Presidential Nominating Calendar Shenanigans

We haven’t discussed the presidential nominating calender in a good while now. But while it’s in many places still a work in progress, things are happening that could have a significant effect on the GOP race–and even the Democratic race, if there is one.

The main thing to note is that the recent dynamic of states trying to crash the privileged early calendar status of the First Four–Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina–and pushing the First Four to go earlier and earlier, isn’t happening this cycle. So it seems clear Iowa will formally begin the process on February 1, with New Hampshire following on February 9, South Carolina on February 20, and Nevada (which is still debating over whether to have another caucus or instead a primary) on February 23. There’s no reason to worry about Iowa slipping back into the holidays or even holding the caucuses before Thanksgiving this time around.

The big story about March primaries (the best place to follow all this is, as always, Josh Putnam’s Frontloading HQ site) has been the on-and-off progress towards a sort of super-southern event–some have called it the SEC primary–on March 1. So far Alabama, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia are set to go on that date, with Arkansas considering it at a special session next week. You can find all sorts of opinions on what a robust SEC Primary might mean: a big boost for southern conservative candidates like Mike Huckabee or Ted Cruz, or contrariwise, like the similar event on the Democratic side in 1988, a scattering of delegates that has no decisive effect at all, and where non-regional candidates do quite well. Another precedent is the Republican contest of 1988, where George H.W. Bush used Super Tuesday to lock the whole thing down after key wins in New Hampshire and South Carolina. You’d think the huge 2016 field, the wider availability of Super PAC funds, and the apparent long-haul strategy of one leading candidate (Jeb Bush) might extend the competition significantly; you never quite know this far in advance.

But whatever happens March 1, Florida Republicans just made a decision that could be of equal importance: making its March 15 primary a winner-take-all event (indeed, this date is the earliest under RNC rules that a winner-take-all primary can be held). While technically there are four Floridians in the competition (Bush, Rubio, Huckabee and Carson), Bush and Rubio are the only long-term residents of the state, and it’s hard to imagine either prospering after getting skunked in the Sunshine State. At the same time, though, Ohio and Michigan are currently scheduled to hold their primaries the same day, and Pennsylvania might join them to create another mega-date.

I’d say there’s nothing quite like a giant field and a compressed calendar to make for serious uncertainty.

Meanwhile, nobody’s talking about this, but should Bernie Sanders or Martin O’Malley survive Iowa and New Hampshire, the heavy southern flavor of the March calendar could be a big help to Hillary Clinton in putting the opposition away.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.