Officially, the Iowa Democratic caucus date is set by the Iowa Democratic Party. But this year, outside forces -- escalating leapfrog attacks from jealous states, stricter national party rules, a governor who committed early to a January date and the determination of Iowa Republicans to move forward -- may limit the moves of Iowa Democrats.
The most obvious outside force is the vote Tuesday by Iowa Republicans to act alone and set a Thursday, Jan. 3 date, before New Hampshire has settled on its primary date. Republicans are saying they're still working with Democrats, but the nature of that cooperation is reminiscent of George Bush vetoing a troop deadline bill. As state party co-chair Leon Mosley told Iowa Independent at a John McCain appearance last week, "If (the Democrats) work with us, it'll be the 3rd."
Democrats could still settle on Saturday, Jan. 5, and break the tradition dating back to 1976 of the two parties caucusing simultaneously. That's a very bad idea, University of Iowa political science professor David Redlawsk told Iowa Independent. "Never mind the possibilities of mischief as some Republicans go to the Democratic caucuses and vice versa, there is likely to be confusion among Iowans, and ridicule from the press, who really won't like the need to gear up twice in Des Moines for results," he said. From a more partisan outlook, Redlawsk noted, "if the Democrats go second, the Republicans steal the thunder."
Tuesday's developments in South Carolina indicate that the Democratic National Committee, which protected Iowa's first in the nation status in July 2006, may want to have its say, too.
Last month, the Atlantic's Marc Arbinder reported that the presidential campaigns were on the same page and assuming the following "consensus calendar":
Jan. 5: Iowa caucuses (both parties, moved from Jan. 14)
Jan. 8: New Hampshire primary (both parties, moved from Jan. 22)
Jan. 12: Nevada caucuses (both parties, moved from Jan. 19)
Jan. 15 Michigan GOP primary; Dem beauty contest (moved from Feb. 5)
Jan. 19: South Carolina primary (both parties, Dems moved from Jan. 29)
Jan. 29: Florida GOP primary; Dem beauty contest (moved from Feb. 5)
Feb. 5: Tsunami Tuesday
But Tuesday, South Carolina Democrats said they were now looking at Saturday, Jan. 26 -- three days earlier than the official, torn to tatters schedule, but a week later than expected.
State party chairwoman Carol Fowler said at a meeting that a proposal to schedule the primary even earlier, on Jan. 19, the same day the state's Republicans vote, would likely be denied because DNC Chairman Howard Dean opposes it.
Dean's support of Jan. 26 for South Carolina, while the state's GOP votes on Jan. 19, shows that the chair is not automatically against separate dates for the two parties.
Dean's opposition to South Carolina's original plan may simply be a matter of trying to exert some control over the process. The DNC's big stick -- stripping the delegates from calendar-violating states -- is a laughingstock. Once there's a nominee, the national committee is a sideshow and the candidate is the big top, and no one believes that a nominee would unseat the delegates from key swing states like Florida and Michigan.
But Dean could simply be managing the calendar deftly. Jan. 26 keeps South Carolina ahead of leapfrogging Florida and closes a ten day gap that had belonged to the Sunshine State. So Floridians may get their early date -- but have only three days of whatever level of attention a candidate-free primary can get to show for it.
The South Carolina switch also opens Jan. 19 back up on the Democratic side. That had been Nevada's date, but on Oct. 1 the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported on an email from the Nevada Democratic Party which said the party was looking to Jan. 12.
However, that would put Nevada only four days after Jan. 8, a possible New Hampshire date. In that context, and in the context of Dean's opposition to South Carolina moving up a week, it appears Nevada could be kept to the original Jan. 19 date, behind renegade Michigan on Jan. 15.
Throughout this leapfrogging, and indeed back to the 1968-1972 era of nomination reform, Democrats have been more concerned than Republicans about process. Even the states that are breaking the rules are pointing to... the rules. Michigan argues that if they are going to be punished for voting on an unauthorized date, the official early states should also be punished for moving off their authorized dates.
"Michigan Democrats have always said that we would abide by the DNC's rules on the timing of the delegate selection primaries and caucuses as long as other states abided by them," wrote Gov. Jennifer Granholm, DNC member Debbie Dingell, and caucus enemy number one Sen. Carl Levin in a Friday letter to Dean. "That is now no longer the case."
So with Michigan defiantly staying on the 15th, Nevada kept on the 19th, South Carolina getting half a loaf on the 26th and Florida on the 29th, only Nevada and South Carolina drop one place in the line. Unless...
Unless Iowa drops a place in line.
In August, when the South Carolina GOP announced its move to Jan. 19, Iowa Gov. Chet Culver's immediate response was "we're not going in December." That's not binding on the Iowa Democratic Party, but it's certainly influential. That commitment to January now redoubles with the Republicans officially settling on Jan. 3.
But the most mysterious oracle this side of Delphi has yet to speak.
One person controls the date of the New Hampshire primary: New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner. Gardner is a master at talking at great length and revealing little, and the date is the political equivalent of the Harry Potter book release last July. You kind of figure Voldemort is eventually going to die, but you don't know when or where or how or how many hundreds of pages away the answer is, and the anticipation is maddening.
Here's the tidbits Gardner has revealed:
And most importantly:
The Iowa Republicans have played their hand, and the Iowa Democrats' hands may be tied. Bill Gardner is the last player to lay his cards on the table in this game, and he could trump everyone.