Thursday, October 06, 2011

Iowa Second?

Should Iowa Take One For The Team?

I'm absolutely NOT suggesting or endorsing it. But consider the caucus date dilemma Iowa is in:

  • Florida Republicans -- and remember, this is their fault -- broke the rules agreed on by both parties: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina, in that order, in February. No one else till March. But rules don't matter to the biggest swing state. They got away with cheating last time, so they did it again, going a full five weeks early on January 31.

  • In response, South Carolina was expected to move to Saturday the 28th; there's some tradition of Saturday elections in that state. But instead they jumped back a full week past Florida to January 24.

  • Nevada Republicans were then expected to pick Saturday the 21st but then jumped a whole week past that to January 14.

  • So now the irresistible force of the pages of the calendar meets the immovable object of New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who is adamant about enforcing his state law that requires his primary be seven days before "any similar contest." And he's almost as adamant about staying on a Tuesday. Which points to January 3...

  • Which points to Iowa in calendar year 2011.

    It's no secret that the DC press corps hates, Hates, HATES the Iowa caucuses. It's a long trip compared to the Boston-Washington shuttle, and they have absolutely no clue about the process on either side. MSNBC's First Read is a reasonably good take on Beltway mentality at any given moment, and here's what they think of a December caucus:
    Christmas in Des Moines? With Nevada’s decision to hold its caucuses on Jan. 14, it’s possible that the presidential primary season could begin immediately after Christmas -- with New Hampshire settling on Jan. 7, and Iowa going either Dec. 28 or 29. If that happens, it could be the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back on Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s dominance of the primary calendar. Why? You could see a full-fledged rebellion -- maybe not this cycle, but certainly the next -- if candidates are forced to campaign and the news media is forced to descend upon Des Moines over the Christmas holiday. New Year’s Eve in Des Moines four years ago was one thing; Christmas Eve is another. The reason New Hampshire would pick Jan. 7 is to give it a full week of separation between Nevada’s contest. But it all depends on how seriously New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner takes the Nevada contest. If he doesn’t take it seriously and decides Nevada is not too similar to New Hampshire’s primary, the Granite State could stick with Jan. 10, allowing Iowa to go on Jan. 5, which at least keeps the start of the voting in the 2012 calendar year. But if he takes it seriously, it’s Christmas in Des Moines. And, folks, even for diehard defenders of the Iowa/New Hampshire start, that’ll be ridiculous.
    And all indications are that Gardner takes Nevada seriously.

    Frontloading HQ, a multiple times a day must read for any serious Iowa politico these days, offers four scenarios:
    Again, Secretary Gardner is bound by state law. He has no ability to set the New Hampshire primary for January 10. Nevada Republican caucuses just four days later violates that law. And if Iowa selects a date during the first week in January, that gives Gardner no recourse but to go before Iowa -- in December. There would be no other option in January that would both keep New Hampshire as the first in the nation primary and give it the seven day buffer after the contest mandated by law.

    What options are left to Iowa and New Hampshire?

    1. New Hampshire on January 10 and Iowa on January 3 or 5 is not on the table. New Hampshire cannot do that.

    2. Iowa on January 5 and New Hampshire on December 13 is a distinct possibility. It keeps Iowa out of December. The blame would not be on the Hawkeye state for slipping into December 2011. That would all rest with New Hampshire; a victim of its own law. [How's that for a strange twist of fate?] Conversely, New Hampshire could take the January 3 date and force Iowa into December.

    4. The final option is the Thelma and Louise doomsday scenario described last night. That's the "if we're going down, let's go down together" option.

    Now this turns into something akin to a prisoner's dilemma. Option 1 is not workable. Option 2 protects New Hampshire in the short term, but likely hurts it -- and the other early states -- in the long run. The status of being first and the whole system in fact would be on trial before 2016. Option 4 yields much the same results.
    If the Iowa caucuses are in December 2011, there will be no 2016 caucuses. Oh, sure, the platform nerds and process geeks and people who read political blogs will get together sometime in the spring. But the presidential choice will be in the June primary between Presumptive Nominee and Uncommitted, buried somewhere below the county supervisors.

    You notice I skipped an option.
    3. But if Iowa is willing to let New Hampshire go first in December, would it not -- and I'm speaking hypothetically here Iowans -- make sense for Iowa to go on January 10 and cede New Hampshire the January 3 date? That entails Iowa doing New Hampshire a solid -- one of epic and selfless proportion rarely seen in presidential primary calendar politics.

    That leaves Option 3. Iowa takes one for the team, allows New Hampshire to eclipse it for this cycle, and all the early states can then blame Florida and/or the RNC's lack of meaningful penalties for pushing the four early states up as far as they did.
    I'm sure the various Republican campaigns have strong opinions about Option 3. This leapfrogging isn't all about the batting order. The popular theory is Nevada leaped further forward than expected to help Mitt Romney, who's expected to win there and in New Hampshire. Rick Santorum has openly called Florida's move a "conspiracy" of front-runners to minimize the role of small early states. (Every other candidate has been Flavor of the Month, or at least the week; is Santorum ever going to get his week?)

    But what would we need to, for argument's sake only, consider "taking one for the team?" First of all, we would need some sense that there was an actual "team," like there was in the days of the eight days between Iowa and New Hampshire pact that stood for two decades. It's been New Hampshire, not Iowa, that's abandoned that solidarity the last couple cycles. We'd need some guarantees, by both parties, that calendar cheaters would suffer some penalties with teeth, and not get rewarded with, say, a national convention.

    So what would we get if, for argument's sake, we "take one for the team?" A better date, with higher attendance and better prospects for organizing for November.

    If we were after New Hampshire, we could consider some sort of absentee voting procedure. Hillary Clinton had the high ground on this one: people who can't physically be there, whether it's military service or shift work or child care, lose their vote. We offered a bunch of reasons about "the neighborhood meeting nature" of the caucuses, but they've grown so big that real town-meeting dialogue is impossible. Heck, hearing and movement are impossible.

    The real reason the Iowa caucuses don't have any absentee procedure is that Bill Gardner thinks that makes it an election. Now, I'd prefer something a little less wide-open than the vote early for any reason we have for elections. The caucuses are supposed to be a party meeting, and unrestricted absentees would turn the whole thing into a year-long absentee ballot chase. But people who really can't be there should be able to participate.

    Most importantly, Option 3 gives us January or February 2016 instead of Presumptive Nominee vs. Uncommitted in June.

    I'm not saying Iowa Republicans (we Dems are just along for the ride this time) should do this. But as bad options go, it's, well, one of them.
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