The early 2016 primary calendar is now set. It will change.


Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) speaks at the Des Moines Register's Political Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair earlier this month in Des Moines, Iowa. The fair runs through Aug. 17. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

The Democratic National Committee over the weekend set its preliminary 2016 presidential primary calender, with the four traditional carve-out states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada -- holding contests in February and everybody else after that.

The calendar mimics what we've seen from Republicans, who have basically agreed on the same order of succession. Here's how that looks:

Feb. 1 -- Iowa caucuses

Feb. 9 -- New Hampshire primary

Feb. 20 -- Nevada caucuses

Feb. 27 -- South Carolina primary

From there, all other states would be permitted to hold contests between March 1 and June, with party conventions being held in the early or mid-summer.

Seems reasonable, right? Well, the problem is that there isn't much hope the calendar will stay this way. And all it takes is for one state to be the spoilsport and force a re-casting of the entire calendar. (Translation: New Year's in Des Moines.)

In recent years, a handful of the other 46 states have bucked the committees and moved their primary dates to compete with or preempt the early states, wanting the limelight (and campaign spending) that comes along with being one of the primaries that actually, you know, matters. And it's pretty easy for a state like Florida to just crash the party and set its date for late January, as it has done the last two presidential elections.

About the only thing stopping it or others from doing so are the penalties, which generally entail decreasing the number of delegates they get to the national party conventions, among other, lesser things. Those penalties have been ratcheted up in recent years, with the Republican National Committee trying out even-harsher penalties this time around. As I wrote in January:

Penalties for states moving in February or January will be more serious than in the past. While the committee previously stripped them of half their delegates, they will now lose more than that, in most cases. States with at least 30 delegates would be left with just 12 representatives at the convention, while states with less than 30 delegates would have nine.

The reason the rules have been tightened? Because they didn't work. Even faced with losing half their delegates, Florida, Arizona and Michigan all moved their contests ahead of March 1, pushing the earliest states to move from February to January.

But while the RNC has tightened its rules for 2016, the DNC has not. Rather than going further than the halving of delegates, the DNC is sticking with the same rules as last time, which allow for harsher penalties but don't mandate them. So while the DNC is reserving the right to increase penalties after a state sets a date in violation of party rules, it's all hypothetical.

In reality, though, neither set of rules is likely to have the desired effect of actually stopping renegade states from jumping ahead. Will Florida really balk at jumping the line again because it would have 12 delegates instead of 50? Maybe. Will a smaller state that loses only a few more delegates under the new RNC rules feel that strongly? Probably not. And will the DNC actually increase penalties on a state that has already set its primary date by deducting more delegates, just to send a message? I guess we'll see.

And delegates remain overrated anyway. Despite the delegate races we've seen in recent years, it's still clear that momentum is a bigger factor in determining presidential nominees. The 2012 GOP primary and 2008 Democratic primary both included relevant delegate counts, but in both cases, the races continued in spite of their being a clear delegate frontrunner and likely nominee.

In addition, all of the states that jumped ahead in 2008 and 2012 got the desired effect of holding an important presidential primary: relevance. And until those early states are actually boycotted by the candidates or somehow excluded from the horse-race/momentum game that is the early primary process, states will have motivation to move up -- delegates be damned.

We aren't yet seeing the so-called "front-loading" of the primary calendar, but there's still lots of time. And the off-year (2015) is when the game of leap-frog usually begins.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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