Early primary schedule may not significantly favor ‘establishment candidates’ in ’08 race

Some observers argue that the earlier presidential primary schedule favors “establishment candidates” who enter the campaign with high name recognition. However, the influence attributed to the change may be exaggerated.

The U.S. presidential primary schedule will be moved forward and condensed in 2008. A number of states, including the largest — California — have moved or are considering moving their primary elections to Feb. 5, 2008. This is just three weeks after the Iowa caucuses and two weeks after the New Hampshire primary, the traditional starting points for the nomination campaign. Handicapping the advantages or disadvantages of the move for the major-party candidates has become an amateur sport in the U.S. media. Yet the influence of the change on the campaign may be surprisingly minor.

Campaign continuities

The 2008 campaign seems to have begun earlier in the calendar than prior campaigns, but otherwise it should look much the same. Successful candidates for the nomination since 1980 have needed to win favor with three sets of constituencies, namely:

The national party rank-and-file as measured by national polls; Key “establishment” figures such as national party notables, large potential campaign donors, and interest groups; and Local constituencies in Iowa and New Hampshire, where the earliest votes are cast, thus conferring “momentum” on those who win or exceed expectations.

The 2008 campaign will be no different in this regard.

New challenges

Certainly, the roles of Iowa and New Hampshire in the nominating process may be somewhat reduced. A candidate might more plausibly de-emphasize these contests and aim for a strong showing in California and elsewhere on Feb. 5. Democrats will have an additional target as well: The Nevada caucuses, now scheduled to be held after Iowa but before New Hampshire. This “front-loaded” schedule may make a “dark horse” (i.e., a long-odds) candidacy based on surprise success in Iowa or New Hampshire marginally less likely.

Limited impact?

However, the impact of the revised schedule will probably be limited:

•Gradual change. The openness of the pre-2008 primary system to relatively obscure candidates has been overstated. The primary process has mostly favored early front-runners since its inception in the early 1970s. Since then, the national and state party organizations have steadily scheduled primary elections earlier in the year; this trend will simply continue in 2008.

•The ‘Carter Illusion.’ Former President Jimmy Carter’s surprise victory in 1976 created the illusion that dark-horse candidates could ride an early success in Iowa all the way to the nomination. However, since then, insurgent candidates — such as former Sen. Gary Hart in 1984 and Sen. John McCain in 2000 — have mounted unsuccessful challenges:

Between 1980 and 2000, only one candidate for a major-party nomination has led his party in the national polls just before the Iowa caucuses and then failed to win the nomination (Hart in 1988, who was felled by a sex scandal).

Over the same period only one candidate won the “money primary,” by out-fundraising opponents prior to Iowa, and lost the nomination (John Connally in 1980, who was defeated by former President Ronald Reagan).

•The ‘Dean exception.’ Ironically, 2004 saw Howard Dean, the early leader in the polls and the money primary for the Democratic nomination, lose out to Sen. John Kerry, despite the earliest primary season to date. While Dean was not a traditional “establishment” front-runner, his example nonetheless demonstrates that a front-loaded schedule need not automatically result in the triumph of the early favorite. Kerry was able to follow the traditional underdog’s script, parlaying early success in Iowa into a string of primary victories.

General election implications

Front-loading may also change candidates’ approach towards reconciling their primary and general election strategies:

•‘Repositioning.’ Conventional wisdom holds that candidates must appeal to a partisan “base” in the primary season and then adopt a more centrist approach during the general election. The compressed schedule may make it more difficult for candidates to disassociate themselves from statements that please party primary voters but may alienate independents in the general electorate. However, if both the Republican and Democratic nominations are wrapped up by early February, then the victorious candidates will have more time to reposition themselves for general election purposes.

•Unusual Republican handicaps. This tension between primary and general election constituencies has traditionally been more problematic for Democratic candidates. Republicans have typically united early behind a nominee that is satisfactory to the base and appealing to the general electorate. However, in the current political environment, the Republicans will have more of a problem adjusting their rhetoric between the primary and the general election. With the political landscape dominated by a very unpopular war (and a weak Republican president), partisan Democrats have views that are increasingly palatable to moderate Democrats and even independents. They share similar attitudes towards the war and current administration — and voted similarly in 2006. On the other hand, Republicans must weigh the continuing appeal of President George Bush and his Iraq policy among Republican partisans against his unpopularity among independents. Recent polls show that 75 percent of Republicans still approve of Bush’s job performance, compared with only about 34 percent of the nation as a whole.

•Democratic positioning issues. On the Democratic side, reducing the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire in favor of Nevada and California will increase the weight of ethnic and racial minorities in the early primaries. Some Democratic strategists fear that this more diverse group of voters will select more liberal — and thus ultimately less “electable” — candidates. However, at least as long as Iraq and the Bush presidency dominate the political debate, this influence should have a relatively minor impact on the candidates’ chances in the general election. Moreover, studies of presidential elections show that candidates’ perceived ideology has only a small effect on voting results. Other factors, such as the national economy and views of the incumbent party’s performance, are much more important to general election results.

Oxford Analytica is an international consulting firm providing strategic analysis on world events for business and government leaders. See www.oxan.com.