Friday, August 28, 2015

Trump in the Blank

There is a positive relationship between the length of Donald Trump's time atop the Republican presidential primary polls and the breadth of coverage he receives from the news media. As one increases, the other increases as well. But then again, that is how this process tends to work. In the Sides and Vavreck parlance, it's discovery, scrutiny and decline.

The temptation is perhaps to address why, given ample fodder, scrutiny has not yet yielded to decline in Mr. Trump's case. In fact, that discussion -- why hasn't that decline happened? -- has claimed a sizable chunk of the scrutiny phase to this point. Yet, there have been several extended, in-depth discussions of Mr. Trump's policy positions on a number of issues, too.

Mark this last full week of August 2015 down as the week that Mr. Trump's continued polling success intersected with how that might translate into primary success next year. Another way of looking at this is that folks have run out of things to write about Mr. Trump and have finally gotten to the delegate selection rules. If a polling boomlet lasts long enough, people will get bored enough to start talking about the rules.1

The problem with the rules portion of the scrutiny phase (if it comes at all) is that it can often seem haphazardly thrown together and ultimately misguided. That description might be a bit overboard, but it roughly fits the scenario(s) that Josh Marshall and David Fishback have woven together concerning Trump and the the Republican delegate selection rules in place for next year.

That scenario goes something like this:
  1. Trump has the support of a quarter to a third of the Republican primary electorate.2
  2. Trump wins and/or wins a good amount of delegates from the carve-out states and those primaries and caucuses that follow during the proportionality window (March 1-14).
  3. Trump wraps things up once the proportionality window closes and states can allocate delegates in a winner-take-all fashion.3
  4. Trump is the Republican nominee.
Look at that sequence again. With or without the proportionality window, this is roughly the sequence in which any Republican presidential candidate is nominated. All that Marshall and Fishback have done is add Trump's name to the formula; the "frontrunner's" path to the Republican nomination. It is the 50-75 Rule FHQ discussed at Crystal Ball earlier this year. Some candidate wins some delegates early, creates a small lead (around the point at which 50% of the total number of delegates are allocated) and then widens it (around the time that 75% of the total number of delegates are allocated). That established lead is usually either enough to clinch the nomination or put it well enough out of reach for other candidates to force their withdrawals.

Other than the much sexier, but less likely brokered deadlocked convention scenario, this is the other most widely talked about path by which someone gets to the nomination. Marshall and Fishback have filled in the blank with Trump.

So what? It is a storyless doomsday story that is typical of the summer period before a presidential election year.

See, I told you the scrutiny phase scrapes the bottom of the barrel when it gets to the rules.

1 Hey, some of us are bored/boring enough to write about those rules almost exclusively.

2 This glosses over deeper questions about whether the support Trump now enjoys will actually translate to votes once Iowa kicks things off next year.

3 To be clear, not all states on or after March 15 are winner-take-all. If 2012 is a baseline and North Carolina and Ohio are added to the mix, that is still only eight winner-take-all states. Granted, most of those are huddled around March 15 or in the last half of March. But not all of the states are winner-take-all once the proportionality window closes at the end of March 14.

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Thursday, August 27, 2015

DC GOP Laying Groundwork for March Convention in 2016

The details will be ironed out during September meetings, but the Washington, DC Republican Party is preparing to hold a convention during the second half of March to allocate and bind its delegates to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland next year.

That March Republican convention will replace the June 14 primary scheduled in the district.  The change from a primary to convention was actually necessary. June 14 falls outside of the window in which the Republican National Committee (and the Rules of the Republican Party) allows states and territories to conduct delegate selection events. With the window due to close on the second Saturday in June, Republicans in the district had to begin a search for a back up plan.

By positioning the convention during the second half of March, Republicans in the District of Columbia will be able to continue allocating their delegates in a winner-take-all if the party chooses to follow its past practice. But again, those details along with matters of ballot access will be determined at the September meeting.

