States Mull When to Hold Primaries--Sooner or Later?

DALLAS—One of the most-talked-about topics at the meeting of Republican state chairmen here by far was whether their presidential nominating process next year will be a sprint or a marathon. 

In other words, with just more than six months before the presidential election year begins, will states continue to front-load their primaries and conventions in order to choose national delegates early, as they did when John McCain wrapped up the nomination by February of ’08?

Or will the process take longer, with traditional early-bird contests such as the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary safeguarded in January, but the bulk of the states choosing delegates in later months, thus stretching out the nomination process?

At this point, most states have not yet decided when to hold their primary, convention or delegate-selection events.  Florida is a good example.  Three years ago, the Sunshine State held its primary on Jan. 29 and the win in the state by McCain was critical to his wrapping up the presidential nomination in ’08.  While Florida flirts with dates from late January until the first week of March, no decision on when it will hold a 2012 primary has been made.

It does seem a pretty good bet that the “Big Four”—the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, and the commencement of the Nevada caucuses—will all remain the traditional openers of the presidential sweepstakes.  The national GOP has enacted rules that say any states that hold primaries that get in the way of these states going first will be penalized delegates.

“We started our caucuses very early in ’08, and we not only had a smaller delegation but we were given terrible seats at the Minnesota convention,” just-elected State Chairman Tammy Hooper of Wyoming told HUMAN EVENTS, pointing out that Wyoming GOP leaders are presently divided over whether to go early again, or wait and thus send a larger delegation to the national convention in Tampa.

So far, Republican National Committee sources told HUMAN EVENTS, no state party has threatened to go before the early states, but several are discussing moving up their states after the Big Four are finished with their primaries and caucuses. 

Michigan’s GOP National Committeeman Saul Anuzis believes that “by breaking the rules, states can play a bigger role in the nomination process—even if penalized.”  He recalled how Michigan held a January primary in ’08 (when Anuzis was state chairman) and thus became a bigger player in the nomination process, even after paying the penalty and having a smaller convention delegation. 

Another party rule passed with an eye on discouraging front-loading requires states that hold primaries before April 1 to select delegates proportionally and not hold a winner-take-all primary.

But most of the state party chairmen who spoke to HUMAN EVENTS would clearly like to see the process stretched out, with more time given to scrutinizing candidates than in ’08.  The idea of nominating a candidate early, many fear, favors a better-known candidate and the specter of picking someone because “he’s paid his dues.”

Noting that his state would continue to hold its primary in May, North Carolina GOP Chairman Robin Hayes told us, “We’re clearly at a disadvantage in waiting so long.  The nomination could be decided much earlier—as they did in ’08—and we would be out of the picture as far as being a key state is concerned.”

But, Hayes quickly added, “If there are a lot of candidates and they stay in, we could become very important with a May primary—2012 could be different.”

“There’s not a lot of certainty at this point,” said Tennessee’s GOP National Committeeman John Ryder, a recognized authority on party rules and regulations.  “But one thing is certain:  Rule 16-E of the party bylaws makes it clear that there are penalties for violating rules.  And whether it is a reduced delegation or bad seating or less passes at the convention, the rules will be enforced regarding people who don’t play by them.  We’ll use a carrot or a stick, but the Republican Party has always been a rule-driven party.”