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Explaining the GOP presidential primary calendar

at 01:30 PM ET, 09/29/2011

About a month ago, we here at The Fix wrote a primer on what the presidential nominating calendar might look like in 2012. Today, with the Saturday deadline for states to set their contests fast approaching, we thought it was worthwhile to revisit that primer. Below is an updated version, including the questions that will be answered in the coming days.

New Year’s in Des Moines?

It happened four years ago, and it could very well happen again in 2012. With Florida likely to move its primary to Jan. 31 on Friday, the four states that have been chosen by the Republican National Committee to go first in the primary process are expected to move their contests earlier in the month.

So what does that mean for the nominating process overall, and what else is worth watching in the next couple days? Your answers are below.

* What are the basics?

Four states have the permission of the national committees to hold their primaries and caucuses before March 6: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. The RNC has said that any state that infringes on that quartet’s early status and holds its primary before March 6 will forfeit half of its delegates at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa.

The calendar as laid out by the RNC looks like this:

Feb. 6: Iowa caucus

Feb. 14: New Hampshire primary

Feb. 18: Nevada caucus

Feb. 28: South Carolina primary

March 6: Super Tuesday (currently including contests in Georgia, Idaho, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Virginia)

After March 6, other states are free to hold their races at any time. But states with contests in March are required to allot their delegates proportionally, while states with races in April or later can award them all to the winner of their state.

That system, at least in theory, allows for states that vote later to be more pivotal in picking a nominee (provided the race isn’t already over of course).

(For more on how the new delegate allotment rule could make the race last longer, see AP reporter Stephen Ohlemacher’s great piece .)

* Florida’s moving up. So what?

Florida’s move is not official yet and the RNC is pushing back on the plan but state House Speaker Dean Cannon told The Fix on Wednesday that it is very likely the Sunshine State will hold a vote on Jan. 31.

What’s most likely to happen from there is Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina will move their contests up approximately one month, with Iowa going first in early January, followed in the same order by the other three states.

With the nominating contest now likely to begin about two months before the RNC’s March 6 dividing line, the question is whether other states will move their contests up as well — jostling to the front (or close to it) of the line in hopes of exercising more influence.

Right now, only Arizona and Michigan are set to join Florida in flouting RNC rules, but both of those states are set for Feb. 28 vote — nearly a month after Florida.

(Maine, Minnesota and Colorado currently have caucuses scheduled for Feb. 7 or thereabouts, but those don’t violate RNC rules because they don’t require delegates to vote for a certain candidate. Missouri’s primary is also set for Feb. 7, but GOP leaders are reportedly considering their own non-binding caucus. Also, Washington has a non-binding contest on March 3.)

What that means is there could be a lot of real estate between Florida on Jan. 31 and Arizona and Michigan on Feb. 28.

As we’ve said many times on this blog, politics abhors a vacuum. And if you’re an ambitious state trying to make yourself relevant in the presidential process, there could be great opportunity for your state to be the focus of the entire country.

The most likely candidate to jump into that gap appeared to be Georgia but the secretary of state announced this morning that its primary would be held on Super Tuesday, March 6.

Republican National Committee officials think Florida’s last-minute decision on when to move its votes has at least prevented other states from being able to jump into February, given the lack of time before Saturday’s deadline.

“It’s getting very late for them to do that,” said former Republican National Committeeman David Norcross, who drafted the rules to prevent states from going early.

One state that conceivably could crash the party is Wisconsin where Gov. Scott Walker (R) has yet to sign legislation changing its primary from Feb. 21 to April. But RNC officials said they have no reason to believe other states including Wisconsin will attempt to hold contests in February.

Of course, any state that seeks to hold a primary in January or February — including Florida, Arizona and Michigan — is thereby forfeiting half its delegates under RNC rules. Those states have simply made a calculated decision that the halving of their delegates is worth the extra attention they will get by holding their contests before Match 6.

* What does it all mean?

In short, it’s really hard to say. What we do know is, with Georgia declining to jump into February, Super Tuesday remains intact. It won’t be as big as it was four years ago, when 20 states took part, but it will still be somewhat “super.”

If no other states jump ahead of March 6, it will make for a very drawn-out first two months of the nominating contest. As of now, there are only seven actual election days during that two-month span as compared to six contests in January 2008, before Super Tuesday on Feb. 5. And, there’s also a three-week layoff between the Feb. 7 contests and the Arizona/Michigan date, allowing candidates plenty of time to regroup heading into those states and Super Tuesday.

“It gives the candidates three weeks to decide where they want to go and spend their time and money and gives a lot of states time to attract that attention,” Norcross said.

February should be a good month for Mitt Romney, who will likely be a favorite in both Arizona and Michigan, give the former’s significant Mormon population and the latter’s connection to his family (his father was governor of the Wolverine State). But given his inherent advantages in those states and the fact that their delegates will count for half, he may not score the huge victory — in terms of either delegates or perception — that his campaign is surely hoping for. (Make sure to check out Ben Smith’s piece in Politico laying out the various nomination scenarios and why most of them benefit Romney.)

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, it seems, would want/need to do well in Florida to keep his momentum going through February. Caucuses aren’t as good as primaries for building momentum, and Florida may be his best chance before Super Tuesday to pick up a big win (ideally after he also wins Iowa and South Carolina in January).

As of now, though, the process looks as though it will be much more methodical and drawn-out than it was four years ago, when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) effectively ended the race in early February.

It may be New Year‘s in Des Moines, but the contest could still be going in the spring. And that may be bad news for Republicans who want a nominee as quickly as possible so they can spend their time and money on beating President Obama next fall.

 
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