DC Democrats will still hold a primary on June 14.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

North Carolina Still Doesn't Have a Presidential Primary Date

Just over five weeks ago now, the North Carolina Senate passed legislation scheduling the 2016 presidential primary in the Tar Heel state for March 15. That positioning was purported to have been a deal cut between both the House and Senate to move the North Carolina primary more clearly into compliance with national party rules.1

What seemed like a done deal five weeks ago does not necessarily appear to be such a slam dunk at the moment. Part of this has to do with the current state of play in the North Carolina General Assembly. Due to have adjourned in July, the legislature has been embroiled in an inter-chamber dispute over the budget for the coming fiscal year. Several times since July, the body has had to pass continuing resolutions to fund the state government and buy itself some time to pass a true budget for next year.

But the amended HB 373 -- the bill setting the presidential primary date for March 15 -- passed the state Senate at a time in late July in which non-controversial bills (particularly those not germane to the budget situation) were regularly moving through the chambers. And it appeared that HB 373 was heading toward a similar conclusion. Since it passed the House previously in a different form, the Senate committee substitute to HB 373 with the presidential primary language only required a quick concurrence on the House side. And it looked as if that concurrence would in fact be quick as the bill was added to the House calendar a day after it was received from the Senate. Then, however, the bill was pulled from the calendar and re-referred to the House Committee on Rules where it has been bottled up ever since.

There it sits. Is HB 373 a casualty of the current budget fight? Is it being held in the House as a means of attempting to extract concessions out of the Senate in the budget negotiations?2 The answer is that we don't know. But what we do know is that the North Carolina presidential primary is still tethered to the February South Carolina primary and that carries with it some ramifications for the state parties in the Tar Heel state as 2016 approaches.

1 As it stands now, the North Carolina presidential primary is scheduled for the Tuesday after the South Carolina primary. And with carve-out state South Carolina likely to end up in February, the result for North Carolina -- given the current state law -- would be a non-compliant primary that would subject the state Republican Party to the so-called super penalty (reduction to 12 delegates) and potentially open the Democratic Party in the state to more severe penalties as well.

2 The budget impasse as mentioned above is an inter-chamber affair pitting majority Senate Republicans against Republicans controlling the House.

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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Colorado Republicans Opt to Forgo Presidential Preference Vote at 2016 Caucuses

The Executive Committee of the Colorado Republican Party unanimously voted late last week to skip  the presidential preference vote at its precinct caucuses in 2016.

On the surface this is an interesting if not strange decision. As the Associated Press reported, it is a move to diminish the role of the state in the Republican presidential nomination process. Perhaps, but FHQ is not of the opinion that that tells the full story here.

For practical purposes, all this means is that Colorado Republicans will caucus on either February 2 (the day after the presumed February 1 Iowa caucuses) or March 1 (the day of the so-called SEC primary). The process will likely look the exact same as it did four years ago when the party conducted caucuses on the first Tuesday in February. The only difference is in 2016, that exercise will not have a presidential preference vote as part of the proceedings.

And bear in mind that the vote at the 2012 Colorado Republican caucuses did not bind delegates to the national convention. It was one of the non-binding caucuses. The very same sort of affair that the Republican National Committee sought to change at the 2012 convention in Tampa and in rules changes in the time since. At least part of the intent in that move toward binding contests was not only to eliminate fantasy delegates, but to create a more orderly delegate count over the course of primary season and ultimately a less controversial (lead up to the) roll call vote for the nomination at the next national convention.

However, the RNC provided one out to states wanting to maintain a practice of sending unbound delegates to the national convention. Basically, it gave the handful of caucus states that have in the past held non-binding caucuses the ability to opt out of a presidential preference vote altogether. Now, there is nothing in Rule 16(a)(1) that invites states to do this, but there is also nothing there -- no penalty -- to prevent states from not holding a presidential preference vote. The only penalty is that states taking that path are gambling with the attention they might receive in the nomination process.

And that brings this discussion back to the contention from the AP above; that Colorado Republicans, by making this decision, have counterintuitively shrunk their own role in the process. That all depends. Recall that the preference vote meant very little in 2012. It was a straw poll, a beauty contest. But that allowed us to say that Rick Santorum had "won" Colorado. We will not have the ability to as easily declare a winner in 2016 in the Centennial state.

