For both Democratic and Republican party officials, the 2008 nominating contest is not only about who they choose to seek the presidency, but about how, and when, that nominee is selected. Increasingly, the how and when are creating a state of near-chaos as states jockey for position and party officials find themselves with little control.
While the national media focuses on Iowa and New Hampshire, the two states which traditionally hold the first caucus and primary, respectively, other states are making moves to set their contests as early as possible in order, they claim, to exert more influence over the contest and to assure that candidates speak to their issues.
But, thanks largely to pressure exerted by Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, the Wolverine State will be the latest to challenge the primacy of Iowa and New Hampshire when the State House passes legislation moving the state's primary to January 15th, just a day after the originally-scheduled Iowa caucuses -- a date now all but certain to be abandoned.
Michigan's move, as well as positions taken by Florida and other states which threaten both parties' meticulously-laid out calendar, are the latest events to sow uncertainty into the presidential race. "The structure is in danger of collapsing," said Rutgers political scientist Ross Baker. "Everybody wants to be Lord Warwick, who puts the crown on the king's head."
If DNC and RNC officials stick to their game plans, states that jump the gun could face heavy sanctions, making their early primaries little more than beauty pageants. Whether the parties are willing to punish those early states, though, remains to be seen.
Both parties agreed that several states should hold contests before the "window," during which any state can hold a contest on any day. The window for each begins on Tuesday, February 5th, and runs to July, though Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina all have a pass to hold their contests earlier. For Democrats, Nevada is also allowed to caucus before other states.
When the window opens, nearly two dozen states will hold their contests at the first available opportunity, meaning the vast majority of delegates to national conventions will be selected on one day. The event, dubbed "Super Duper Tuesday," got more crowded this week when Arizona became the twenty-first state to announce plans to hold their primary that day.
Though not every state is content to wait for the pre-defined window. If, as planned, Michigan holds its contest on January 15th and Florida holds theirs on January 29th, they could, as Levin hopes, diminish the power Iowa and New Hampshire hold over the nominating process. Many critics argue that the two states, which have sky-high percentages of white voters and strong views about certain obscure issues on which every candidate must bend, do not represent the entire U.S. well, and therefore should be replaced with a better microcosm of the country.
On the other hand, Michigan and Florida could, according to party sources, write themselves out of the process entirely. If punished by the DNC and RNC, both states, said South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Carol Fowler, "are probably going to lose enough delegates so that their process becomes irrelevant."
Indeed, it appears that early contests by Michigan and Florida threaten South Carolina's traditional first-in-the-South primary more than Iowa or New Hampshire. "The difference is mega-states versus smaller states," South Carolina GOP chair Katon Dawson said. "I find it disappointing that a U.S. Senator has injected himself into the process."
The position which argues that, by their nature as smaller states, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are better able to judge some second-tier candidates up close and give them a shot has not been lost on campaigns of either party. "Powerful interests are trying to change the Democratic nomination for President into a game of Monopoly, replacing the retail politics" of early states "with a process in which the only credential necessary to be President is to be the wealthiest candidate," Delaware Senator Joe Biden said in a statement.
"The lower tier and skinny-cat campaigns are the ones that are hurt the most," said one Republican campaign strategist. "[Arizona Senator John] McCain and [former Arkansas Governor Mike] Huckabee aren't in a position to quickly move the small staff and limited resources they have to a state that jumps into position to have a big impact on the nominating process."
The issue will come to a head, for Democrats, on Saturday, when the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee meets in Washington. There, party officials will decide what actions to take against Florida, which has formally submitted its plan to hold the primary on January 29th. Penalties imposed on Florida may have enough impact to dissuade Michigan from formally resubmitting its plan, which, as currently filed with the DNC, calls for a February 9th primary.
This weekend's committee meeting is the last scheduled meeting before the nominating process starts. But if Michigan does decide to resubmit its plan and hold a mid-January primary, "it's possible that the RBC will need to take up additional calendar issues following the meeting," hinted DNC spokeswoman Stacie Paxton.
If the DNC finds Florida and, eventually, Michigan, out of compliance, it has several options. First, all the state's super-delegates would lose their privileges (Super-delegates include members of Congress, a state's governor and members of the DNC). Second, at least half of the state's pledged delegates could be taken away.
At best, Florida would wield approximately the same influence as Georgia, Maryland or Washington State, all of which have vastly smaller populations. At worst, the DNC could decide to make a stronger stand and take away all the state's delegates. Based on the DNC's actions, says South Carolina Republican Dawson, "I think it's going to change the appetite of Michigan."
For the RNC, rules are similar, though theirs were set at the 2004 convention and are not subject to change, as Democrats' are. States have until September 4th to officially submit plans to hold primaries and caucuses. If a state moves their contest after the September 4th deadline, or if they hold their contest before February 5th without permission, they will also lose at least half their delegates.
For some states, even the threat of fewer delegates and less influence is not enough to scare them off. "We understand what the possible consequences are," said Michigan GOP chair Saul Anuzis. "We're cautiously optimistic that we wouldn't lose any delegates." Still, if his state faces a threat from either party, says Anuzis, "we think the risks are worth the potential benefit."
To Baker and others, the lack of structure is troubling. "It keeps the candidates and campaigns off balance. It's introduced a huge amount of uncertainty on the system," he said. "You're going to be squandering resources based on contingencies, based on hypotheses, based on rumors, based on threats."
By the end of Saturday, only one issue ripe for rumor and threats will be solved: How far the DNC and chairman Howard Dean are willing to go to hold the line on states creeping earlier. Iowa is still waiting for New Hampshire to name the date of their primary. New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner is still contemplating just how early he will set the primary. Even South Carolina Republicans are contemplating another move: The party's executive committee gave Dawson the power to hold the primary on any day in December or January.
The DNC, perhaps forseeing the inevitable calendar crunch in December 2004, named former Labor Secretary Alexis Herman and North Carolina Congressman David Price to run the party's Nominating Calendar Commission for 2008. But the uncertainty in the calendar, says Baker, can only be solved by a party elder or senior statesman. "If George Mitchell weren't tied up," Baker said, referring to the former Senate Minority Leader currently investigating the prevalence of steroids in baseball, "he'd be a great person to get."
Until a Mitchell figure emerges in both parties, the process will remain muddled. South Carolina Democrat Fowler demonstrated just how up in the air the calendar remains, just four months before the first contest is expected: "The only date [for a contest] we know is the South Carolina Republicans, assuming they don't change and move to some other date."
She paused. "Which they might."