Hedging Super Duper Tuesday: Will February 5 Determine GOP Nominee?

Last week saw the latest shake up in the Republican primary schedule as California moved its 2008 presidential primary from June to February 5. Republican presidential hopefuls took careful note of the move to what some now call “Super Duper Tuesday.” Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Utah already have set their primaries on that date and nine more states may soon follow. The February 5 states will still trail caucuses in Iowa on January 14 and Nevada on January 19. New Hampshire will hold the first primary on January 22, with South Carolina a week later on January 29.

Of all the February 5 states, California is getting the most attention. Traditionally a source of big campaign dollars, it now may attract more than just fundraisers. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger certainly hopes so. When he signed the bill to move the primary date he said: "Holding our presidential primary in June used to mean the nominees were locked before we ever had a chance to vote. I’m happy to say these days are over." Moreover, the primary rules in place for 2008 make California too good to pass up. Although Democrats will maintain a winner-take-all system, Republicans will award their 173 delegates to winners of each congressional district. This means even a candidate who does not win the state may pick up a substantial batch of delegates to keep him alive or to seal the nomination.

Phil Trounstine, director of the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University, agrees that one immediate effect of the date shift will be more visits. He explains: “Candidates who used to come to California only to raise money now have to make a connection to voters. So they’ll have to spend more time on retail campaigning in California and, as the primary nears, they’ll have to be on television here as well because in California politics, you simply don’t exist until you’re on TV.” In addition to paid ads, John J. Pitney, Jr., professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College, humorously remarks that even less well-financed candidates may get some free news coverage: “We might actually get to see presidential candidates in person — for free! California TV stations tend to downplay politics, so candidates may have to join car chases in order to get any airtime.”

At first glance it seems the California date shift is already making a splash. All three of the top GOP candidates ventured to California earlier in the year for the state GOP convention, a sign perhaps of growing concern about the California primary. With the help of campaign policy director Bill Simon Jr., a popular California Republican who ran a feisty but unsuccessful gubernatorial race against later recalled Gray Davis, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was able to announce a list of new California supporters ranging from Rep. David Dreier to former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and comedian Dennis Miller. Arizona Sen. John McCain he announced that John Peschong, former executive director of the California Republican Party, was joining his campaign. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also lost no time announcing on March 15 the names of 27 California campaign finance co-chairs.

But opinion is divided as to whether California alone or even the pack of February 5 primary states will really displace Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina as decisive in determining the 2008 nominee. Some believe the February 5 rush will diminish the role of Iowa and New Hampshire where a virtual unknown once could break out of the pack. Professor Pitney explains: “In the days of Jimmy Carter, a dark horse could win an early contest and gradually build up to major-candidate status. The compressed calendar rules out such a strategy.”

Others say the calendar changes will not lessen the role of early states. Marty Kaplan, California political guru and University of Southern California communications professor, says that “ground zero of the media buzz machine, and their outcomes will set the narratives and frame the choices on Super Duper Tuesday.” Indeed in a 24-hour cable and Internet news world the three weeks between the Iowa caucus and the California primary is an eternity. Endless stories hyping the winner in Iowa, or a disappointing result from a supposed frontrunner, will dominate the news cycle. Professor Trounstine dubs this the “slingshot effect” — explaining that “candidates with momentum from the earliest contests will enjoy significant media exposure that will help propel them on Super Duper Tuesday.”

Alternatively, the early states’ primaries and caucuses could produce no clear winner. The candidates will then descend on the February 5 states. Giuliani or McCain, who enjoy great personal popularity, could capture California, thereby locking up the nomination February 5 or at least creating an overwhelming momentum to seal the nomination by mid-March. In yet another scenario the candidates could divide the February 5 states, with a candidate like Romney picking up enough votes from several conservative California congressional districts to continue the fight through the end of the primary schedule. Democratic consultant Dan Gerstein cautions, “This is unchartered territory we are heading into, [it’s] very difficult to tell how it will play out.”

What about the effect on the not-yet running candidates such as Newt Gingrich and Fred Thompson? Longtime Republican consultant Brent Littlefield thinks neither would have difficulty in California but he said lesser knowns will have a harder time. “The key ingredient in any presidential campaign is fundraising and with big state contests moving up it takes this to a new level, especially for candidates without high name recognition.” Others like Pitney think the new accelerated schedule may make it tougher for former Tennessee Sen. Thompson whose name recognition may not be as high in California.

Most observers agree that candidates will need to “hedge their bets” and spend money and time in the California and the other February 5 states, knowing all this may be wasted if a single candidate sweeps the pre-February 5 primary and caucus races. More than ever, candidates with money and organization to diversify and devote resources to states which may never come into play will have the upper hand. Kevin Madden, spokesman for Romney, observes “The change in California and the potential changes in other states affect the campaign dynamic in the sense that the emphasis on preparation is now as important as ever.”

So what does all this mean? Political analyst and University of Virginia Professor Larry Sabato wisely cautions against reading too many tea leaves 10 months in advance of the first votes. He says: “Who knows? It’s all fairly unpredictable, despite what some analysts are saying today. People in politics always pretend to know things they cannot possibly know.” Good advice for candidates, pundits and political junkies alike.


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