Sabato's Crystal Ball

Bipartisanship at Last?

The Parties Fashion the 2012 Presidential Nominating Process

Rhodes Cook, Senior Columnist December 10th, 2009

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Not far removed from the shouting, sniping, and long elbows the two parties regularly display on Capitol Hill, the Democrats and Republicans are actually working together on something important–an overhaul of the presidential nominating process for 2012.

Just down the hill, at the headquarters of the Democratic and Republican national committees, the two parties are working to revamp the oft-criticized presidential nominating process for 2012. With too many states voting too early a common complaint in 2008, the two parties each have their own commission studying a revamp of the system for next time.

They could produce a later starting date, a spread-out primary calendar, and on the Democratic side, a sharp reduction in the number of unelected “superdelegates.” (The latter, a variety of party and elected officials, comprised nearly 20 percent of the last Democratic convention and drew criticism as being anti-democratic.)

The big news, though, is that for the first time ever, the two parties are working concurrently and are consulting with each other in the process. The hope is that each might produce a final product that not only puts both parties on the same basic wavelength, but would enable them to present a common front in selling their revisions to the nation and to the states that will be asked to comply.

To be sure, it is not one Kumbaya moment after another as the Democrats and Republicans proceed. But if all goes well, the 2012 nominating season could begin a month later than 2008–with the early states led by Iowa and New Hampshire voting in February rather than January, and the rest of the country starting to vote in early March rather than early February. As well, regional clustering of states in 2012 is a real possibility, rather than the current ad hoc arrangement which in 2008 produced a huge log jam in early February when two dozen states voted on the same day.

Table 1. The Evolution of Presidential Primaries: More and More, Earlier and Earlier

Over the last third of the 20th century, the number of presidential primaries multiplied from a handful of states to a vast majority. As a result, the primaries have supplanted the national conventions as the place where nominations are decided. Knockouts in February or March–when most primaries have taken place of late–have become the norm, with the long-running Democratic contest in 2008 a conspicuous exception. Below is a list of the number of presidential primaries by month in a sampling of election cycles before 2000 and all those since. The month with the most primaries in each cycle is indicated in bold.




Note: Primaries included are those held in the 50 states and the District of Columbia in which at least one of the parties permitted a direct vote for presidential candidates, or there was an aggregated statewide vote for delegates.

Sources: Race for the Presidency: Winning the 2008 Nomination (CQ Press); America Votes 28 (CQ Press).


In years past, a significant overhaul of the system was virtually impossible because the two parties operated on different timetables when it came to revising their nominating rules. Democrats have made their changes between elections with the national committee signing off on any recommendations. In contrast, Republicans traditionally require all revisions in their nominating rules to be approved by their national convention.

Not only does that mean GOP nominating rules have been locked in four years in advance, well before the Democrats have even begun considering their changes, but any bold initiatives routinely fall victim to the desire of Republican leaders to quell any controversy in the media fishbowl atmosphere of a convention.

That happened in 2000, when Republican rules makers proposed a major overhaul of the primary process that would have grouped states into four clusters according to population, with each cluster voting over a three-month period in inverse order of size–the smallest states first, the largest states last. However, the proposal, known as the Delaware Plan, drew objections from the larger states and never made it to the convention floor. It was sacrificed on the altar of party harmony.

A variant of this proposal, known as the Ohio Plan, suffered a similar fate in 2008. But its prime sponsor, Ohio Republican Chairman Bob Bennett, did not go quietly. And with the Buckeye State critically important to the party in the general election, party leaders approved creation of a special post-election commission to review the primary calendar for 2012.

The Two Parties in Action

The GOP panel, known as the Temporary Delegate Selection Committee, has 15 members and is chaired by the head of the Republican National Committee (RNC), Michael Steele. It is in the midst of meetings now, with its final recommendations scheduled to go to the summer 2010 meeting of the RNC for an up-or-down vote. At that time, no amendments will be allowed and a two-thirds majority of RNC members will be required for passage.

The Democratic panel, known as the Democratic Change Commission, has 34 members, plus two co-chairs, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina and Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri. It must finish its work by the end of this year, and forward its recommendations to the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, which will translate them into specific language. The final product is expected to go to the DNC for adoption either in the fall of 2010 or the winter of 2011.

Bipartisan success is not a given. The two parties are coming at reform from different directions. As they have for the last decade, the Republicans are taking a “big picture” approach, reviewing various plans that would arrange the states into clusters.

The Democrats, on the other hand, are basically responding to particular concerns from 2008–questions of timing regarding the “front-loaded” primary calendar, the proper role of superdelegates, and ground rules for the conduct of caucuses.

Unlike its Republican counterpart, the Democratic Change Commission has been given a specific set of parameters to work within. The early events in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina are to be held no earlier than February 1, 2012, with other states not allowed to hold their primary or caucus until the first Tuesday in March. That means there would be no flurry of campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire over the Christmas holidays, as was the case last time, or any “Tsunami Tuesday” in early February.

The Democrats are also encouraging states to cluster their contests by region or sub-regions, as was the case with the February 12, 2008, voting in the Potomac primary in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. This puts the Democrats on the same wavelength as the Republicans in terms of the desire to cluster states and spread these clusters across the calendar.

Yet whether the Democrats and Republicans can ultimately agree on the same reform of the primary calendar for 2012 is an open question. But there are key rules makers in both parties who are cautiously optimistic. “I think we can find common ground,” says James Roosevelt, the co-chair of the Democratic Rules and Bylaws Committee.

And if they do, they will not only have accomplished a long-overdue overhaul of the presidential nominating process, but also modeled for their congressional colleagues on Capitol Hill the virtues of bipartisan cooperation.

Table 2. Voters Turn Out in Record Numbers for 2008 Presidential Primaries

The presidential nominating process endured plenty of criticism in 2008, but that did not prevent each party from shattering their previous turnout record. The long-running Democratic contest featuring Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton brought nearly 37 million voters into the Democratic primaries, dwarfing the party’s long-time record of 23 million set back in 1988. On the Republican side, nearly 21 million primary ballots were cast last year, eclipsing the previous high of 17.2 million set in 2000.








Note: Because of rounding, the total Democratic and Republican primary vote does not always equal the sum of each party’s primary turnout. An asterisk (*) indicates an incumbent president. Primaries included are those held in the 50 states and the District of Columbia in which at least one of the parties permitted a direct vote for presidential candidates, or there was an aggregated statewide vote for delegates.

Sources: Race for the Presidency: Winning the 2008 Nomination (CQ Press); America Votes 28 (CQ Press).