Some States Trying to Move Back in 2012 Primary Schedule

Indiana avoided the national rush to move up the date of its 2008 presidential primaries. And national attention ended up being focused on the Hoosier state. Don’t expect any change from Indiana’s early May vote, and for a variety of reasons others are looking to fall back in the pack for 2012.

The modern presidential nominating process, in which candidates must compete in primaries throughout the country to have a chance to win, dates to 1972. After that, it only took a few election cycles for states to realize that the ones voting first had the biggest say in the nomination. By 1988, the push to “frontload” had begun in earnest.

Almost immediately, political scientists began complaining that the primary schedule was becoming perilously compressed. If too many states vote too early, they argued, only the best-funded candidates can compete. Candidates can effectively wrap up nominations in a matter of weeks, before the press and the public have time to scrutinize them. Then, states with primaries and caucuses later in the spring don’t matter. “A lot of states are not just less influential, but have no effective voice in the process,” says William Mayer, a Northeastern University political scientist who co-authored a book on frontloading.

Both the national Democratic and Republican parties have tried to impose some order on the process. But the parties don’t set the dates of primaries. State legislators do — because it’s the states who actually administer the elections, along with local governments.

Legislators’ foremost concern has been maximizing the influence of their own states. Even those who agree with the political scientists about the problems with a frontloaded calendar don’t want their own state to be the one left behind.

The results are dramatic. In 1976, on the Democratic side, the Iowa caucuses were in January and the New Hampshire primary was in February. Four more states voted in March and three more in April, with the other 20 primary states scattered later into the spring.

In 2008, six states voted in January. They included Florida and Michigan, which moved up their primaries in violation of Democratic Party rules. By the end of February, voters in nearly three dozen states had already cast their ballots in primaries or caucuses on both the Democratic and Republican side.