Primary Stampede

The schedule for the GOP presidential primaries is a seemingly never ending set of moving pieces. Despite the best efforts of the RNC, states have continued to leapfrog one another, resulting in confusion, constant adjustments by the candidates’ campaign teams and unending speculation as to the impact the calendar will have on the race.

It is helpful to remember where things stand at present. Here is the current line up (the tentative number of delegates are listed in parentheses):

Iowa caucus (40) set for January 3
Wyoming convention (14) set for January 5
New Hampshire (12) considering January 8 (but holding out the threat of a December 11 date to keep other states at bay)
Michigan (30) set for January 15 (but Republicans can opt out until November 14)
Nevada caucus (34)
South Carolina primary (24) set for January 19
Hawaii caucus (20) tentatively set for January 25 (but could run as late as the 27th)
Florida (57) set for January 29
Maine caucus (21) set for February 1

The February 5 lineup (California [173], New York [101], Georgia [72], Illinois [70], Missouri [58], Tennessee [55], Arizona [53], New Jersey [52], Alabama [48], Colorado[46], Oklahoma[41], Minnesota[41], Utah[36], Arkansas[34], Connecticut[30], West Virginia[30], Alaska[29], Montana[25], North Dakota[26], Rhode Island[20] and Delaware[18]).

Now states with binding primaries or caucuses in which delegates will be chosen before February 5 (South Carolina, Florida, New Hampshire, Wyoming and Michigan) are in violation of RNC rules which prohibited states from stepping into the pre-February 5 “window.” (According to the RNC, Iowa and Nevada, for example, do not face such a penalty since these states are in essence “beauty contests.”)

The above delegate counts (which will be finalized after the November elections this year and before the end of the year) reflect a penalty of half of these five states’ delegates which the RNC has exacted. (In reaction to its penalty Florida is moving to a winner take all system — now offering an attractive pot of 57 delegates to the winner.) However, questions exist whether the winning candidate will in the end actually enforce the RNC penalties.

Given all of this, the first issue which has fixated pundits is the final selection of the New Hampshire date and whether there will be enough time between the Iowa caucus (January 3) and the New Hampshire primary to provide a “bounce” to the Iowa winner. Some contend that in a 24/7 news environment even a few days would provide plenty of time for the winner to gather momentum. However, the bounce from Iowa to New Hampshire may be overblown. John J. Pitney, Jr., Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College, cautions “New Hampshire voters are proud of their independence, and usually disagree with Iowa caucus-goers.” He points out that going back to 1980 only once in the GOP primary — in 1992 with a sitting Vice President George HW Bush — did the Iowa winner go on to win in New Hampshire.

Similarly, South Carolina has sometimes played the role of “firewall”– acting to upend the hopes of an unexpected earlier winner. In 2000 John McCain’s stunning success in New Hampshire proved irrelevant when he got to the Palmetto State and suffered a loss to George W. Bush who rolled on to the nomination. In 1996 Pat Buchanan’s momentum from a New Hampshire win also proved of little use as Bob Dole won the South Carolina primary and went on to win the nomination. South Carolina Chairman Katon Dawson is quick to remind observers that in every election since 1980 the candidate who won in South Carolina has gone to win the GOP nomination.

As for Florida, Larry J. Sabato cautions against predicting how that race will be affected by earlier races. He explains that “the Florida vote is going to follow so many unknowns — the voting in all the other early states — that speculation about it borders on foolish. Who will be left in the race? Who will have big and little momentum? What’s the money situation?”

What is clear is that the candidates are not similarly situated. In the clogged January calendar and the rush of February 5 states only the well funded and organized can mount paid ad and direct mail campaigns, travel continuously, and set up get out the vote organizations and retail political events in so many locations in such a short time period.

So who benefits from the current schedule? According to Pitney: “The candidates with the cash. Giuliani and Romney have the resources to contest the Super Duper Tuesday states. If Huckabee or somebody else pulls an early upset, he won’t have enough time to capitalize on the fundraising opportunity.”

Finally, the impact of the Democratic primary rules and calendar on the GOP race should not be underestimated. The DNC has in essence disenfranchised both Florida and Michigan for moving up their primary dates. Democratic candidates are barred from campaigning there. In the case of Michigan most of the Democratic contenders will not even appear on the ballot. In both states Independent voters and even some conservative Democrats looking to cast a ballot may choose to vote in the Republican primaries. By diluting hard core conservative votes, they may boost the prospects of Rudy Giuliani and John McCain.

In New Hampshire opinion is mixed as to the impact of Independent voters. Some observers contend that if Hillary sweeps in Iowa and is declared “invincible” Independents in New Hampshire may tumble into the GOP primary, helping McCain and Giuliani. Still others think that most New Hampshire Independents, who pollsters indicate lean Democratic, will vote in the Democratic primary, regardless of the outcome in Iowa.

In a mere three months we likely will know the Republican nominee. He will be amply funded and adept at managing expectations and defending must win territory. (Thompson of course must win South Carolina, Giuliani must take Florida and Romney needs wins in Iowa and perhaps New Hampshire.) Who wins which states, the margin of victory and the order of the rest of the finishers all go into the mix of determining who will benefit from the physics of political “bounces” in the ever shifting primary calendar.