Whitesburg KY

Who, what and when

Susan Estrich

Susan Estrich

Who’s on first?
What’s on second.

The calendar for next year’s – or is it this year’s – presidential primaries and caucuses resembles nothing so much as a comedy routine.

Iowa is determined to have the first caucus. New Hampshire law says they’re supposed to have the first primary. But Michigan wants to move up its contest to January 15, which would force New Hampshire to move a week earlier, which would leave Iowa competing with the Rose Bowl, which just wouldn’t do.

One pundit has suggested that in this scenario the only reasonable date for Iowa is December 17, but the problem there is the Democratic Party rules say that every stage of the process has to occur in the calendar year of the election, so a December 17 Iowa caucus would be in clear violation of party rules. Of course, Iowa has never been about delegates, but about expectations and momentum, so it almost doesn’t matter what the party says if everyone is still playing.

Bill Richardson and Joe Biden are making noise about skipping Michigan if it tries to move ahead of New Hampshire, but does anyone care if they do? As the Iowa straw poll amply demonstrated, what matters is whether one of the top contenders refuses to play, not whether one of the second-tier candidates does. Romney got precious little out of his expensive Iowa win and I haven’t noticed a big or even small boomlet for Huckabee since his second-place finish, because Giuliani and McCain announced early enough that they weren’t playing and thus lost nothing by losing.

Meanwhile, Arizona announced last week that it had moved up its contest to February 5, so that candidates would pay attention to the state, and to the issues like immigration and water that are critical there. In between, of course, paying attention to the issues that are critical in Michigan, South Carolina, Florida, Illinois and New York.

Candidates used to describe the nomination process as a marathon. This year may more closely resemble an avalanche, with states toppling any semblance of a carefully calibrated calendar willy-nilly.

It’s true that more people are paying closer attention earlier in the process than in past years. But it’s also true that no one is going to want to see a politician’s ad in the middle of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Santa Hillary? I don’t think so. No Santa Rudy, either.

The problem is that no one is really in charge. The parties are supposed to set the rules, establish what is known as the “window” for presidential selection contests, and refuse to recognize the delegates selected by states outside that window. It is also true that it doesn’t matter what the party says if the candidates choose to compete in a contest.

Some years ago, then-Democratic National Committee Chair Chuck Manatt tried to rein in Iowa and New Hampshire from pre-empting the rest of the nation by insisting they hold their contests within the “window” – rather than, as they did and still do, before it opens. The party chairs in those two states realized it didn’t matter what the rules said if the candidates and the media trucks came anyway. And since no major candidate wanted to antagonize the people who were determined to go first, come you-know-what or high water, each major candidate agreed, in back-door deals, to campaign in the state whether or not the Party was planning to recognize its delegates. Manatt was forced to back down.

A few years earlier, Wisconsin insisted on holding an “open” primary, open to voters of either party, notwithstanding party rules that limited participation to “bona fide Democrats.” Two months before the convention, the Supreme Court upheld the right of the parties to set their own rules for delegate selection without regard to conflicting provisions of state law. So did the Party refuse to seat the “illegally” chosen Wisconsin delegation? Of course not. Who would they seat instead? And besides, why would the Democrats want to offend everyone in Wisconsin, an important general election state, by refusing to seat delegates who had been elected according to state law? Four years later, Wisconsin was granted an official exemption to the rule.

Politics is not about law, but about politics. Cramming the calendar, according to the conventional wisdom, or frontloading, as we “rules junkies” used to call it, makes it more difficult for a lesser known, or insurgent, candidate to do better than expected in an early state and then capitalize on the momentum, raise new money and start winning in states where he has yet to set foot. Jimmy Carter ran on a three-state strategy in 1976, with the expectation that momentum from early wins could, with time, carry him the rest of the way, and it did.

But the one rule everyone who’s been involved in this game respects most is the rule of unintended consequences: Often, what happens is exactly the opposite of what all the smart people are planning for and expecting. What will happen? Who knows. Ask him.

©2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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