The Primary Mess

Two significant events happened last week, both having to do with the primary calendar which may change the outcome of the 2008 race.

First, as we anticipated, Michigan will go to an open primary on January 15. South Carolina follows the 19th and New Hampshire and Iowa may slide further back to preserve an adequate window of attention for the traditional first in the nation primary and caucus. For Mitt Romney, all things being equal this might have been good news given his family connection and his substantial organization in Michigan.

But Howard Dean may have changed all that. First the DNC stripped Florida, which moved its primary to January 29, of all its delegates. Then, teaming up with the four early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina he has corralled all the “name” candidates into the pledge to avoid campaigning in those states which jumped the line into the pre-February 5 territory which the DNC had given these four states. Hillary came on board on Saturday after mulling it over — and with good reason.

If the pledge holds the playing field at least through much of January for the Democrats will be narrowed to 4 states with moderate media costs and limited size. If you have modest resources and want to force Hillary to compete in retail politics you are pleased. If you are John Edwards, whose sole shot may be to knock Hillary off in Iowa (where Edwards has camped out for months and cultivated anti-war activists) you are thrilled.

Aside from its affect on the primaries, Hillary might have been thinking ahead to the general election. Hillary, assuming she is the nominee, may have be concerned the pledge will come back to bite her in key states like Michigan and Florida which will be critical to her in November. If she has boycotted theses states while her GOP counterpart has run a full blown primary campaign, taken his organization out for a test run, cultivated local media and reassured local voters of their importance will she regret it in November?

Meanwhile, Dean may have inadvertently aided two of the potential GOP contenders. If the Democratic Florida primary is boycotted or delayed for fear no one will show up, do independents decide to register and show up in the Republican primary? The threat is even more real in Michigan where voters can show up on Election Day and decide to vote in the primary of their choosing. If this happens, the voters who turn out in two key and highly competitive GOP primary elections may have a significant component of independent voters. John McCain and Rudy Giuliani who poll well with independent voters may be the beneficiaries. Indeed John McCain rode the wave of independent voters to victories in the New Hampshire and Michigan primaries in 2000.

All of this primary shuffling and Howard Dean’s handiwork have once again made clear that the GOP primary winner will likely be someone with broad geographic appeal, a solid organization and plenty of money to put down multiple “bets” on states which may or may not fall his way. If you must worry about Iowa and Michigan while New Hampshire and Florida still loom large, you need a sizable war chest, large media buys and plenty of bodies on the ground. Given the possible influx of independent voters, the candidate with a sophisticated ground operation in New Hampshire and Michigan which can target voters who are registered Republican and those who are not will be in strong shape.

So as we head out of Labor Day and into the traditional start of the political season, keep your eye on where the candidates go. That will speak volumes about where they think they can win, which states they think are in play and where they hope the nomination will be decided. And the next round of fundraising figures which come out in mid October may have the most to tell us about who can be competitive in the wild world of primary leapfrog.