State primaries muddle efforts to move up presidential contests

With a stampede of states moving to set their presidential contests earlier in the process, the decision about whether to also shift state primaries often poses a dilemma: Holding both votes on the same date saves money, but can depress turnout and create as long as a nine-month general election period for non-presidential candidates.

With a stampede of states moving to set their presidential contests earlier in the process, the decision about whether to also shift state primaries often poses a dilemma: Holding both votes on the same date saves money, but can depress turnout and create as long as a nine-month general election period for non-presidential candidates.

In 1996, for instance, California scheduled its presidential and state primaries for March rather than June in hopes of gaining clout in the presidential nominating process.

The measure failed. Not only did the anticipated clout never materialize, but moving the primaries led to record-low turnouts and much longer general election campaigns for state candidates. After the 2004 primary, California shifted both votes back to June. Now that it is eyeing another presidential power move, it will apparently leave the state primary alone.

Despite the drawbacks and complaints about increasingly long campaigns, lawmakers in several states are looking to move both primaries to February or March.

In California, state officials estimate that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (R) and the state assembly’s plan, which would separate the primaries, will cost taxpayers $90 million. Some are trying to keep the primaries joined.

California’s experience with early state primaries is a cautionary tale for others considering a similar set-up, according to Mark Baldassare, director of research at the Public Policy Institute of California.

“It can have some unintended consequences at the state level — one being low voter turnout, the other being making for very long campaign seasons for candidates and voters and raising the expenses of those campaigns,” Baldassare said.

In Illinois, state House Speaker Michael Madigan’s (D) proposal would move both primaries to Feb. 5, adding a month and a half to the state’s general election and making it the longest of any state in recent years.

Alabama already has voted to move its state primary, along with its presidential primary, to Feb. 5. But the state legislature had intended to move only the presidential contest, and it is expected to fix its mistake this year.

Other proposals that would join state and presidential primaries early in the process have included a bill in Pennsylvania that would move both to early March and a bill in New Jersey that would put both on Feb. 5.

In 2004, the earliest state primaries were held in California, Maryland and Ohio, on March 2, while the nearly 20 states that held earlier presidential contests all used separate primaries. In the 2006 midterms, the earliest state primary was Texas on March 7, and in 2002, California held the first state primary on March 5.

The Illinois proposal, intended to benefit the presidential prospects of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), may have legs but is drawing opposition from some leaders concerned about extending the general election.

A spokesman in the Illinois House Speaker’s office said there has been “minor grumbling” about the longer general election but said advocates of later state primaries haven’t been able to reach a consensus.

“There were some internal discussions about how some states have separate primaries in presidential years,” spokesman Steve Brown said. “I’m not sure the people in Illinois are willing to take on two elections.”

The change would lengthen the campaign for the state’s two most vulnerable members of Congress, freshman Rep. Peter Roskam (R) and second-term Rep. Melissa Bean (D), and create a nine-month battle for Sen. Dick Durbin (D) if Republicans can muster a strong challenger.

Illinois races are already among the most expensive in the country. Roskam and his opponent combined to raise about $8 million, and Bean and her opponent raised more than $9 million, while the parties plugged in millions more to all four candidates.

Bean spokesman Brian Herman said the change wouldn’t have much effect: “Her record is the same in January as it is in March.”

Moving up the state primary would force potential challengers to gather signatures earlier and get their campaigns in motion sooner.

Democrat Charlie Brown, who lost to Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.) by three points in November, cited the potential for an earlier primary as part of his motivation for filing a statement of candidacy for a rematch with the Federal Election Commission in January — 17 months before the current state primary.

“People want to know what’s going to happen, so they know when they need to start campaigning and doing things,” Brown said, adding that because of his early start, “I don’t think it would impact me one way or another.”

Alabama’s inadvertent move has drawn opposition not only because of the longer general election, but also because the primary runoff remained in July and because the new primary date falls during Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is a major holiday in Mobile.

The legislation, passed in the state legislature and signed by Gov. Bob Riley (R) last year, has not been submitted for clearance under the Voting Rights Act and is therefore not in effect. The state primary is expected to remain in June, while the presidential primary is in flux because of the Mardi Gras situation.

“There have been some people saying either don’t move it or move everything, [due to] the cost factor,” Alabama’s administrator of elections, Ed Packard, said, adding that there was little support for moving everything to February.

In New Jersey, state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D) has pushed an alternative to the main presidential primary effort, which would leave the state primary in June. Some objected to the separate primaries, citing a $10 million price tag. Lesniak’s bill would put both in February.

In Pennsylvania, state Rep. Ron Buxton (D) is spearheading a proposal to move both primaries to the first Tuesday in March. Buxton has also pointed to the cost of having separate primaries.

In 2004, fewer than 20 states held simultaneous primaries, with most of them in late April or later.

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