The Late State Gets the Worm
The unexpected ins and outs of the 2008 primary calendar.
Remember all the lamentations, the rending of garments, the gnashing of teeth over the outsize power of two small, unrepresentative states over the presidential nomination process? Well, never mind. It turns out that the apparent pattern of 2000 and 2004, when Al Gore and John Kerry won Iowa and New Hampshire and sailed to the Democratic nominations, was not a pattern but a two-off.
This year, a raft of states, big, small, and mid-size, will have a real say in choosing the candidates for president for both parties. The problem is that many would have had a far greater say had they not succumbed to mass hysteria and rushed to hold their primaries as early as possible—before or by Super Tuesday on Feb. 5. Indeed, other states that were more patient may turn out to have the loudest voices of all.
Once upon a time—from the dawn of the modern primary system in 1972 through 1992—the primaries played out through the spring. In the 1980s, the race went from a Southern "Super Tuesday" to a series of big states through March, April, and May, and finally to a California-New Jersey bicoastal finale in early June. But this year, misled by the Gore-Kerry sweeps into thinking that early momentum was a permanent, decisive element of the nominating system, some 24 states moved their primaries or caucuses to the first date permitted by the national political parties: Feb. 5.
Well, guess what? With different winners in Iowa and New Hampshire for both Republicans and Democrats, and not a hint of "momentum" to be had (the word may soon find itself on the ash heap of political nomenclature, along with "smoke-filled rooms," "party bosses," and "favorite sons"), all the remaining contenders now have to campaign in the Feb. 5 states. But because they all madly rushed to that same date, these states are crowding each other out. No matter how huge they are, none of them will receive the attention it might have had in a less frenzied process.
We've already seen one consequences of the panic: To punish Florida and Michigan for their leapfrogging to dates earlier than Feb. 5, the Republican National Committee stripped the two states of half of their convention delegates. Should the nomination fight extend all the way to the GOP convention in Minneapolis, neither state will have the political power its population merits. The Democrats went further, striping both states of all their convention delegates. Pause over this for a moment. Suppose Obama and Clinton fight more or less evenly through the primary season. Suppose neither has a majority of delegates. What then? If the delegates from Florida and Michigan wind up being seated, must they vote in accordance with the results of their primaries, in which no candidate competed and—in Michigan's case—where most were not even on the ballot? Or will the winning candidate need 50 percent of the delegates plus one—not counting those two badly behaved states? In which case, the Democrats may have handed a potent weapon to Republicans in two big swing states. How would you like to be the Democratic nominee campaigning through Orlando or Dearborn, answering local reporters who demand to know why "your party wouldn't let our state participate in your convention?"
As for the states that played by the parties' calendar rules, they may well have outsmarted themselves. Take New York. For all of its complaints, this is a big state that has mattered very much in past years: It saved Ted Kennedy from an early exit in 1980, thrust Walter Mondale back into the lead in 1984, ratified Michael Dukakis in 1988, and clinched the nomination for Bill Clinton in 1992. (The Republicans really didn't have a presidential primary in New York until 2000.) Now, New York finds itself in line for candidate time with Illinois, California, and half a dozen Southern and border states. Then there's Missouri, which has famously gone with the winner in every general election presidential contest but one in the last 100 years. It will likely get lost on Super Tuesday, because it's holding its primary in the shadow of electoral giants.
If Feb. 5 produces split results, with no clear winner—a reasonable possibility in both parties—it will hand a whole lot more power to the states that come later. Here's the list. Kansas, Nebraska, Louisiana, and Washington State on Feb. 9. Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia on Feb. 12. Hawaii and Wisconsin on Feb. 19. Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Texas on March 4, Wyoming and Mississippi also in March, and Pennsylvania on April 22. These contests will have a good shot at meriting the kind of attention from candidates that gets a state on the receiving end of a promise worth its weight in ethanol.
Obviously, a 50-state nomination process can't stretch out to one primary a week—not unless we want the whole thing to last until, say, Thanksgiving. Since we have to have dates on which multiple states vote, a series of regional primaries makes sense. A date that combines Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Arkansas is geographically and culturally sensible. Putting New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut together would make good financial sense, since all three share an expensive media market.
As it now stands, though, the candidates may well treat the crowd of Feb. 5 states the way tourists on a low-budget tour of Europe treat the Continent. "Twenty-four states! Thirteen days! Glimpse the New Jersey Pine Barrens on Your 30-Minute Photo Op! See the L.A. Transportation Nightmare From Your Holding Pattern!" And the states will have no one to blame but themselves—and, of course, Iowa and New Hampshire.
Jeff Greenfield is the senior political correspondent for CBS News.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.