The identity of the field of candidates for the 2012 presidential race may yet to be known. But within the next three weeks, the rules under which they must conduct their campaigns should be in place.
Meetings of the Republican National Committee early this month and its Democratic counterpart in mid-August are set to approve rules for their 2012 presidential nominating contests. If all goes as expected, the nominating process will officially start a month later than it did in 2008.
Unlike last time, the candidates would not have to spend Christmas in Des Moines, Twelfth Night in Manchester, and face a nationwide array of primaries and caucuses before Valentine’s Day. Rather, the four early states – Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina – would have their contests in 2012 scattered across the month of February. Come the first Tuesday in March, the rest of the country could begin voting.
For the first time in recent memory, the two parties are on the same page when it comes to these basics of the primary calendar. Beyond that, each party is working on its own to devise ways to get the states to spread their delegate-selection contests over the spring calendar, rather than have them pile up in a big heap on the first date they are allowed to vote.
In 2008, nearly half the states held their primaries or caucuses on Feb. 5, a huge nationwide votefest that was aptly called “Super Tuesday” or “Tsunami Tuesday.” Republican John McCain essentially wrapped up his party’s nomination that day, while Barack Obama emerged on the Democratic side poised to take the lead in his long-running battle with Hillary Clinton.
In 2012, the corresponding date for such a huge event would be March 6. To help prevent the occurrence of another early logjam, Republican rules makers are proposing that all states that vote in March award some of their delegates using proportional representation, in which candidates would be given delegates to reflect their share of the primary or caucus vote.
Forbidden in March 2012 would be straight winner-take-all contests, the preferred method of delegate distribution favored by GOP leaders in roughly a dozen states that voted on Super Tuesday in 2008. McCain’s dominance in many of the larger winner-take-all states that day ensured his early nomination.
The Democrats do not have a similar card to play, since for decades they have required proportional representation in the awarding of their elected delegates. Instead, they may turn to a “carrot” in the form of bonus delegates in an effort to entice states both to vote later in the spring and to arrange themselves into small-scale regional clusters.
At the latest Democratic rules meeting in early July, there was considerable discussion of a proposal to give states that voted in the last two months of the process bonuses ranging up to 10% of their elected delegates. But an even greater incentive – a 15% delegate bonus – was suggested for states that agreed to take part in a mini-regional primary.
The model cited was the “Potomac primary,” which was held Feb. 12, 2008, with the adjoining jurisdictions of Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia taking part. The event was hailed for maximizing voter attention and preserving candidate resources. And not coincidentally, it was won handily by the eventual Democratic nominee and current president, Barack Obama.
The Republican rules for 2012 will be considered at the summer meeting of the Republican National Committee in Kansas City, Mo., Aug. 4-7. The Democratic rules will be up for a vote at the Democratic National Committee meeting two weeks later in St. Louis.
Of the two, the bigger hurdle will probably be on the Republican side where a two-thirds majority is required for passage with no amendments allowed. Democrats, though, have issues of their own, particularly when it comes to selecting a site large enough to hold their convention.
Democratic rules makers have reduced the share of “superdelegates” (automatic delegates by virtue of their party or elected office) from roughly 20% in 2008 to 15% in 2012, largely by increasing the number of elected delegates by about 700. That would push the total number of Democratic delegates in 2012 to close to 5,000.
Republicans have already picked Tampa as the site of their next convention, the first time the GOP will meet in Florida since renominating President Richard Nixon in Miami Beach in 1972. Four cities remain on the Democratic list – three in the Midwest (Cleveland, Ohio; Minneapolis, Minn.; and St. Louis, Mo.) plus Charlotte, N.C.
A final decision is expected late this year or early next. That is about the time that the Republican presidential field for 2012 will start to form, or a Democratic primary challenge to President Obama would begin to stir.
(As prepared for the online edition of the Wall Street Journal)