Yet, that does not also prevent the candidates and their campaigns from spending time there. It just changes the incentives. The "winner" tag will be gone, but campaigns will still have decisions to make. Do you invest resources in a contest that pays no immediate dividends? Do you invest in the type of organization that gets candidate-aligned delegates elected to move from the precinct caucuses to county assemblies and from there to district conventions and from there to the state convention and beyond to Cleveland?

Perhaps Colorado Republicans did not just diminish their role so much as narrow the field of candidates who are willing to gamble; willing to expend those resources there. The party has condensed the field to three main categories: 1) those with grassroots support, 2) those who have the money and resources to organize or 3) those who have both. The rest won't bother and probably because they cannot afford to.

And if the Republican Party in Colorado opts for a February 2 date for its caucuses, it increases the likelihood that candidates would be willing to make that gamble. Remember also that with no binding presidential preference vote, Colorado would not be penalized any delegates under the RNC rules.

One more thing that has not come out in the reporting here is that this -- the executive committee vote -- may only be step one in this decision-making process. When FHQ spoke with the party last month, party chief of staff, Tyler Hart, informed us that ultimately the state central committee will have to sign off on any changes coming out of the executive committee meeting during its own meeting next month. Given that the executive committee vote was unanimous, though, the direction of that vote seems quite clear.

They have a date decision to make as well.

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Monday, August 24, 2015

Is the SEC Primary Working?

Southern politicians keep saying and the press keeps reporting that the "SEC primary is working".

That statement tends to oversimplify the dynamics at play in this instance though. Is the SEC primary working? Well, it depends on how you define "working". Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill (R)(and others, mind you) seem to be defining it as presidential candidates being drawn into the states participating in the effort to cluster southern presidential primaries on March 1.

But are those states drawing in more candidates/visits than was the case four years ago (or if they maintained the same positions on the calendar they had four years ago)? FHQ has touched on this before, but it bears repeating given that this same line keeps coming back up regarding the regional primary scheduled for next March. The simple answer is yes. Southern states are witnessing more candidate stops than was the case four years ago.

However, there are several explanations to the more interesting "why" question that are too readily being glossed over by the "SEC primary is working" crowd.1

1) The importance of being early.
All things held equal, any state would rather be on March 1 than June 1. Holding an earlier primary or caucus may not have a direct impact on the course of the two presidential nomination races, but one would rather weigh in before the field has been winnowed too drastically or a nominee has been identified. It was this sort of thinking that prompted the frontloading of presidential primaries and caucuses in the first place.

But if you look at the group of states participating in the SEC primary at this time only Arkansas and Texas are scheduled more than a week earlier in 2016 than they were in 2012. There may be more visits that have been paid to southern states during the 2016 cycle, but it is not solely because any member of the collective or the group of them is much earlier than in 2012.

2) One for all and all for one.
Well, perhaps it is the forming of the coalition that provides the largest impetus for increased candidate attention. Again, though, on this mark, things are not all that divergent from the 2012 baseline. Texas reverting to the first Tuesday in March date that state law there calls for is a big factor.2 But the clustering does not seem to be having a direct impact on visits.

Instead, the SEC primary grouping may have succeeded most in claiming that spot on the calendar and warding off any would-be copycats from duplicating the strategy also on March 1. The impact of any cluster of states -- or any individual state for that matter -- is contingent upon the competition it has on that date. In 1988, southern states were similarly able to crowd onto an early March date without any competition or at least any competition that offered a similar cache of delegates.

Like 1988, southern primaries have no real threat to their position on March 1, 2016. Sure, there are other states with contests on March 1, but they are neither as regional cohesive nor do they offer the number of delegates that the SEC primary does.

It should be said that the South serving as the heart of the Republican Party does not hurt the effort. A northeastern primary on March 1 would not, for example, be able to compete with a southern regional primary effectively. There might be some draw there, but most would still visit the South.

