Stateline Story

What Governors Think of 2008 Primary Calendar

  • February 28, 2008
  • By Pamela Prah

Many governors regard this year's chaotic mad dash for early spots on the presidential primary calendar as a mess to be avoided for 2012 - but are quite happy with how the 2008 schedule worked for them.

To assess governors' thoughts on the earliest nominating schedule in history, Stateline.org buttonholed state chief executives in Washington , D.C. , to attend the National Governors Association winter meeting, which closed Feb. 25.

"I'm thrilled that we moved up," Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) said. New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) agreed: "It turned out well for New York to be there on Super Tuesday (Feb. 5) and have a significant impact." Both Kansas' Democratic caucus and New York's primary were held in March in 2004, and the dates were shoved ahead this year to Feb. 5, also known as Super-duper Tuesday, along with those of 22 other states.

States that hung back from the Feb. 5 frenzy are even happier. They've reaped visits from the candidates and more influence as the races tightened for both parties. "We ended up having both [Democratic] presidential candidates campaign in Maine, and it was very exciting," said Maine Gov. John Baldacci (D), who noted that more people showed up at the party's Feb. 10 caucuses than ever before.

Sitting prettiest of all are states yet to hold their primaries. They can relish playing kingmaker, either providing Republican frontrunner U.S. Sen. John McCain the final delegates to clinch the party's nomination or tipping the scales between U.S. Sen. Barack Obama or U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side.

Even last may not be least. "They may very well say, 'See, we were smart'" to hold South Dakota's primary June 3, the final day of the 2008 presidential nominating schedule, said Gov. Mike Rounds (R), who supports former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) in the run for the White House.

Satisfaction was not universal. Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) complained his state got lost in the shuffle on Feb. 5.

Gov. Haley Barbour (R) of Mississippi, which doesn't hold its primary until March 11, said it's time to rethink the whole process. "When you have to choose between attending the Iowa caucus and taking down your Christmas tree, there's a little something wrong with the system. ... The primaries ought to be starting about now, rather than ending about now, so that the American people have a little bit more of a chance to get information."

Despite how well this year's primary schedule worked out for many states, most of the 17 governors surveyed favored a change for 2012. Looking ahead, some said a system of region-by-region primaries, spaced over a longer period, might make more sense for 2012.

"The current process is nuts, absolutely nuts," said Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), who advocates dumping the current caucus and super-delegate systems in favor of a rotating regional primary plan.

If states do change the system in four years, Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) says Michigan can claim some credit. Michigan's decision to hold its primary on Jan. 15 in violation of Democratic Party rules cost it its delegates. "The reason that we moved the primary (to Jan. 15) was to change the way presidents are selected in the primary process overall," she said.

Below are excerpts of the governors' responses — in their own words — to the questions: Did your state get what it wanted by setting the primary dates when it did this year, and How should the primary schedule be set in 2012?



Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (D) We were Super Tuesday (Feb. 5). We had a primary. We had, on the Democratic side, 40 percent more voters this time than last time. … Hillary (Clinton) ended up with five more delegates than Obama. But he was catching up fast, so we kind of mirrored the national trend. It was great. I think (we need) some sort of regional primary system - maybe carving out a role for Iowa and New Hampshire just out of deference to them.


Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) I'm delighted about the date (Feb. 5). I'm not so delighted about the process. … I think we had extraordinary turnout, even though we had terrible weather the night of the caucus. But it illustrated … how eager people were to have their voices heard. I'm thrilled that we moved up. We were part of the Super Tuesday states. That was great. … I kind of like the idea of regional primaries with no real certainty about which area of the country would go first until you get late in the season, which sort of forces the candidates to participate in every place in the country. Super Tuesday did that in many ways because there were so many states, from coast to coast, that there was really more of a national flavor than I've ever seen, at least, in the nominating process.


Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D) Well, you know, Kentucky's primary is late. It's in May (20), and usually things are over by that time. But it looks like things may not be over by then. … I think the people in the state right now are pretty satisfied with where it is, and it looks like we may play a role. I would like to see a simplified system in some way. … I don't know the answers. I'm willing to sit down and work with the other states and come up with some kind of sensible system.


Maine Gov. John Baldacci (D) We got criticized … because we didn't move our (Feb. 10) caucus up earlier and … people said, 'Maine won't be important, Maine won't be important.' The way things worked out, we ended up having both presidential candidates campaign in Maine, and it was very exciting. … We had more people showing up at the caucuses than we have ever had before. Barack Obama, when he spoke at the Bangor Auditorium, they had not had a crowd like that in the history of the Bangor Auditorium. And Senator Clinton had standing room only at the University of Maine. … It was just so encouraging because people were willing to brave the cold and participate and everything else, and we thought Maine's caucuses weren't going to be very much.


Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) It was a success (Feb. 12) in that we were relevant to the selection process. It would've been nice if we would've had another week, so we might've been able to focus a little better on things that are unique to the whole region, like the health of the Chesapeake Bay. … Certainly, the turnout (was a) record turnout. In Maryland, a lot of excitement; a lot of new voters; more visits from presidential candidates than we'd ever had in any prior cycle since '76. … I do think there's some merit in starting with small states that any campaign can afford to speak to. Iowa and New Hampshire are pretty well-established and (have) a long tradition of that. But one wonders if maybe a smaller Southeast state and a Western state, you know, might be good.


Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) The reason that we moved the primary (to Jan. 15) was to change the way presidents are selected in the primary process overall. … When New Hampshire said that it was not going to abide by the calendar and it was going to jump, we said we would jump, too. However, we would have abided by the calendar if everyone else had. … Bottom line is, I do believe that because of the movement of these early primary states, that there will be a different way that primaries are decided going forward, and that was the main purpose of our movement. I would do a regional rotating primary system.


Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) I think it worked well for our state because it came at kind of the crescendo point for the presidential race (Feb. 5). It seems like the system we have - where the traditional states get to go first - is a good one. And then you have what amounts to a nearly national primary on (Feb. 5). It wasn't perfect, but I'm not sure any system's going to be perfect. It seemed to work OK to me.


Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) I'm happy with where our state is (March 11). I'm not very happy with the 40 states that have already had a primary. When you have to choose between attending the Iowa caucus and taking down your Christmas tree, there's something wrong with the system. Primaries ought to be starting about now, rather than ending about now, so that the American people have a little bit more of a chance to get information … Front-loading is not just an issue. Compression is an issue. When they go off like a string of firecrackers, if a voter's preferred candidate drops out, that voter is forced to make a decision for second choice in about three days..


Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D) We might be in the catbird's seat, huh? Come the first week of June (June 3), we may have the whole world waiting to see what we decide in Montana. … It's very likely that both of these Democratic candidates are going to get to know the distance between Bozeman and Billings, how long it takes from Billings to Great Falls. … Maybe four years from now, when we find that Montana does such a great job of choosing the next president, the other 49 states will just agree - 'Montana, why don't you just pick?'


New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) I think it turned out well for New York to be there on Super Tuesday (Feb. 5) and have a significant impact. … Like all of these things, there will be some look-back to figure out whether this is a sequence that makes sense for the party, but couldn't have been happier about where the state was in terms of timing.


North Dakota Gov. John Hoeven (R) I think it worked pretty well for us. We had a caucus - a presidential preferential caucus (Feb. 5). … I'd like to go to a primary, just because I think it generates broader participation. But I think overall people were pleased with it. That's not to say we won't re-evaluate. … We'll re-evaluate; I think other states will too.


Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) I urged our Legislature to move us up and they chose not to for their own reasons. They didn't want to solicit signatures over the holidays, for example. So we thought that April 22, that there was no way we would still be relevant in the process. Now it's still possible that we won't be relevant in the process. If Senator Obama were to win Ohio and Texas, that would pretty much end the fight. But if Senator Clinton should win Ohio and Texas - and those are distinct possibilities - I think Pennsylvania could wind up being the most important state in the entire process. … This caucus, primary, super-delegate system is just woeful and it needs to be changed and it should be five, 10-state regional primaries where the one who gets the most votes is the nominee. Get rid of all the super-delegates, but also get rid of all of the caucus states. ... I think the current process is nuts, absolutely nuts. If Senator Obama had won in New Hampshire, he would have been the nominee after two small states had voted. It's crazy.


South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds (R) If it comes down to the fact that there are still competitive races, Republicans or Democrats, … we may say, 'See, we were very smart doing something (on June 3).' But I think the fact that right now we're considering regional primaries will be a better deal long-term. … It wouldn't surprise me to see a regional primary put together for a presidential primary, and … that's something South Dakota will look seriously into joining … in the future.


Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen (D) I have always had a problem with the huge national primary on Feb. 5, just from the standpoint that I think it too much captures a flash picture of where the campaign is at that point and there's still a lot of opportunities for things to develop. … We kind of ended up with not much time and attention from either of the national candidates. … From that standpoint, it was not a particularly good idea. (Tennessee had its primary Feb. 5). I (like) the idea of a primary schedule in which it is laid out a little more over a period of time. … I just think that allowing that process time to play opens up the process a little more. I think makes it more friendly for candidates who do not have a war chest from the previous July.


Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas (R) Well, we have it on March 4 because it's town elections that day and it's the most convenient time for it. …We never seriously considered changing the historic date. This year for us it looks like it might benefit us. … I think on the Democratic side it might make a difference, and maybe on the Republican side (U.S. Sen. John McCain) will get the 1191 or whatever he needs to get to secure the nomination. … But who knows what the whole scene will look like next time. … I think many Americans are not happy with the length of the political season, because in November and December, when we should be seeing the Christmas specials on TV, we saw political ads.


Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire (D) We thought we were out. And lo and behold, everybody arrived, came to Washington state - where we thought no one would come - and they came, and we played a significant role in what was happening. (Washington held its caucuses Feb. 9.) … We manage to put the candidates through terror for far too long and tear them up and spit them out, and I just don't think that's healthy for the country. … So I'd love to have (the primary dates) moved back and not have this fever pitch of who can beat who to get first on the agenda. I just don't think it's healthy for the candidates, and I don't think it's healthy for the country.


Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) We had a lot of people who early on were really pushing to move us up or to be part pf Super Tuesday, and I think - and everyone thought - it would be over by then (Feb. 19). But obviously, as it worked out, we had the week all to ourselves. The candidates were in the state. … We had all the national focus on us for the week. So I think the people of Wisconsin feel they had the opportunity to have a very major say in the next presidency. So yeah, the schedule worked out really well for us. …. I think … we're better off working for a schedule where we have a week to ourselves. Stateline.org's John Gramlich, Victoria Ekstrom, Eric Kelderman and Daniel C. Vock contributed to this report. Stateline.org photographs by Danny Dougherty and John Gramlich