Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Advancing the Dates of Presidential Primaries: The Case of California and New York

Academic journal article Presidential Studies Quarterly

Advancing the Dates of Presidential Primaries: The Case of California and New York

Article excerpt

Both the sequence and spacing of presidential primaries, it is widely asserted, play an important part in determining which candidates receive their parties' nominations. Candidates and consultants, reporters and pundits, all behave as if it matters whether large states hold their primary contests earlier or later in the season, or if several primaries are held on the same day. To be taken seriously by the media, candidates must raise large sums of money during the early phase of the primary season.

If candidates could ignore the sequence of primaries, their preferred strategy would most likely be to focus on the states with the greatest concentrations of media and fundraising wealth and the largest shares of the major parties' convention delegates. However, as the system is presently configured, they cannot afford to do this. To neglect the early, small-state caucuses and primaries would mean sacrificing crucial media attention and opportunities to develop momentum--both of which are needed to "purchase" credibility among opinion shapers and important donors. Of course, the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary draw candidate attention far in excess of what those states' shares of national party convention delegates would otherwise suggest they merit. And, because a number of the crucial early contests are held in very small states with relatively modest television markets, the barriers to entry facing prospective candidates are relatively low.

Because the system gives candidates with meager campaign chests and lower levels of name recognition a chance to compete with better-funded, better-known opponents (by holding several small-state contests early on), the front-loading trend that is the subject of this article has important systemic implications for the kind of candidates who are advantaged in the selection process. After describing the process by which primary dates have been advanced in California and New York, the systemic effects of the front-loading phenomenon are discussed. In order to explore the motivations and assumptions of the state parties and legislatures in these two states (in relation to their efforts to advance the dates of their primaries), I have conducted semi-structured interviews with officials of both the Republican and Democratic National Committees, as well as of the state Democratic and Republican committees. I was also able to interview several key state legislators and gubernatorial staff members. All of the interviews were conducted in the summer of 1994.(1)

California

On September 9, 1993, by a vote of 62 to 12, the California State Assembly approved legislation which moved the state's presidential primary from the first Tuesday in June to the fourth Tuesday in March (March 26 in 1996). The state Senate had voted the previous week by a vote of 27 to 7 in favor of the measure, and with some fanfare, Governor Pete Wilson promptly signed it. The change was received enthusiastically by columnists and political consultants. As an article in California Journal Weekly observed, "It's hard to find anyone who doesn't think the change will have a dramatic impact oil national politics. Suddenly, California will become a crucial proving ground--not just because of its size, but because of the diversity of its population."(2) Republican Assemblyman Stan Stratham affirmed this judgment: "California is the most important state in the Union. Our decision should have a nationwide effect."(3) Berkeley political scientist Bruce Cain stated: "California is in the position to be the final arbiter of a choice of two, or possibly three."(4)

Ironically, some commentators had argued that California already has "too much clout," that the size of its bloc of convention delegates (the Democratic and Republican delegate blocs are the largest at their respective conventions), the national influence of its media, and the vast amount of California money available to political candidates all cause candidates to spend a disproportionate amount of time in the state. …

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