3) Calendar certainty.
At this point four years ago, Florida had yet to set a date for its presidential primary. Arizona had just threatened to move into January. With those and other states unsettled, the candidates had no idea where exactly Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina would end up.

...only that they would be first. States that followed the rules on timing and otherwise would have been on the heels of the carve-out state contests paid the price for actions outside of their borders.

Campaigns behaved accordingly. If one knows the carve-out states will be first and that the snow globe that is the next step is still being shaken, then one -- the campaigns in this case -- will focus on what they know versus what they don't. That uncertainty likely meant fewer candidate visits to states that ultimately fell into position on the calendar (but only after Florida, Arizona and others did).

The 2016 calendar is much more settled now. Campaigns have an ability during this cycle to plan ahead -- visit states deeper into the calendar -- than they did not and could not possess four years ago. And they have the luxury of doing so much earlier in the process. States as far down the calendar as March 15 have reaped the benefits, but the states in the SEC primary coalition have been big winners because of the calendar certainty. The early cluster helped too.

4) It's the field, stupid.
Finally, it should not go without saying that the size of the field of candidates should be factored into this as well. After all, more candidates yield more visits. That is a big reason why there are more visits to the South by those vying for the presidential nominations next year.

Is the SEC primary working? If the measure of that is visits to the states in the coalition, then yes. But why that is happening may be a more interesting question.

1 It should be noted that these folks have every reason to give off the impression that the regional primary is working. They have an incentive to say that more candidates are coming. It tends to bring others in.

2 An unresolved redistricting process led to the courts forcing a later (May) Texas primary in 2012.

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Saturday, August 22, 2015

Kentucky Republicans Shift to March 5 Caucuses

The state central committee of the Republican Party of Kentucky voted on Saturday, August 22 to adopt March 5 caucuses for the 2016 presidential nomination process. The 111-36 vote cleared the two-thirds threshold the party needed to make the change, contingent upon Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) transferring $250,000 to RPK by September 18.

The switch from a primary to caucuses has a number of impacts. First, by dropping the government-funding presidential primary in mid-May -- May 17 -- the state party (with Paul's help) will pick up the tab, but also have an earlier contest. Second, the shift allows Paul to not only run for the Republican presidential nomination, but to seek renomination to the US Senate in the May primary election; circumventing Kentucky statutes barring anyone from running for more than one office on one ballot.

The Kentucky Republican caucuses will coincide with the Louisiana primary and the Republican caucuses in Kansas on March 5 in the Republican nomination process.

Kentucky Democrats previously decided to stick with the May 17 primary as their means of determining presidential candidate preference and allocating delegates to the national convention in Philadelphia.

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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Washington Presidential Primary Will Remain in May

A bipartisan committee made up of Washington state party members, state legislators and the secretary of state convened Tuesday, August 11 in Seattle and voted to keep the presidential primary in the Evergreen state in May.

Partisan differences and the procedures behind the voting process signaled the outcome ahead of time. First, there were five Republican members and four Democratic members of the group, and the two parties were differently motivated. The Republicans, led by Secretary of State Kim Wyman (R), initially proposed a March 8 primary date, a proposal that would have moved the election up from the fourth Tuesday in May as called for in state law.1 That earlier calendar position would have done more to guarantee Republican voters in the state the opportunity to cast their ballots in a competitive nomination at a point in which the nominee had yet to be (definitively) determined. The fact that the primary election will determine the allocation of approximately half of the Washington delegates to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland was another impetus for Republican action.

Washington Democrats, however, have less of a stake in the primary and its scheduling. The state party has already committed to conducting caucuses as a means of allocating its delegates in 2016. Unlike their Republican counterparts, national Democratic Party delegate selection rules prohibit the allocation of delegates across two contests. The possibility of double voting -- voting in both a primary and a caucus -- was concern enough for the DNC to eliminate the practice in all states but Texas years ago. Already locked into March 26 caucuses, then, Evergreen state Democrats had no real incentive to move the date of an election that was nothing more than a beauty contest to the party.

