Sabato's Crystal Ball

The Real Presidential Deadlines

Late-entering candidates must consider fast-approaching filing dates

Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball September 10th, 2015

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The presidential fields on both sides are so much in flux that rumors of new candidates entering the race continue. For the Democrats, the whispers about Vice President Joe Biden making a late charge into the fray have become roars. Biden made a campaign-style appearance at a Labor Day rally in Pittsburgh and otherwise seems to be strongly considering a run as frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s polling has dipped significantly (though to us she remains the clear favorite for the Democratic nomination).

Meanwhile, the enormous Republican field appears set, though the order of finish isn’t even close to being obvious. If the chaos lasts, Republicans may find themselves pining for a new candidate. Last week, a former aide to Mitt Romney swatted down reports that the 2012 nominee was reconsidering his decision from earlier this year to take a pass on a third presidential run.

The Romney talk sounds very unrealistic to us. A Biden bid is much more plausible, although we can see the decision going either way.

But if politicians are to enter late, they need to make up their minds soon. That’s because the filing deadlines for the caucuses and primaries are approaching. Undecided Republicans, in particular, are running out of time, unless they plan to skip a historically important primary.

The first filing deadline on either side is the South Carolina Republican primary, which amazingly is less than three weeks away on Sept. 30. Republicans who want to be on the ballot in the Palmetto State need to pay their $40,000 filing fee (!) by then. It’s not impossible that the pricey fee could impose a winnowing effect on the field, particularly for cash-poor Republican candidates like Rick Perry.

The Democratic South Carolina primary filing deadline isn’t until Jan. 4, 2016, so Biden has a lot more time to ponder, at least for the Palmetto State.

But there are other states with deadlines approaching. Alabama’s primary filing deadline for both parties is Nov. 6. Arkansas quickly follows on Nov. 9, with the huge prize of Florida coming at the end of the month. December features deadlines in places like Arizona, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia. The full list of filing deadlines for both parties appears in Table 1 at the end of this article.

As you take a look at Table 1, please remember this caveat: Plans are not necessarily final in all places, and as you can see, there are question marks up and down the calendar. For instance, North Carolina is still set to vote three days after South Carolina’s Republican primary, which would move the Tar Heel State into February and blow up both parties’ carefully crafted schedule that features only the lead-off states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina in the first month of voting. Most expect North Carolina to eventually move back to March 1, joining other Southern states in the so-called “SEC” (Southeastern Conference) primary, but if it does not the early part of the calendar could be trashed.

Caucuses generally don’t have actual filing deadlines, though some have perfunctory rules that require a candidate to inform the party that he or she is a candidate roughly 10 days before the caucus. Also, the caucus results you see on Election Night represent just the beginning of the process of awarding delegates. Some primaries also lack hard cutoffs, but even if no real work is required to file, there are deadlines. For instance, in order to be on the ballot in Georgia — a major prize on March 1 — candidates must be selected by the executive committees of each party, which then submits the names to the secretary of state’s office. This must be done by Dec. 1. A candidate who entered after that date, therefore, would not be on the Peach State ballot.

But the larger point is this: While there’s still time for other candidates to enter, practically they must do so very soon, especially on the Republican side.

Also, let’s forget about the idea of a new candidate entering after the caucus/primary season has begun. By Feb. 1, 2016, the tentative date of the Iowa caucuses, more than half of the filing deadlines for the various state contests will have already passed: likely 27 on the Republican side and 32 for the Democrats (assuming, as is likely, that North Carolina’s deadline will have passed by then). Even by the end of this calendar year, 15 Democratic and 16 Republican deadlines will have passed. Missing all of those contests would make it very unlikely that a presidential candidate could win his or her party’s nomination on the first ballot at the convention. Brookings recently looked at the significant delegate cost for candidates that dither.

Now, in the event of a deadlocked convention, other candidates could emerge. The convention could hypothetically turn to a candidate who didn’t win the largest number of delegates — or who didn’t win delegates at all. But let’s not assume wild hypotheticals: Not since 1968 has either party picked a nominee who didn’t participate in the primaries (the last one was the Democrats’ Hubert H. Humphrey). Moreover, we haven’t seen any true convention drama since 1976 for the Republicans (the tight Gerald Ford-Ronald Reagan contest that went down to the wire) and 1980 for the Democrats, when a fiery Ted Kennedy tried to pry loose enough Jimmy Carter delegates to steal the nomination.

If either party’s presidential nominee is unclear by next spring, trust us: You’ll hear all you want to know, and more, about the potential for a contested convention. Covering one of those would be a dream come true for most reporters and analysts.

But for now, 2016’s late-starting presidential white knights should know this: If they want to ride to the rescue, they’d best mount up soon.

Table 1: Filing deadlines for 2016 presidential primaries and caucuses

Notes: Dates are based on latest information gleaned from party documents, state law, and knowledge gathered from different state observers; they are subject to change. New Hampshire and some other states have not officially set deadlines, but the dates listed are based on state codes. Some caucus deadlines are relatively soft, and in some cases a de facto deadline may be announcing early enough before the caucus event to be included on printed ballots, thus avoiding write-in status. Republicans in the state of Washington may use a two-step caucus and primary system to decide their delegate commitments; the state’s primary will only be a beauty contest for Democrats. Republicans in Washington, DC may use a caucus in place of a primary. Colorado Republicans will not be holding a presidential preference caucus. Please email us at goodpolitics@virginia.edu if you know information not contained in the table.

Legend: “P” indicates a primary election, “C” indicates a caucus election. States or territories colored purple have the same filing deadlines for both parties; the nomination contests in states or territories colored blue or red have different filing rules depending on the party.

Sources: FrontloadingHQ; Crystal Ball research; Alabama, Alaska (D), Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado (D), Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia (info from secretary of state’s office), Hawaii (D, R), Idaho (D, R), Illinois, Indiana, Iowa (D, R), Kansas (D, R), Kentucky (D, R — info from state party), Louisiana, Maine (D), Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota (D), Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska (D, R), Nevada (D, R), New Hampshire, New Jersey (§19:24-4), New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota (D), Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina (D, R), South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah (D), Vermont, Virginia, Washington (D), West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming (D).

*Update: After we published this piece, the Alaska Republican Party reached out to us and said that it is holding a presidential preference poll on March 1, with the filing deadline on Jan. 31. It’s worth noting that this event is not a conventional primary, though. The state is divided into districts and registered Republicans who want to vote for president must attend a district meeting and vote between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. on March 1. So it’s kind of a hybrid primary/caucus in our eyes, but delegates will be bound the day of the presidential preference poll, so we’ll call it a primary in our table above, which has been updated.