can the GOP Primaries Go?

How Early Can the GOP Primaries Go?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 7 2011 5:36 PM

How Early Can the GOP Primaries Go?

Is there a limit?

A GOP debate
Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann during a debate

Photograph by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

A report in this week’s Economist suggests that the 2012 GOP primary/caucus season may be the longest on record. In response to Florida’s decision to go against the wishes of the Republican National Committee and move its primary forward to Jan. 31, the four traditional early-bird states—Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina—have decided to move their dates even earlier, possibly into December of 2011. How early, in theory, could a primary be held?

J. Bryan Lowder J. Bryan Lowder

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate associate editor and the editor of Outward. He covers life, culture, and LGBTQ issues.

The day after the previous election—which is to say, the earliest moment that you could start a new campaign. There’s no law that dictates when these contests can happen; rather, the political parties’ national committees set rules to organize the process, but individual states are not obliged to follow them. This year, in an effort to keep the primary season shorter and curtail “frontloading” (moving contests ever earlier), the GOP leadership requested that only the traditional four hold their contests in February, while all the other states would wait until March or later.


Rebellion does not come without a price, however: The national committees may decide to strip states of some or all of their delegates as punishment, as the DNC did with Michigan and Florida in 2008. But, despite this risk, fighting to be first still makes sense. States who cast their ballots early can have a powerful influence on the final nomination by bringing their choices to the attention of the larger voting public.

So why not just push things forward to November or, for that matter, July? Influence in these state-by-state contests works by amplification. Having your primary or caucus too far ahead of the next one amounts to a Pyrrhic victory: You might be the earliest, but your influence will decay with time.

Still, radically early contests are not unprecedented—Arizona and Michigan held delegate selection caucuses (not presidential preference) in late summer of 1986 for the election of 1988. In the absence of a hard rule, political scientists say that the tendency to resist pre-January primaries has been the product of custom more than logic. Now that some states are flirting with crossing that line, they argue that the system may be in need of an overhaul.

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 Explainer thanks Josh Putnam of Davidson College and FrontloadingHQ.