Skip to main content

In Setting Primaries, It's Better to Be First

Researchers suggest the rush to the front of the primary line may be the best strategy, while grouping together with your neighbors isn’t nearly as useful.

While Tuesday’s concurrence of five primaries in the Intermountain West — in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico and Utah — are not what puts the “super” in the Super Tuesday races, it might point the way toward future equations in the political calculus of scheduling votes.

That was one of the lines of thought in recent research by Travis N. Ridout and Brandon Rottinghaus, assistant professors of political science at Washington State University and the University of Houston, respectively.

The pair examined “front-loading” — the increasing frenzy to put a state’s caucuses, convention or primary election at the front of the queue — and regional primaries as methods of earning a state other than Iowa or New Hampshire an outsize role in picking a potential commander in chief. Although they examined the less exciting years of 2000 and 2004, their findings are particularly illuminating in this year with an incumbent.

“Since the early 1980s,” the pair write in the January issue of PS: Political Science and Politics, a journal of the American Political Science Association, “presidential nomination events in more and more states have essentially been meaningless as the parties’ nominations have effectively been wrapped up before citizens have cast their primary ballots or attended their local caucuses.”

So front-loading, specifically trying to squeeze in just behind Iowa and New Hampshire, and the formation of essentially ad hoc regional blocs, have emerged as the two most popular strategies individual states have chosen to magnify their clout.

Front-loading isn’t without peril, both for the state and for the electorate. Both Michigan and Florida moved up their Democratic primaries, stepping on rules instituted by the Democratic Party. And both saw their delegate counts cut in half (Michigan) or whole (Florida). Even worse, they were barely acknowledged by the candidates or their advertising staff, which made their parochial issues less relevant on the campaign trail. Of course, states such as California have long campaigned that their concerns were also ignored in a primary process that wrapped up by the time the June primary in the Golden State rolled around.

Ridout and Rottinghaus also note concerns about the less tangible cost of front-loading, such as “a lack of voter learning, poor-quality campaigns, and less competition through the process.”

But those concerns have been trumped in 2008 by the need to be in front. This Super Tuesday, for example, 24 states and American Samoa are holding contests. And before that, states such as Nevada (which held its caucuses on Jan. 19) and South Carolina (primaries on Jan. 26) gained a fair bit of attention that, at least in the case of Nevada, they had rarely seen before in the nominating sweepstakes.

Still, that strategy did little for delegate- and media-market-poor Wyoming, whose Jan. 5 Republican caucuses were pretty much ignored by all the GOP frontrunners except Mitt Romney.

Joining together to create a regional primary might also be a strategy for gaining campaign attention, advertising and candidate visits. That was the goal in 1988 when the original regional Super Tuesday debuted, a nine-state (of 14 contested that day) effort by Democrats to consolidate their eroding toehold in the South.

That effort didn’t produce the clout sought, nor did the 1996 “Yankee primary” in New England or the “Big Ten Primary” in the Midwest.
“While these were both important attempts to connect regional concerns through a provincial primary, neither of these smaller regional primaries transformed the landscape of presidential nominations,” Ridout and Rottinghaus write.

Using the example of candidate visits, for example, they report: “States that held their nomination events longer after New Hampshire were much less likely to receive a candidate visit. Front-loading clearly matters. The number of simultaneous nomination events in contiguous states, however, had no impact on the frequency with which the candidates visited a state.”

This lack of a collective advantage surprised the researchers. “The number of contiguous states holding simultaneous nomination events — our admittedly crude indicator of a regional primary — was in no way related to the amount of candidate attention that a state received. We had expected that the geographic proximity of other nomination events would help draw candidates to campaign in a state, but our data did not support such a conclusion.”

Also taking a back seat to front-loading were delegate counts: Having a high count is less important than when the primary is scheduled.
But, their study finds, while timing “trumps all else,” it isn’t a panacea.

“Indeed, if their goal was to attract the attention of the candidates, then the schedulers of a western states primary have chosen wisely in selecting early February 2008 as its date. Of course, all states know that attention comes from scheduling an early primary, and so the calendar is going to be a crowded one in early February 2008. And that bodes poorly for attracting the candidates to the West, as the more crowded the primary calendar is surrounding a state’s nomination event, the less likely the candidates are to pay attention.”

And in this year’s Super Tuesday, delegate- and media-rich states such as California, New York, New Jersey and even Missouri competing simultaneously stole the thunder that Utah or Colorado might have enjoyed otherwise.