The Presidential Nominating Calendar

Sorry to interrupt the Symposium.  I always wonder if I should post during a Symposium, but anyway . . .

One theme of federalism scholarship is that we sometimes need central authority to prevent “a race to the bottom.”  In other words, with respect to certain regulatory topics, a state would be discouraged from acting on its own because business and people would flee to other states.  Of course, some people think that this constraint keeps states from enacting foolish policies, but on some subjects the constraint keeps them from adopting beneficial ones.  Only a national law can accomplish the goal, because moving to another country is harder.

The presidential nomination calendar provides an interesting perspective on this sort of state competition.  There is significant value in being early in the presidential primary season.  Candidates drop lots of money on TV ads and rallies in your state.  Your state’s issues get a lot of attention.  And you have influence over who gets nominated.  Why, then, doesn’t every state try to be Iowa and New Hampshire?  One answer is that Iowa and New Hampshire say that they will always change their election dates to be first, but that would lead to a clear “race to the bottom” without end.  Tradition supplies another reason, but the “tradition” of the Iowa caucuses only goes back to 1976.  No central authority is responsible.  The parties can try to influence the primary calendar, but they cannot compel a state to pick one date over another.  What accounts for the relative stability of the system in the last thirty years?  Perhaps there isn’t as much to the “race to the bottom” theory as one might think.  Or is there a kind of game theory equilibrium at work?

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2 Responses

  1. dht says:

    There actually has been a sort of race to the bottom. The New Hampshire primary used to be in late February or early March, but now is in early January, precisely because other states have moved their primaries up. Florida was stripped of half it’s delegates as a penalty by the Democrats in 2008 for moving its primary too far up in the calendar, to the detriment of Hillary Clinton, who won the Florida primary, but only got half the usual delegates.

    There has been a recent reaction against this. In Maryland, the 2008 primary was in February, but the 2012 primary was in May, owing, at least in part, to requirements regarding receipt and counting of absentee ballots.

  2. Garrick Pursley says:

    I’ve been thinking about this and related questions lately in connection with a paper on battleground states and federalism that Franita Tolson and I are writing. Any apt explanation will be complex, but one factor likely is the newly permanent and constant media framing of politics – it has established a sort of inescapable “natural order” (despite the occasional blip, as dht notes above).

    A more significant factor is probably discipline by national party and candidate organizations. Candidate and party committees designing campaign strategies years in advance have strong incentives to maintaining the status quo primary order so that they don’t have to scramble to recommit resources at the last minute. Maybe more importantly, national parties’ and candidates’ in-state organizations, which are increasingly “switched on” year round, are tailored to the existing primary sequence, creating additional endowment effects and further increasing their incentives to resist change. National party rules enshrine the existing order and the national parties have demonstrated their willingness to enforce these rules by stripping or diluting states’ delegates of votes at the convention or, in Florida’s case, by threatening to move the Tampa convention to another state.

    The fight over state primary position tends to boil down to a conflict between state party organizations that want to increase their profiles and national parties and candidates with their status-quo bias– and in the post-Citizens United campaign finance environment, state parties are losing influence to private organizations that can provide national candidates with substitutes for state party support. State parties increasingly depend on national party and candidate committee resources to fund their own operations (like the soft money days, but without the advantage of the loophole requiring state party participation; now it’s more a matter of convenience and access to resources currently under state party control but quickly being replicated by private groups). This loss of influence is part of the motivation for attempts to jump up in the primary schedule, but it also helps explain why the national parties tend to succeed in preventing those moves (and why state threats to move primaries often seem like strategic grabs at other benefits – conventions or convention roles, national party money, etc.).

    An interesting related set of questions surrounds battleground state status—why it attaches to certain states; if it’s stickier now than historically, why that is so; and so on.