Primary jockeying puts uncertainty in election landscape

By John Marelius
Published August 26th 2007 in San Diego Union Tribune
Tab Berg abruptly quit his job with a presidential campaign.

The Sacramento-based Republican strategist didn't get pushed out the door in an internal power struggle. He wasn't the victim of a staff purge driven by fundraising woes.

He just didn't want to miss his infant daughter's first Christmas.

With the 2008 presidential election year just months away, states continue elbowing each other to get their primaries or caucuses closer to the front of the nomination line.

As more states move their contests into January or switch to an even earlier date in January, it becomes a real possibility that the 2008 primary voting will begin in 2007.

“If somebody as political as me is making decisions that I don't want to engage in this campaign because it will mess up my personal life, what are regular voters going to do?” Berg asked.

Even the candidates, having to continually retool their strategies on the fly, have a hard time keeping up with the constantly changing calendar.

“Everybody's moving up,” Rep. Duncan Hunter of Alpine, a long-shot Republican presidential hopeful, said in a recent speech to the Republican Party of San Diego County. “In fact, we may end up with New Hampshire going on Thanksgiving and Iowa right in front of them.”

That may be an exaggeration, but not much of one.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, the presidential nominating season stretched leisurely from January to June, giving most voters time to take the measure of candidates, make their decisions and even change their minds a time or two.

In the mid-'80s, some states began moving their primaries up with the idea that it would make them more relevant. That resulted in nominations being decided earlier in every successive presidential cycle.

In 2004, nine states voted before Feb. 5. For 2008, 25 states have moved their nomination contests to Feb. 5 or earlier, and the list continues to grow.

“This thing is a car wreck,” Democratic political consultant Bill Carrick said. “We have no mechanism under which to control states trying to push the calendar earlier and earlier. But if they don't fix this by 2012, we'll be having caucuses on the Fourth of July in 2011.”

The Democratic and Republican national committees had rules barring states from voting before Feb. 5, with the exception of Iowa and New Hampshire, which historically have gone first.

Democrats amended their rules for 2008 to allow Nevada and South Carolina into January as well.

That touched off a yearlong chain reaction. First, Florida decided to seize its piece of the action by moving its primary to Jan. 29, the same day as South Carolina's. So South Carolina Republicans jumped to Jan. 19.

Last week, Michigan moved closer to advancing its primary to Jan. 15.

That means New Hampshire, which zealously guards its historic status of holding the first primary, would move to Jan. 8 at the latest.

Under Iowa state law, its precinct caucuses must be at least eight days before the New Hampshire primary – which would be New Year's Eve. Iowa is likely going to face the unappealing choice of waiving the eight-day rule and holding caucuses either a day or two into 2008 or moving them all the way up to mid-December to avoid the holiday season.

The compressed calendar makes it difficult if not impossible for a long-shot candidate to parlay an early primary upset into the nomination, as Jimmy Carter did in 1976 and Gary Hart almost did in 1984.

“More than ever, our system is going to favor those that have raised boatloads of money,” said Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. “It's always been hard for a dark horse, but they at least had a chance in the previous system, where there was space between primaries.”

With California and at least 18 other states – including New York, New Jersey and Illinois – voting Feb. 5, the traditional state-by-state system of selecting presidential nominees has been transformed into what amounts to a national primary.

The system may have legions of detractors, but it has its defenders as well.

Candidates have been campaigning across the country and holding regular, televised candidate forums throughout 2007. Candidates used to be vetted as the nominating process unfolded over a period of months, said Sam Popkin, a political scientist at the University of California San Diego. Now, it's happening before people vote.

“This is a process that's open for a long time,” Popkin said. “They're actually debating real health plans; they're talking more than one-liners about Iraq. It's really engaging huge numbers of people.”

Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of communication at Boston University, agreed.

“My contention is that with the new media, with the intense early coverage of the old media, many parts of the country get to hear, see and take a look at the candidates, much more so than in previous cycles,” Berkovitz said. “So I'm not sure that having this nationalized primary is as detrimental as many people think.”

Because each party has two or three well-financed front-runners, the theoretical possibility exists that the early primaries and Feb. 5 could render split decisions, sending the nomination battles deep into the spring or all the way to the national conventions in the summer.

Most analysts expect both races to be over after Feb. 5.

“What are these candidates going to do between the end of the primary season and the convention?” asked David Johnson, an Atlanta-based Republican political consultant. “We're getting to the point where there's going to be voter fatigue, and that's a problem. How do you keep the voters from just tuning you out?”

So much time between the primaries and the general election also creates the potential that one or both parties could find themselves with an unsuitable nominee if there's a major change in the political climate.

“With this front-loaded primary system, something could happen between the primaries and the conventions – a fatal mistake or a terrorist attack – and voters could be having buyer's remorse and want somebody else,” Johnson said.

The long gap also could open the way for one or more third-party or independent candidacies.

“This is tailor-made for a third-party effort,” said Ron Rapoport, a professor of government at the College of William & Mary who has written extensively about third-party movements. “You know exactly who you're running against by February 5. You can then decide if you want to run or not.”

Rapoport said that if Republicans nominate a moderate such as former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, an independent candidate from the right might jump in. If they nominate a conservative, that might entice a centrist such as New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Officially, the national parties make the rules for presidential nominations. But they lack the leverage to effectively enforce them.

Both parties are threatening to punish states that schedule primaries before the parties have authorized.

Yesterday, the national Democratic Party gave the Florida party 30 days to move its planned Jan. 29 primary back at least a week or lose its 210 delegates to the nominating convention in Denver next summer.

But the delegate count hasn't really mattered since the 1976 Republican race between Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan.

“The only leverage the parties can have is to say, 'We won't seat your delegates.' And New Hampshire says, 'So what?' ” said Mark Peterson, a professor of public policy and political science at the University of California Los Angeles.

The delegate threat is also widely seen as an empty one, because by the time of the conventions, both parties are focusing on party unity for the fall campaign.

“Nobody thinks the punishment's credible, because by the time you get to the convention and you have a nominee-presumptive, they just cave in because you don't want to punish these states,” said Carrick, the Democratic political consultant. “You certainly don't want to punish Florida and create ill will in the state.”

Last month, a diverse coalition of U.S. senators – Democrat Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee – introduced legislation to create a federal nominating process.

Under their plan, there would be four monthly regional primaries. Iowa and New Hampshire's leadoff status would be preserved, and a different region would vote first every four years.

It's unclear whether Congress possesses the political will to tackle the cumbersome nominating process, and if it does, whether it has the constitutional authority.

One constitutional law expert said Congress would be venturing into uncharted territory, because while it has clear authority to regulate congressional elections, presidential nominations traditionally have been left to the states.

“It's somewhat of an open question,” said Richard Hasen, a professor at Loyola University School of Law in Los Angeles. “The constitutional issues are untested.”