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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

It’s a subject that only the hardiest of political junkies follow regularly, but next month both parties are expected to make some serious decisions about the calendar and rules governing the 2012 presidential nominating process. And as Tom Schaller reported here in May, both parties seem to be moving–in concert, no less–towards a calendar aimed at reversing the recent trend towards “front-loading” of primaries and caucuses, essentially moving the entire process back a month.

But The Atlantic‘s Marc Ambinder has raised an intriguing possibility:
Could Democrats, whose 2012 nominee is already known, manipulate the “coordinated” process to make life difficult for Republicans by encouraging low-turnout caucuses that could be dominated by the Tea Party movement or other hard-core conservatives?

Ambinder notes that the proposed Republican (and for that matter, Democratic) calendar for 2012 would instantly place 23 states whose nominating events are controlled by state laws out of compliance, forcing them to change dates, risk delegate sanctions, or, in a provision that might well be dropped, seek a “waiver” from RNC chairman Michael Steele:

The other way these 23 states could deal with their forced primary dates is to not hold primaries at all. They’d hold caucuses — beauty contests — or conventions instead. The more caucuses and conventions there are, the more conservative the resulting nominees are likely to be. This is why many mainstream conservative candidates like Mitt Romney, assuming he decides to run, hope to participate in as many early primaries as possible. Primaries, paid for by states, encompass a wide range of Republican ideologies. Caucuses and conventions don’t. And in 2012, they’ll probably be full of energetic Tea Party activists.

Democrats can sit back and watch. They have every incentive to nudge the GOP into holding caucuses and conventions and, in fact, can very easily influence what the GOP does by changing their primaries to caucuses and conventions, assuming the cooperative effort passes and each party follows the same rules. Why? Because they KNOW who their nominee is going to be, and provided the conventions and caucuses are large enough to accommodate a range of delegates, Democrats don’t really need to hold primaries.

That sounds plausible enough, but do Democrats actually have that much control over what happens to the nominating process in states that could run afoul of the new calendar? Not really.

Of the nineteen states we are talking about (Ambinder’s count of 23 includes Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, which are going to receive preferred “go first” treatment under the proposed new rules for both parties), one, Hawaii, already plans a Republican caucus. In the remaining eighteen states, Democrats have “trifecta” control of state government (control of the governorship and both legislative chambers) in only four: Delaware, New York, Maryland and Wisconsin. That count could change in November, but not dramatically, and probably not in a pro-Democratic direction.

It’s also a highly dubious proposition that Democrats or Republicans in individual states are thinking so strategically about their impact on their own, much less the other party’s, nominating process. The most powerful impulse seems to be maintaining influence via early contests; indeed, some states, as 2008 showed, may decide to defy the national parties, hold early primaries, and accept the sanctions that would accompany that decision.

So if it’s unlikely that some cabal of Democrats scattered around the country will shift the nominating process from primaries to caucuses or conventions, what about the more general proposition that an attack on front-loading will have an invidious effect on the GOP presidential landscape, directly or indirectly? Does, as Ambinder suggests, Mitt Romney need a bunch of early primaries to avoid getting ambushed in low-turnout contests?

Maybe, but that’s extremly hypothetical, since we don’t know the composition of the GOP field, and because the dynamics of the nominating calendar are almost impossible to anticipate. Recall that the front-loading mania of 2008, motivated in no small part by the desire to reduce the power of the Iowa-New Hampshire “duopoly,” arguably increased that power. Among Democrats, it’s hard to imagine that Barack Obama would have won the nomination without winning Iowa, and equally hard to imagine that Hillary Clinton would have remained in the race to the bitter end without winning New Hampshire. And Mitt Romney’s stumble against Mike Huckabee in Iowa may well have been the most fateful development in the GOP contest, opening the way for John McCain’s resurrection in New Hampshire while enabling Huckabee to split the conservative vote in the South. The one viable candidate who defied the duopoly, Rudy Guiliani, disappeared quickly. Since no one in either party is proposing to mess with the duopoly (or with the newly entitled next-in-line status of Nevada and South Carolina), it’s unclear whether calendar changes will make much of a difference.

More generally, recent political history is littered with the unintended consequences of various schemes to manipulate the primary/caucus calendar, dating back at least to the original southern-centered Super Tuesday of 1988, which helped make Mike Dukakis and Jesse Jackson the finalists for the Democratic nomination.

While you can make the case that the coordinated move towards calendar “order” for 2012 is a significant development, the really big news is that neither party has given serious consideration to more radical schemes like rotating regional primaries (yes, Democrats are playing with the idea of delegate “bonuses” for states participating in regional “clusters,” but not at the expense of the entitled early states). If Democrats really wanted to do something dramatic to their own or to the GOP’s nominating process, this would be the time to do it, with an incumbent president presumably running for re-election. Short of that missed opportunity, it’s unlikely Democrats or Republicans are really up for anything more ambitious than a concerted effort to keep rampant front-loading from pushing the nominating process back into the November-December holidays.

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