Iowa Caucuses In December? Our Broken Primary Scheduling System
Once again, the primary scheduling race is getting ridiculous.
Over the past couple years, the Republican National Committee has undergone another round of debate over primary scheduling for the 2012 election. Hoping to avoid the situation in 2008, when the Iowa Caucuses took place on January 3rd and the New Hampshire Primary only a few days later, a system of sanctions was imposed to ensure that Iowa and New Hampshire would retain their “first in the nation” status and that most of the rest of the primaries would be later in the year. The RNC’s best laid plans seem to be falling apart, though, and now there are threats that conflicts over scheduling could put the start of the 2012 voting sometime in 2011:
Iowa officials are being very clear: no matter the chatter or any official moves from other early states to move up their primary dates, the first caucuses will stay first.
And if that means pushing the voting to January — or even December — to make sure that no other early state leapfrogs to the front, Iowa GOP spokesman Casey Mills says they’re ready to do it.
“We’ve been consistent and vocal since the beginning of this conversation in that while the date of the caucus could change, the order will not,” Mills said.
For all the continuing flux of the 2012 primary schedule, Mills said he believes all the states currently out of compliance with the rules of the Republican National Committee will move their primaries back, letting Iowa stick with the scheduled Feb. 6 caucuses.
While several other states have made their 2012 primaries later after pushing them ever earlier for 2008, the jockeying to be first continues among the early states. More than local pride is at stake: early victories can propel candidates forward, and several of the candidates have heavily prioritized operations in one state over others — and in the case of Jon Huntsman, opted against an Iowa campaign altogether.
New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner said he won’t even think about setting a date until Missouri, Florida, Arizona and Wisconsin, among others, set theirs. He didn’t offer any predictions about what the final date would be, but said New Hampshire would go at least seven days before every other primary – regardless of how early that makes it. He said he didn’t expect to set a date before mid- to late fall.
“Four years ago, I did it the day before Thanksgiving,” said Gardner. ” … I don’t know, but I think  will be similar to four years ago.”
There are similar issues in the South, where South Carolina wants to maintain it’s “First in the South” status but the state GOP faces the issue of having to figure out how to pay for primaries now that the Governor, a Republican, has announced that the state will not be doing so. We could end up with the South Carolina Caucuses, or we could end up with Florida coming much earlier in the cycle than planned.
These scheduling issues are silly, but there also somewhat unavoidable since we’re dealing with three different entities — the RNC, the state committees of each individual state, and the state legislature — each of which have their own interests. At the national level, the national committee wants a nominating schedule that makes sense and, preferably, doesn’t start too early. The incentives at the state level, though are to enhance the state’s leverage in the nominating process. Additionally, as we’ve seen in South Carolina, there may also be conflicts between the state goverment and the state party over who is supposed to pay for a primary, a factor that is more important given the austerity measures many states have been forced to pass.
These conflicts and competing interests are multiplied when both the GOP and the Democrats both have contested Presidential primaries.
I’m not sure what the solution is to this problem. The ideal situation would be regularly scheduled primary dates, but that would require agreements among all the groups mentioned above. Rick Moran suggests a National Primary Day, but I’m not sure that’s the right answer either. A primary contest that ends on one day with primary battles in all 50 states — sort of a pre-General Election Election — would clearly favor candidates with large warchests and establishment ties. Also, I think there’s some value in letting voters see how candidates perform over the extended primary campaign season.
Instead, it seems to me that the best option would be something along these lines:
- Divide the country into four regions with as fair a balance between big and small states as possible
- Beginning in March, there will be one Regional Primary per month with delegates to be allocated according to the rules of the respective political parties
- Each party agrees that any state that schedules its primary outside the Regional Primary date, or before the first Regional Primary, will have its delegate count at the National Convention reduced by 50%
That’s just off the top of my head and, for the reasons I note above, I’m not sure how it could be implemented. However, I think we can all agree that the 2008 primary schedule — where the Iowa Caucuses occurred only two days after the new year began — was absurd, and that starting the primary voting in December would be utterly ridiculous.