Hail to the Victors?

by Jeff Fleischer

(BuzzFlash, October 25, 2007)


Time was, the term “rogue state” was reserved for international troublemakers fond of human-rights violations — the North Koreas and Zimbabwes of the world. Lately, the same construction has also been showing up in headlines referring to the likes of Michigan and Florida. Their crime? Moving their presidential primaries earlier in the year in violation of party rules.

Leading “rogue” Michigan decided to shift its primary to Jan. 15, leapfrogging both Nevada and South Carolina by just a few days. The problem for Democrats is that last year — after much arduous debate — the party committed to Nevada and South Carolina as its earliest contests outside of Iowa and New Hampshire. Michigan’s announcement came even after the party’s announcement that it was taking away Florida’s delegates to this summer’s convention as punishment for moving up its primary.

So almost as soon as Michigan announced its decision in early October, four Democrats — Barack Obama, John Edwards, Joe Biden, and Bill Richardson — immediately announced plans to pull their names from the state’s ballot. But while it’s one thing to verbally support their party leadership’s decision and criticize Michigan’s gambit, skipping the primary entirely is a terrible move for these candidates.

“There is no road to the White House that doesn’t pass through Michigan,” Gov. Jennifer Granholm threatened at the time, “and Michigan voters will remember who chose to stay on the ballot and who chose not to.”

On some level, she’s right. First of all, while Hillary Clinton has promised not to hold any “major events” (her campaign’s words) in the state, she’s still going to be on the ballot. So unless Mike Gravel pulls off a major upset, Michigan’s going to be a guaranteed victory for Clinton, which will still be the headline the night of the primary and will easily fit into the Clinton “inevitability” narrative some pundits are already pushing.

As a rule, skipping early primaries almost inevitably backfires on candidates, taking them out of the national spotlight during key news coverage — unless it’s to note their absence. If the races are still competitive by Jan. 15, those candidates boycotting the vote are only setting themselves up for trouble.

In 2004, Sen. Joe Lieberman was leading in nearly every national poll for the Democratic nomination six months before the Iowa caucuses (man, how times have changed). Then he decided to skip the first contest because, as one of his spokespeople said at the time, “Without a doubt we feel shifting resources to New Hampshire and Feb. 3 states is a winning strategy for Joe Lieberman.” Turns out, not so much. Ditto for Wesley Clark in 2004, John McCain in 2000, and so on.

Since the parties moved from a convention-based to a primary-based system for choosing their nominees, only one candidate has won either party’s nomination without a victory in one of the first two states. And when Bill Clinton did it in 1992, the circumstances were very specific; Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin won his home state, and Clinton’s campaign staff used his better-than-expected showing in New Hampshire to launch the theme of Clinton as the “comeback kid.”

Moreover, Michigan is still essentially a swing state. It went for John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000, but both received just 51 percent of the vote. So candidates choosing to ignore it in a primary lose a prime opportunity to meet with voters they’ll need to turn out in the general election next November. And voters there will likely have had a chance to meet the GOP nominee during the retail-politics phase, which seems a definite advantage for going after the state’s swing votes.

“I don’t know how you win the presidency in the fall by bypassing Michigan now,” said former Gov. Jim Blanchard who, not coincidentally, is working with the Clinton campaign. “Hillary’s strategy is not just to honor the DNC’s rules, it’s to win in November. Michigan’s important.”

The Republican Party also warned Michigan not to move up its primary, only to also find the state party violating its rules and going with a Jan. 15 vote. Rather than a partial candidate exodus, however, the GOP responded exclusively at the party level, with RNC chairman Mike Duncan announcing on Oct. 23 that half the Michigan delegation wouldn’t be seated at the party’s presidential convention. In other words, the party handled a party matter, without self-selected candidates having to put their own campaigns at risk.

Now, there are arguments to be made for diluting the primacy of Iowa and New Hampshire by rotating which states go first every four years or giving more states a voice (though some of those arguments, such as claiming the existing system produces radical candidates, are patently false). But there is something to be said for having candidates compete in small, concentrated races where underfunded campaigns can try to compete on the ground instead of a the old party-bosses-at-the-convention system or a national primary where states would suffer the same disparities of attention we now see in the general election. Of course, what would be best for democracy would be to move the primaries closer to the election rather than the frontloading now going on, but that’s another matter.

For now, the Michigan situation isn’t making anybody on the Democratic side look all that great. The state is damaging its influence by bucking party rules. The four candidates who took their names off the ballot are potentially damaging their campaigns. And the voters of Michigan are caught solidly in the middle.

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