Changing The Primary Calendar? Forget It

New Hampshire flag with hand dropping a vote into a ballot box. AP

By The Politico's Roger Simon

Iowa, then Nevada, then New Hampshire. That's how the Democratic Party thinks the 2008 presidential campaign will begin and what the Democratic National Committee has commanded.

Message to the Democrats: Forget about it. Not gonna happen.
The DNC's effort to rearrange the 2008 nominating calendar is effectively dead.

Nevada will never go ahead of New Hampshire, not if New Hampshire has anything to say about it. And it does.

"It is not acceptable for Nevada to go before New Hampshire," Gov. John Lynch told me in a phone interview yesterday.

He added that "it is possible that we will see additional movement" by other states trying to muscle ahead of New Hampshire. But that won't be allowed either.

One person and one person alone has the authority to set the date of the New Hampshire primary: William M. Gardner, New Hampshire's secretary of state -- or, as he is called in political circles, God.

Gardner will not allow Nevada to go first, no matter whether Nevada calls its contest a caucus, a primary or a ring-toss.

That is where the DNC miscalculated. I talked to a DNC source, who asked not to be identified, who said the DNC assumed that because Nevada was going to be a caucus, and since New Hampshire has always allowed the Iowa caucus to go first, New Hampshire would extend the same courtesy to Nevada.

It won't. New Hampshire law says its primary "shall be seven or more days ahead of any other state that has a similar election."

Yes, New Hampshire does allow Iowa to go eight days before it with a caucus, but that's because Iowa began its caucus before the New Hampshire law was written and New Hampshire "grandfathered" Iowa into the scheme of things.
But New Hampshire will not let Nevada or any other caucus or primary enjoy the same privilege.

In the DNC's alternate universe, the 2008 Democratic calendar (the Republicans are still deciding what to do) would begin with Iowa on Jan. 14, followed by Nevada on Jan. 19, New Hampshire on Jan. 22 and South Carolina on Jan. 27.

But Gardner will move up the date of the New Hampshire primary to make sure it precedes Nevada's contest.

And some in New Hampshire don't care who Gardner hurts while doing it.

"I believe we should hold the New Hampshire primary the day after the Iowa caucus or on the Tuesday of the week before the Iowa caucus," New Hampshire State Rep. Jim Splaine, a Democrat from Portsmouth and author of the state's election law, told me in a phone interview. "We must protect the traditions of New Hampshire."

That would not please Iowa, which has its own laws and traditions and will always try to move its caucus to be eight days ahead of New Hampshire. New Hampshire has no problem with that, but some in Iowa now fear that in trying to fend off Nevada, New Hampshire will set a date so early that Iowa will be unable to get ahead of it.

Gordon Fischer, former head of the Iowa Democratic Party, is very worried about that possibility. "I don't like Nevada being in there, either," he said. "Everyone in Iowa politics is aware of Secretary Gardner's power. Once you break the historic link between New Hampshire and Iowa, you are asking for trouble, and trouble is what we are going to get."

The DNC was not trying to slap New Hampshire in the face with the new calendar, which it nonetheless did. It was trying to add states with minorities into the early mix, and 20 percent of Nevada's population is Hispanic.

"Which is fine," Fischer said, "but they should have added it after New Hampshire."

You might be wondering how Gardner can make sure his state is first. Can't other states just move ahead of New Hampshire after Gardner sets the date? Theoretically, yes, but not really.

Gardner just out-waits everybody. In 1995, he waited until Dec. 20 to announce the date of the 1996 New Hampshire primary. New Hampshire has got its primary down to a science and can move very quickly after Gardner sets the date. It is unlikely that any other state can wait as long, especially states planning to hold caucuses, which are more cumbersome to move than primaries.

A number of states, including California, Florida, Kansas and Nebraska, are preparing to move their primaries earlier in the calendar to attract the candidates and media attention that Iowa and New Hampshire get. But except for Nevada, nobody has dared take on New Hampshire. Not yet, anyway.

The DNC has established punishments for the states and candidates who violate its calendar, but it is toothless: The Democratic convention can change the rules any way it sees fit, and it is not likely to punish the nominee of the party or states that it needs to carry in the general election.

Besides, if by some miracle Nevada did move ahead of New Hampshire, the Democratic Party of New Hampshire could demand that candidates pledge not to campaign in Nevada and the candidates would probably have to comply.
Nevada is a wonderful state with wonderful people, and the candidates don't want to insult the voters there (or Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was influential in getting Nevada moved up.) But no candidate can risk losing the Granite State.

When it comes to presidential politics, nobody messes with New Hampshire.


By Roger Simon TM & © THE POLITICO & POLITICO.COM, a division of Allbritton Communications Company
  • Jennifer Hoar

Comments