How the GOP Presidential Primary Calendar Ought to Be

In response to today’s Iowa-bashing, a couple of readers ask what sort of primary order I would prefer.

It depends upon the primary priority, no pun intended. Is the process designed to ensure that the most electable candidate is nominated? Is it to be stable and predictable? Is it to require candidates to demonstrate that they can appeal to voters beyond one or two regions of the country?

For what it is worth, I think coronations are more often harmful to a party. I think the best primary system is one that permits as many Republicans as possible to make a meaningful impact on the nominee selection process by voting. (Under the current system, if you’re worried that your preferred choice will be eliminated by the time your state holds its presidential primary, you can still attempt to help your candidate by giving money, volunteering, touting him to any friends you have in early-primary states, following on Facebook and Twitter, etc. But it will all feel pretty moot when Primary Day comes and your guy quit weeks ago and only one or two candidates are still seriously contending for the nomination.)

It doesn’t take much to get a Republican outside of Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina to start complaining that they feel shut out of their party’s most important decision in most cycles.

So I would suggest a process that begins with the least-populated states, which have the fewest delegates to the GOP convention, and works its way up to the largest and most delegate-rich states. In the nomination process, a state can present value to a candidate in one of three ways: 1) number of delegates (often tied to population size); 2) time in the primary calendar (a chance to make an early splash and create momentum for later contests); or 3) ease or cost-effectiveness for campaigning (small size and short travel distances, cheap television advertising rates, etc.). This system would attempt to balance out those values so that campaigning for the votes of those few Republicans in Vermont and Delaware makes as much sense as campaigning for the votes of Republicans in Texas and Georgia.

Under this system, the earliest states would still get enormous attention, but they would have the least consequence in terms of number of delegates; a candidate could stumble and still rebound on the next one, at least for a little while. Because of their small population (and, often, geographic size), the early process would still involve retail politicking with a lot of personal interaction with primary voters. Early state victories in relatively inexpensive places like Delaware and Montana might translate to influxes of funding and momentum, so the idea of an underdog rising to the top would be more plausible. But the steady week-by-week drumbeat of increasingly larger mid-sized states (Indiana, Colorado, Arkansas) would require a candidate to demonstrate that they’re more than just a flash in the pan.

The biggest states, California and Texas, might lament that they’re destined to go last. But under this system, one or both could very well end up with the “kingmaker” role, putting one of the leading final contenders over the top. They would be more than just “ATMs” that are visited by candidates for fundraisers but largely ignored in terms of actual candidate campaign stops.

I would try to cluster states together geographically, but I would avoid “Super Tuesday”–style mega-primary days, which require candidates to campaign in eight to twelve states at once. That kind of setup pretty much ensures that the candidate with the most funds will win, because he will be the only one who can afford to run ads in all of those states voting simultaneously.

According to Green Papers’ list of number of delegates per state (based on information obtained from the state party, presidential-primary dates established by currently effective state statute, and the state’s 2008 delegate selection process), under this system, the first ballots would be cast in . . . technically Guam, Virgin Islands, Northern Marianas, and American Samoa. One can argue whether territories should go first, but at least winter in the Virgin Islands sounds more enjoyable than Iowa.

Ironically, the first state would be . . . New Hampshire. The order after that, in ascending order of number of delegates to the GOP convention:

Delaware

Vermont

District of Columbia

Rhode Island

Hawaii

New Mexico

Puerto Rico

Maine

South Carolina

Montana

Alaska

North Dakota

Iowa

Connecticut

Nevada

Oregon

South Dakota

Arizona

Wyoming

Michigan

West Virginia

Idaho

Nebraska

Colorado

Arkansas

Maryland

Kansas

Utah

Minnesota

Mississippi

Massachusetts

Wisconsin

Oklahoma

Washington

Kentucky

Indiana

Louisiana

Virginia

New Jersey

Alabama

Florida

Missouri

North Carolina

Tennessee

Ohio

Illinois

Pennsylvania

Georgia

New York

Texas

California

So, under RNC Chairman Jim, the 2016 Republican primary process (one hopefully lacking drama because we’re all so thrilled with the results of the GOP president elected in 2012) would look something like this:

February 9: New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine.

February 16: Delaware, District of Columbia.

February 23: Hawaii, Alaska.

March 1: South Carolina.

March 8: Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming.

March 15: Iowa, Minnesota.

March 22: Connecticut, Rhode Island.

March 29: Nevada, Utah.

April 5: Oregon, Idaho, Washington.

April 12: Arizona, New Mexico.

April 19: Michigan, Indiana.

April 26: West Virginia, Kentucky.

May 3: Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas.

May 10: Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama.

May 17: Maryland, Virginia.

May 24: Massachusetts, New Jersey.

May 31: Wisconsin, Illinois.

June 7: Florida.

June 14: Missouri, Oklahoma.

June 21: North Carolina, Tennessee.

June 28: Ohio, Pennsylvania.

July 5: Georgia.

July 12: New York.

July 19: Texas.

July 26: California.

Everyone gets August off; the convention is held at the end of the summer, and the general election lasts a bit longer than two months.

Under this system, every state gets a week in the spotlight, shared with no more than three other states, and the states are reasonably contiguous and similar in demographics, economies, resonating issues, cultures, etc. No more holiday seasons ruined by an early January caucus. New Hampshire still gets to kick things off but shares its debut with two nearby states; South Carolina still plays a key role as first-in-the-South. Iowa slips down the list, but it’s still fairly early in the sixth week of competition (out of 25!) and this can be considered penance for their oversized influence since 1972.

I’m not sure about having Alaska and Hawaii so early, as geographic distances will always make either of them expensive states for cash-strapped candidates.

If you think this would have the primary running ridiculously late, I will remind you that right now, California, New Jersey, New Mexico, and South Dakota are slated to choose June 5; Montana June 14; Utah June 26 and Nebraska July 14.

As Chairman, I would encourage every state to have a closed primary and eliminate caucuses. Caucuses tend to have low turnout, violate the principle of the secret ballot, and effectively disenfranchise the sick, those who are immobilized, those who work nights and those who cannot get a sitter. I prefer closed primaries because if you want to have a say in who a party nominates, you should be a member of that party.

UPDATE: Somehow when making up this calendar I originally forgot Oklahoma.

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