What hath Dem wrought?

Nevada’s new caucuses set off a land rush that has made the presidential primary season all about money

Washoe County’s Democratic caucuses in February 2004, held at Wooster High School, drew an unexpectedly large crowd, even though the nomination of John Kerry was already assured.

Washoe County’s Democratic caucuses in February 2004, held at Wooster High School, drew an unexpectedly large crowd, even though the nomination of John Kerry was already assured.

Photo By Dennis Myers

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Last year, the Democratic National Committee decided to respond to two of its longtime problems in the process of selecting delegates to the national presidential nominating convention.

Party activists had long complained about the dominant role of the New Hampshire primary election and the Iowa caucuses in that process. Those activists and a lot of policy wonks and scholars complained about the frontloading of the process—too many states holding primaries and caucuses too early in presidential election years, shutting out admirable but underfunded candidates.

So the DNC voted to frontload it some more, by adding Nevada and South Carolina to the early events.

The New Hampshire primary has been the traditional first presidential primary in the nation since 1920. It guarded that status jealously (in 1969, Nevada Gov. Paul Laxalt vetoed legislation designed to give the state the first primary after New Hampshire said it would move its date back).

In 1972, New Hampshire’s primacy was upstaged somewhat when Iowa held earlier caucuses that drew heavy publicity and played an important role in the Democratic race that year. But because it was not a full-fledged election, New Hampshire made its peace with the idea.

Then on Jan. 21, 2006, the DNC voted to add two delegate selection events to New Hampshire and Iowa. It added caucuses in Nevada and a primary election in South Carolina so that the initial 2008 calendar reads this way:

Jan. 14 Iowa caucuses
Jan. 19 Nevada caucuses
Jan. 22 New Hampshire primary
Jan. 29 South Carolina primary

The South Carolina addition wasn’t that much of a change—the state has long had one of the first events after New Hampshire. But Nevada was another matter. The Democrats were gambling that since Nevada is just another caucus state, New Hampshire would not retaliate and move its date forward. That hope was misplaced—one caucus state ahead of New Hampshire was one thing, two another. That would make New Hampshire the third event, raising the very real possibility that, as in 2004, the race would be over by the time it got to New Hampshire, rendering the state irrelevant.

New Hampshire’s secretary of state, Bill Gardner, has three decades of experience in fending off challenges to his state’s primary (he took office when Gerald Ford was president). He is expected to move the date of the primary not just ahead of Nevada but also Iowa, to reclaim the state’s pre-1972 dominance. Since 1968, the state’s primary has gradually moved up from March 12 to Jan. 22—and Gardner is now considering moving it into 2007. He has said that moving Nevada forward “diminishes the value and dishonors the tradition” of the New Hampshire primary.

But the larger impact was beyond New Hampshire and Iowa. The Nevada elevation jarred party activists and state legislators around the nation who didn’t even know that national parties had the power to decide when states held their primaries and caucuses. They began planning to trump Democratic National Committee votes with state laws creating or advancing presidential primaries.

Windows of opportunity
When the DNC elevated Nevada to such prominence, it did it through a mechanism of “windows.” From the beginning of 2008 until February, only the four states could hold delegate selection events. The second window runs from February to June.

The Nevada advancement prompted one state after another to create a primary or advance its primary to the first “legal” date—Feb. 5. So far, legislatures in at least 20 states containing most of the nation’s population are either considering it or have done it, egged on by editorial writers and local columnists. They include Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas and Utah.

Suddenly, the nation is faced with a semi-national primary, and most of the second tier candidates for president are facing a mammoth obstacle. Whoever survives the first window (also known as the “pre-window") will have to have the money to then campaign in most of the nation on Feb. 5.

“In the absence of a rational primary process, we are seeing an ad-hoc national primary take shape,” said Connecticut Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz when she proposed that her state join the land rush. “Connecticut didn’t start this tidal wave, but I cannot stand by and allow our voters to become irrelevant.”

Some on the list—California, Florida, Michigan, New York, Texas—are the largest states in the nation. Texas Rep. Roberto Alonzo told the New York Times, “It only makes sense that smaller states should not serve as a presidential candidate’s first test or gauge of national electability.” In fact, the only thing in the process that makes under-financed candidacies like those of Chuck Hagel, Tommy Thompson, and Bill Richardson possible is access to retail politics in small states in the early rounds.

Moreover, so many early events would make for a very long general election campaign—nine months, more or less.

Frantic Democratic Party leaders, upset with the proliferation of events on Feb. 5, slapped together a system of incentives to try to convince the states to back off. Extra national convention delegate seats were dangled before them, but there were few takers. The national convention has become a pro forma affair with the nominations decided in primaries and caucuses, not the convention.

Those watching from outside the party have been stunned by the mess. Washington Post columnist David Broder says the party is putting “a remarkably distinguished field of candidates” through an “election system that has become truly insane.”

“It’s always been a flawed system in one way or another,” says DePauw Professor Ken Bode, who was research director of a 1970s Democratic delegate selection reform commission. “But this is completely of a different dimension. It used to be that there was an opportunity for a candidate to have a fairly level playing field in Iowa and New Hampshire. … Then they went south for a couple of primaries, and they went to the Midwest for Wisconsin and Illinois. And there was a long period of testing when people in each state got a chance to pay attention as it became their turn.”

James Roosevelt Jr., DNC rules and bylaws chair, has said that “it is a good thing for the electoral system to have the nominating process spread out over a number of months and have it conclude later—closer to the convention.” That begs the question of why the party chose to frontload the first window in the first place.

Nor is the Feb. 5 mess bewitching all Democrats. Washington state Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz calls it “stupid Tuesday” and his fellow state Democrats agreed, opting out of a state primary on Feb. 5 in favor of Feb. 9—one of the few selfless state actions in the process so far, and one for which the Democrats were criticized by a Seattle Post Intelligencer columnist.

It gets worse. The Democratic malady is contagious—Nevada Republicans moved their caucuses up to the same day as the Democrats, and in most states the Republican primaries are piggybacked on the Democratic rush.

And that’s not all—some states are not respecting the first Democratic window. Any state cutting into the first window faces punishment—non-recognition of its delegates at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver. That has not dissuaded the Florida Legislature, which this week approved a measure to leap over Feb. 5 and join South Carolina on Jan. 29.

Then there were cases of states moving their primaries up to serve the needs of home-state candidates, such as Barack Obama in Illinois.

All of this also breaches a concern that has existed for many years—that early delegate selection events result in candidates being selected before the issues have emerged. In 1968, a substantial portion of delegates were already named before January’s Tet offensive made Vietnam a more significant issue. In February two years ago, no one expected immigration to be the issue it became by summer.

The outcome of Nevada’s selection seems pretty obvious in retrospect—how could the Democrats frontload the process some more and not expect the states to do the same? But at the time, party leaders seemed not to have any idea what they were doing. One of them, Clinton advisor Harold Ickes, said at the time, “Will moving up a caucus state and a primary state have any material affect on who we nominate? The fact is we don’t know. We think it will, we hope it will, but we don’t know.”

The Washington Post has editorialized, “It’s too late to stop front-loading in 2008. Maybe there’s hope for 2012.”