Conventions to Look at Primary Process

By: - August 24, 2008 12:00 am

States in the Penalty Box

DENVER – As Democrats converge here this week to formally nominate Barack Obama as their presidential candidate, both parties are working behind the scenes to prevent a repeat of states’ helter-skelter scramble for early primary dates in 2012.

“There is no question that this year’s primary season began too early,” said Trey Grayson (R), Kentucky secretary of state, who co-chairs a nonpartisan presidential primary committee of the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS).

Democrats plan to create a commission this week to draw up a new calendar and process for the 2012 presidential nominating schedule, while Republicans will likewise begin meeting this Wednesday (Aug. 27) to discuss a possible overhaul of the primary calendar in advance of their own convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul Sept. 1-4.

States upended the 2008 presidential primary system with the intent of giving their voters a greater say in choosing candidates. A record 28 states rushed to either move up their primaries or caucuses or decided to have one after not holding one in 2004. By the end of February, voters in 39 states had expressed their presidential preferences, compared to 19 in 2004.

While all sides agreed that this year’s historic run for the White House energized voters, as evidenced by record voter registration and primary turnout, many are concerned that this cycle’s very early start was unfair to candidates and state officials who actually administer the primary contests – and in the end, to voters.

“The formal primary process teeters on the brink of chaos,” said Don Means, director of the Open Caucus Institute , a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that advocates a change in the nominating process.

Presidential candidates were forced to start campaigning at Thanksgiving, giving what critics say was an unfair advantage to highly funded candidates with name recognition. States had to scramble to get ballots ready and train poll workers. And many voters didn’t really get a chance to get to know the various contenders, because by March, the field of candidates was essentially narrowed to U.S. Sen. John McCain for the GOP and Obama and U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democrats.


The goal of the commission that the DNC and the Obama campaign are forming is to ensure that no primary or caucus is held before the first Tuesday in March2012, except for approved “pre-window states,” such as Iowa and New Hampshire, whose contests would fall in February 2012.

The 35-member panel also will look at reducing the number of “super-delegates,” high-ranking party officials who could cast tie-breaking votes in selecting the party’s nominee. The role of super-delegates was emphasized this year when the race between Obama and Clinton got so close that some speculated that the nomination may be determined by the super-delegates, which include governors and members of U.S. Congress.

The commission will also assess the fairness of caucuses, which are run by the parties, unlike primaries, which are administered by the states. The Clinton campaign h ad complained that caucuses were unfair to working people and those who care for children, since they are held at a specific date and time that shut out some people. Obama consistently outperformed Clinton in caucuses.

If the parties want to revamp the presidential primary system for 2012, RNC rules requires that Republican delegates approve the changes during their convention Sept. 1- 4 in Minneapolis. The Democratic Party allows members to act long after their convention here. Legislatures also would have to incorporate into state law any system that the national parties adopt.

“I believe we are closer to getting some kind of meaningful reform than ever before,” said David Norcross, who chairs the Republican National Committee’s Rules Committee. His panel on Aug. 27 will take up a proposal called “the Ohio plan” that would continue to give Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada the opening shots, but then voters in three groups of states would then follow later on a rotating basis. The “Ohio plan” originally would have had the country’s smallest states go first, but Norcross said that idea could be dropped because of opposition by larger states such as California and Michigan.

The RNC panel also will consider the “Texas plan” that divides the country into four groups based on a balance of convention delegates, electoral votes and the proportion of “red” and “blue” states and another proposal that Norcross called a “do-nothing” plan that essentially promises only to hold the primaries no early than the first Tuesday in March.

That panel’s decision then goes through two different RNC structures before the delegates consider it on Sept. 1, the opening day of the GOP convention. “If we don’t do anything now, that’s our decision for 2012,” RNC’s Norcross said.

Even if both parties can come to an agreement, states, as this year clearly showed, don’t always comply with party rules. “Unless we go to an all-caucus system, the cooperation of state legislatures is essential,” James Roosevelt, co-chairman of the DNC Rules Committee, said. State and local governments are responsible for funding and running presidential primaries, which are not necessarily held on the same dates as state primaries.

Roosevelt, Norcross and Grayson made their comments Aug. 20 in Washington, D.C, during a panel session sponsored by Open Caucus Institute during which they all pushed for changing the 2012 primary calendar.

Several governors told  earlier this year that they regarded this election’s chaotic rush for early spots on the presidential primary calendar as a mess to be avoided in 2012- but were quite happy with how the 2008 schedule worked for them.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Stateline staff
Stateline staff

Stateline’s team of veteran journalists combines original reporting with a roundup of the latest news from sources around the country.