Presidential primary chaos: Here we go again

Question: When will the first 2012 presidential primary or caucus take place? Answer: Nobody knows.

Nearly four years after the presidential primary chaos of 2008, when both parties vowed never again to undergo a similar scheduling free-for-all, they’re doing it again.

We don’t even know when perennial first-out-of-the-gate states like New Hampshire and Iowa will go. The New Hampshire primary, which for decades could be reliably counted on to kick things off in early February, could actually take place in December 2011. The same goes for the [unfortunately] all-important Iowa caucuses. In fact, at this writing, 18 states’ primaries or caucuses are still up in the air, according to Frontloading HQ [FHQ], which has taken on the daunting job of tracking the chaos.

What’s going on? The jockeying centers around, of course, who gets to go first—a position that gains influence for the first state’s voters and results in a multi-million-dollar economic boom in hotel rooms, restaurant meals, rental cars, media buys and taxes. With all that at stake, who wouldn’t want to go first?

Keeping track of the maneuvering among states is not easy. FHQ has bravely waded into this mess and offers a frequently updated, color-coded map that shows states whose primary dates have been set, states with tentative—but subject-to change—dates, and those still undetermined.

Here’s how we got here, as I understand it: After the 2008 primary mess, both the Democratic and Republican parties enacted new delegate-selection rules. Both require all states—except for Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada—to wait until March 6, 2012 to hold primaries or caucuses. Any state that schedules before March 6 incurs a penalty: For Democrats, it’s a severe reduction in convention delegates. For Republicans, scheduling out of turn means that delegates have to been assigned to candidates in proportion to the votes received in the primary or caucus, rather than winner-take-all. In both cases,The effect would be to dilute the influence of the primary.  So, states have to weigh the risk of losing convention clout against the reward of all that upfront PR and revenue.

Currently, the Democratic primary/caucus schedule is in better shape than the Republicans’. That’s because Democrats were required to set their 2012 dates by May 2, 2011. Republicans have until October 1, 2011. So, in many states, the Democratic primary is on the books, but the Republican primary is still in limbo.

So, there’s a lot of pushing and shoving among states—the kind of childish behavior that is becoming standard for political power seekers. The way I see it—in kindergarten terms—some states want to jump the line and go first, but the conventional line-leaders don’t like it, and everyone’s throwing a tantrum.

In this scenario, reports FHQ, 14 states are threatening to “go rogue” and schedule their Republican primaries earlier than March 6. And that threat is creating even more havoc, because, for example, New Hampshire’s state constitution requires it to hold the first presidential primary in the nation–at least 7 days before the next one.  Under this scenario, if another state—say, Florida—pushes its primary to January 31, as it is threatening to do, New Hampshire would be required to hold its primary on January 24.  And Iowa, not to be outdone, would probably move to early January as well. There’s even a chance that New Hampshire and Iowa could move to December, depending on what happens in the rogue-scheduling battle now underway between Arizona and Florida.

That’s about as much sense as I can make of this emerging scenario at this point. As someone who votes for Democrats, I could say that I welcome the chaos, because in 2012, it’s the Republicans who are in this primary/caucus pickle. But I didn’t just say that, because electoral chaos is bad for everyone—and particularly for small-d democracy. Not being able to say, with certainty, when you’re holding elections is so banana-republic.

For a better, more detailed explanation of the ins and outs, plus a state-by-state rundown, check out FHQ. But bookmark it, and go back often, because this story is going to stay messy and unresolved for quite a while.

[Image credit: Frontloading HQ]