Ahead of the last presidential election in 2008, Arkansas lawmakers had an idea. Why not move up the date of the state's presidential primary from May to early February? Arkansas was tired of being an afterthought on the campaign trail, not weighing in on Democratic and Republican candidates until other states had already decided the races. This time, Arkansas was going to have influence.
There turned out to be just one problem: Everyone else had the same idea.
Arkansas voted with more than 20 states on Super Tuesday, including California and New York. With so much competition for the candidates' attention, Arkansas wound up feeling left out again. John McCain and Barack Obama didn't even campaign in the state, conceding it to Mike Huckabee and Hillary Clinton.
"It didn't do anything," Arkansas state Representative Jon Woods says of the date change, which actually resulted in the state holding two primary elections — one for president and another for other offices. "All it did was cost our state money." A couple of years ago, Woods sponsored a bill to return the primary to its old date — the third Tuesday in May — for 2012. Both houses of the legislature approved it unanimously. Arkansas' experiment with an early primary is over.
In jumping toward the front of the presidential calendar in 2008, Arkansas was doing what states have been doing for decades now: holding their contests as early as possible. States want to gain power over the process, but more importantly, they want candidates to visit them and visit often. It's a chance to make an impression with, and perhaps win promises from, the future occupant of the White House.
In moving backward for 2012, however, Arkansas may have been setting a new trend. That's because several factors — from strained state budgets to new Republican National Committee rules — are converging to prod states to schedule presidential primaries later in the year.
For now, the calendar remains uncertain. What's clear, though, is that state legislators are prepared to give the conventional wisdom that earlier primaries are better its most serious challenge in years. The push to frontload
The modern presidential nominating process, in which candidates must compete in primaries throughout the country to have a chance to win, dates to 1972. After that, it only took a few election cycles for states to realize that the ones voting first had the biggest say in the nomination. By 1988, the push to "frontload" had begun in earnest.
Almost immediately, political scientists began complaining that the primary schedule was becoming perilously compressed. If too many states vote too early, they argued, only the best-funded candidates can compete. Candidates can effectively wrap up nominations in a matter of weeks, before the press and the public have time to scrutinize them. Then, states with primaries and caucuses later in the spring don't matter. "A lot of states are not just less influential, but have no effective voice in the process," says William Mayer, a Northeastern University political scientist who co-authored a book on frontloading.
Both the national Democratic and Republican parties have tried to impose some order on the process. But the parties don't set the dates of primaries. State legislators do — because it's the states who actually administer the elections, along with local governments.
Legislators' foremost concern has been maximizing the influence of their own states. Even those who agree with the political scientists about the problems with a frontloaded calendar don't want their own state to be the one left behind.
The results are dramatic. In 1976, on the Democratic side, the Iowa caucuses were in January and the New Hampshire primary was in February. Four more states voted in March and three more in April, with the other 20 primary states scattered later into the spring.
In 2008, six states voted in January. They included Florida and Michigan, which moved up their primaries in violation of Democratic Party rules. By the end of February, voters in nearly three dozen states had already cast their ballots in primaries or caucuses on both the Democratic and Republican side. Moving back
Given that history, it's striking that so many states now are talking about moving their 2012 contests in the opposite direction. Besides Arkansas, Illinois already has moved its primary from February back to its traditional date in March. Montana Republicans have canceled their February caucus and instead plan to use the state's June primary to pick their delegates. Florida is talking about moving its vote from January to April. Bills introduced by key committee chairs in California and Virginia also would push their states back.
Saving money is a key consideration. For some states, moving up the presidential primary meant paying for the cost of an additional statewide election. They went on to hold their regular primaries to choose candidates for Congress, the state legislature and local offices later.
Paul Fong, who chairs the California Assembly's Elections and Redistricting Committee, says his bill to consolidate the presidential primary back into the state's regular June primary would save as much as $80 million. In Washington State, the Democratic governor and Republican secretary of state both want to save money by cancelling their state's February presidential primary entirely. That move would leave the selection of delegates to party-funded caucuses.
Redistricting, the states' once-a-decade job of redrawing political boundaries, also could pose a problem for early primaries in some states if legal challenges or political stalemates delay the process. In Ohio, the presidential primary is currently scheduled for March 2012. At the same time, voters will choose candidates for lower offices whose boundaries are set to change. Secretary of State Jon Husted has wondered whether his state will complete legislative and congressional redistricting in time to hold its primary.
In Illinois, not wanting to rush was a factor in the state's decision to move its primary back. Under the earlier schedule, the filing deadline fell in early November of the preceding year. That forced candidates for even the most minor offices to decide exceptionally early whether they wanted to run. It also forced campaigns into the dead of winter.
The unifying theme across all these states is that legislators are questioning whether voting early was worth the trouble. It's not just a small state like Arkansas that felt ignored in the super-packed primary schedule of 2008. Some Californians felt that way, too. "It didn't do anything by moving it up," Fong says. Watching Florida
The great irony of 2008, of course, was that the primary battle between Clinton and Obama dragged on well past the clump of January and February primaries. The most front-loaded presidential calendar in American history coincided with the most prolonged battle for a party's nomination in decades.
While few political observers expect another drawn-out primary battle like that one anytime soon, the national parties are nudging states to vote later into the season. Both the Republicans and Democrats have rules that forbid states other than Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada from voting before March. The Republicans — who are likely to be more relevant this cycle since most observers presume Obama will be the Democratic nominee — plan to penalize states that go too early by stripping them of half their delegates.
Still, it's not clear how many states will be rushing to push their primaries back. For now, Florida is still scheduled to vote on January 31, 2012.
If Florida legislators don't change their date, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada likely would bump ahead of them in January. After that, other states could take that as license to flout the Republican National Committee and stick it out in February. "Everything hinges on whether Florida decides to move back," says Josh Putnam, a political scientist who tracks the calendar at blog called Frontloading HQ
. "It only takes one state to unravel the whole process."
Even if the schedule does become substantially less compressed for 2012, that might not mean much for 2016, 2020 and beyond. After 1988's front-loaded calendar, some states also moved primaries back in 1992. But the long-term trend remained unaltered. "The surges forward," Mayer says, "are a lot more substantial than the retreats."
Still, for some states the calendar calculus appears to have changed in a lasting way. That's true in Arkansas, where no one sounds particularly interested in a future race to the front. "Making us a player or contender," Woods says, "just isn't in the cards."