Needing two-thirds of the group -- six of nine members -- to sign off on a change of the primary date and facing a 5-4 split on the committee, the writing was already on the wall. That vote held for the initial proposal to move the primary to March 8 and for a second proposal to shift the contest to March 22.2

That keeps the Washington presidential primary on May 24. But both parties will have caucuses as well. The Democrats has set to hold March 26 caucus meetings while the Republican Party in the state has yet to settle on a date for its precinct meetings.

1 The law also allows the secretary of state and a bipartisan committee the ability to change the date if the legislature does not.

2 Both dates would have aligned the Washington presidential primary with similar contests in other western states. Neighboring Idaho will hold a March 8 presidential primary and Arizona and Utah will have delegate selection events on March 22.

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Friday, August 7, 2015

Massachusetts Presidential Primary Scheduled for March 1

Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin (D), in a surprise to literally no one, announced on Thursday, August 6 that the 2016 presidential primary in the Bay state would be held on March 1.

The general statutes in the commonwealth call for the presidential primary to be held on the first Tuesday of March in every presidential election year. Though there is legislation in the Massachusetts General Court to consolidate the presidential primary with those for other offices in June, similar legislation has failed in the past. And the current bill has been stalled in committee since its introduction in January.

The only threat to that date was what has become a quadrennial squabble over the level of funding allocated to the election. But that too came and went with no real problem posed for the presidential primary. The Democratic-controlled legislature raised the presidential primary allocation from the governor's proposed budget. That revised total was later confirmed and finalized with the conclusion of the budget process on July 30.

That was the last remaining hurdle, and with it cleared, Massachusetts is set to hold a March 1 presidential primary concurrent with similar contest across the South and in neighboring Vermont among others.

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Date of 2016 Colorado Republican Caucuses Remains Unsettled

With New York officially moving back into compliance with national party delegate selection rules and North Carolina inching in that direction too, Colorado is the only state with any ties to a February primary/caucus position that is not also a carve-out state. Under Colorado state law, parties can call caucuses in a presidential primary year for either the first Tuesday in February or the first Tuesday in March. Democrats in the Centennial state have already staked a claim to the March 1 date, but on the Republican side, the choice is still unclear.

According to Colorado Republican Party chief of staff, Tyler Hart, that decision likely will not be made until late September (just prior to the October 1 Republican National Committee deadline by which state parties are required to have finalized delegate selection plans). The Colorado Republican Party Executive Committee will meet to discuss the options in a late August meeting and then the full State Central Committee will vote on the date as well as the method of delegate allocation.

All of this hinges on whether the party votes to hold a straw poll (to determine presidential preference). If the State Central Committee opts against a straw poll, then the caucuses are likely to be scheduled on the first Tuesday in February date; February 2 (the day after the proposed February 1 Iowa caucuses). Recall that in 2012, Colorado Republicans held early February caucuses, but conducted a non-binding straw poll that Rick Santorum won. Any straw poll vote like that -- concurrent with precinct caucuses -- in 2016 would bind any subsequent delegate allocation in the state based on rules changes that came out of the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. The rules change was partially motivated by contests like those in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri that had beauty contest votes that had little or no bearing on the simultaneous and subsequent delegate selection process (through precinct caucuses to county/district caucuses to the state convention).

Attempting to thread that needle -- early caucuses with no direct presidential preference vote1 -- echoes to some degree the experience Minnesota Republicans earlier this year. Minnesota was in a similar boat with Colorado in 2012 as alluded to above. Both state parties held early February caucuses and both parties allowed caucus participants to vote on their presidential preference in meaningless straw poll votes. However, both now face a cycle that will operate under a set of rules that prohibit a repeat of the non-binding straw polls at caucuses.

