Sunday, May 21, 2017

2020 Presidential Primary Movement: Expectations Setting

With state legislatures across the country at various stages of winding down their work for 2017, FHQ should do what it should have done at the outset of those bodies convening earlier this year. Mainly, that means putting together an outlook of what one might anticipate with respect to their efforts at scheduling or repositioning presidential primary elections for the 2020 cycle. Consider this -- even retrospectively -- as a set of guidelines.

First, one does tend to see more action in odd numbered years. However, the year after a presidential election is usually a period when the urgency to shift the dates of presidential nomination contests is, if not at its nadir, then quite low compared to other windows of time. There may be some lingering sentiment to reorder the primary calendar in the time immediately after a presidential election cycle among constituents and legislators alike -- when the most recently completed presidential nomination process is still fresh on the minds of both -- but that does not often lead to actual changes.

More often, any leftover feelings from and about the previous process make their way into proposed/introduced legislation that ends up much further down the list of legislative priorities for the majority of legislators. To put it in language that FHQ often uses, there may be a willingness to improve the lot of a state and its presidential primary position among a handful of legislators but they rarely have the ability to translate that into passed and signed legislation. Again, there are bigger fish to fry for most legislators coming off an election of their own. As in Washington, the time to move on legislative priorities -- especially if they are large in scope -- is early.

None of this is to suggest that one does not see any activity. Rather, there are factors that tend to limit that action in the year after a presidential election. The convergence of legislative willingness and ability to alter the timing of a presidential primary election tends to occur when that aforementioned urgency is raised. And that most often occurs not in the year after the last presidential election cycle, but in the year before the next presidential election cycle.

Very simply, the timing of the next presidential primary election is a bigger priority to state-level actors in the period just before the next primary season. Incidentally, that is also a period in which there is much more data available legislatures considering a move; data on the political climate that may hover over the next nomination process, data on what the national party delegate selection rules will be, and emerging data on who may be actually running for the nomination(s).

Political climate is a bit of a catch-all. Midterm elections do not necessarily portend what is to come in the next presidential election cycle. An out-party that flips control of one or more houses of Congress will not always be able to parlay that into taking back the White House two years later. That does not mean that there is nothing that can be taken from those midterms for the next cycle. It is just that what take-home messages are produced -- again, with respect to the movement of presidential primary elections -- happens at the state level and not at the national level (or because of how state-level actors read or react to what is happening nationally).

One example of this comes from a factor that FHQ has mentioned in a recent series of posts about the current efforts to move the California presidential primary for 2020. That potential calendar change and possible Democratic state government gains (both gubernatorial and state legislative) in 2018 may lead to a heightened desire among those out-party governors/legislators to reshuffle the primary calendar deck in 2020. That desire does not exist now. In 2017, with Republicans in control of an overwhelming number of state legislatures across the country, primary calendar positioning is even further down the list of priorities. There is little desire -- little urgency -- among most Republicans state legislators to alter 2020 presidential primary election dates. In 2019, that picture may be different.

And bear in mind that political climate is more than merely what can be read from a midterm election. That election provides a snapshot in an ever-evolving time series, but one that can confirm or refute the (whether real or perceived) trajectory of the balance of power between the two major parties. All of this is perhaps a long-winded way of saying that a change in partisan control in states across the country may affect the extent to which primary election positioning is a priority in 2019 when the majority of those decisions tend to or will be made.

Beyond the climate, the national party rules also matter in this mosaic. A rules change in 2018 may affect or even prompt state-level changes in 2019. And there is recent precedence for this. Democrats allowed February contests starting in 2004. That had the effect of inviting states to schedule earlier contests that cycle; something that bore fruit in 2004, but saw much more movement four years later. Both parties informally agreeing to a rough primary calendar outline after 2008 additionally forced some of those same states that had moved for 2004 and 2008 to reconsider their positions. It took that informal coordination and some tweaking on penalties across a couple of cycles -- 2012 and 2016 -- to carve out February for just Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. That left the remaining states to pick and choose spots in the March to June window.

Those sorts of changes to the national party rules on timing may affect what states do thereafter. So, too, might national party incentives/penalties concerning delegate allocation (winner-take-all, proportional, etc.) or participation (open, closed, etc.) affect state-level decision making.

Finally, perceptions of who may or may not run for a presidential nomination are more concrete in the year before a presidential election than just after the last one. That may affect decision making in the home states/regions of prospective candidates. Think southern Democratic-controlled states attempting to fashion a calendar that would produce a more moderate nominee in 1988 or the moves by legislators in Illinois in 2007 to benefit Barack Obama. Yes, this is a factor that is narrower in terms of its reach, but it is a variable in all of this nonetheless.

Now, the above description paints a picture of a process that will unfold not now but in a couple of years. That is still mostly true. To the degree there have been or will be changes to the presidential primary calendar, it most of it will happen in 2019. However, 2016 witnessed caucus to primary shifts in both Maine and Minnesota. And 2017 has not been without some activity. The efforts in California are the most prominent, but there are and were attempts elsewhere. In the coming days, FHQ will take a tour through the country and discuss the attempts in states where the issue of presidential primary timing has been raised. It is a story marked by legislation that has mostly lain fallow since introduction and/or has been bottled up in committee. Again, there is a willingness but lacking ability to affect change in state legislatures this early. There are, however, exceptions to this rule.


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