Minnesota Republicans, after agreeing with Democrats in the Gopher state to hold caucuses on March 1 next year, petitioned the RNC to allow its delegation to remain unbound heading to the national convention in Cleveland next July as has been the custom in Minnesota throughout the post-reform era. The party even considered skipping its own straw poll (with the March 1 caucuses) as a means of circumventing the new binding rules. Minnesota Republicans technically could not have gotten away with the maneuver since the state law requires a straw poll vote. Regardless, the RNC denied the request to allow the Minnesota delegation to remain unbound heading into the national convention. According to reports out the state at the time, that ruling did not address the potential for not holding a straw poll vote.

This is what Colorado Republicans are also considering now. And it is likely something that the RNC will have to address if the state party votes to go forward with a plan to forgo the straw poll. As the caucuses are likely to indirectly affect the delegate selection process (who the delegates are and are aligned with), the likelihood of it ending up like Minnesota -- request denied -- is high.

But the Colorado Republican Party could avoid all of that by choosing the March option for its 2016 caucuses. That decision will not (officially) come until September though.

1 Instead caucusgoers would be voting on delegate candidates (likely) aligned with particular candidates vying for the Republican presidential nomination. Delegates would be selected/elected from that pool of (aligned) delegate candidates to move on to the next step of the caucus/convention process.

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Sunday, July 26, 2015

Kansas Republicans Set Delegate Allocation Rules for 2016

Despite reports that the Kansas Republican Party set its caucus date at its midyear convention on Saturday, July 25, the real headline came from changes to the party's delegate allocation process.

The Lawrence Journal-World ran a story late Saturday that Kansas Republicans had set the date of their 2016 caucuses for March 5 at their Saturday meeting. However, that decision was tentatively made back in January and formalized thereafter. Party chair, Kelly Arnold, testified before a Kansas legislative committee considering a bill to permanently cancel the perpetually cancelled Kansas presidential primary in March (2015) that the party would hold caucuses on March 5.1 The party website also reflected that decision at that time.

The question about the caucuses was less when on Saturday than it was how. As in "How will Kansas Republicans allocate delegates to candidates in the 2016 Republican presidential nomination process?" There were two main differences in the plan adopted that are departures from the delegate allocation plan the Kansas Republican Party utilized in 2012.

First, due to the tighter definition of proportionality that the Republican National Committee has in place for contests within the March 1-14 proportionality window in 2016, Sunflower state Republicans had to alter the manner in which its congressional district delegates will be allocated. Whereas it was fine in 2012 to allocate those congressional district delegates on a winner-take-all basis (while the statewide/at-large delegates were proportionally allocated) while remaining compliant with the proportionality rules, in 2016 it will not be. Those congressional district delegates now have to be allocated proportionally as well.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Kansas Republicans lowered the threshold for receiving delegates -- congressional district or at-large -- from 20% to 10%. Strategically, that lowers if not eliminates the need for the party to make rules accounting for the possibility that no candidate crosses the threshold to receive delegates. Scheduled over a month after the Iowa caucuses are likely to be held, the March 5 Kansas Republican caucuses will see a field winnowed from the 16 candidates who have formally announced runs (as of July 2015).

Functionally, though, the lowered threshold means that more candidates are likely to qualify for delegates in 2016 than was the case in 2012. Only Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney cleared the 20% threshold the 2012 caucuses. Under the newly adopted 2016 rules, however, both Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul would also have been allocated delegates in 2012. The loser in the change -- if the 2016 rules had been used in 2012 -- would have been Rick Santorum. Instead of a 33-7 Santorum to Romney delegate distribution, Santorum likely would have claimed roughly 23 delegates to 8 for Romney, 5 for Paul and 4 for Gingrich.

And that difference is a direct reflection of both of those rules changes for 2016: 1) proportionally allocating congressional district delegates and 2) lowering the threshold for qualifying for delegates.

There is one more factor to note in closing on this discussion of the Kansas Republican caucus rules for 2016. The three automatic delegates -- the party chair, national committeeman and national committeewoman -- are all still allocated to the statewide winner of the caucuses. That portion of the allocation rules is unchanged; a tiny winner-take-all remnant that carries over to 2016.

1 Arnold made it clear that the caucuses "will" take place on March 5 in that testimony, separating that distinction/decision from the caucuses planning that was still ongoing at that point.

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