Forget, for a moment, the battle among all those presidential candidates. The hot contest right now is over the order in which states hold their primaries and caucuses – and, as a result, which states wield the most influence in the selection of nominees.
The latest bombshell is Florida's decision to move up its 2008 primaries from March to Jan. 29, signed into law on Monday by Gov. Charlie Crist (R). That maneuver – in defiance of both parties' rules for scheduling nomination contests – has set in motion a wave of speculation over whether other states will leapfrog to an early date and whether the penalties that could ensue would wind up costing a candidate the nomination.
For the still-fluid primary calendar, the result could be primaries and caucuses held in 2007. That would be a first, primaries held in the calendar year before the general election. Iowa and New Hampshire have made clear they will do whatever it takes to protect their franchise as the "firsts" – first caucus and first primary. The national parties' calendars show the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 14 and the New Hampshire primaries on Jan. 22, but those decisions are made at the state level.
New Hampshire was already unhappy that the Democratic National Committee had scheduled a caucus in Nevada for Jan. 19. State law requires that New Hampshire's primary be held one week before "any similar election," and analysts were already expecting New Hampshire to go earlier than Jan. 22, possibly even before the Iowa caucuses. If New Hampshire leapfrogs ahead of Iowa, then Iowa may well move its date. Iowa promises to hold its caucuses, which are smaller and more time-consuming than primaries, eight days before the New Hampshire primaries.
Florida may be just the first of many states that flout the party calendars and reschedule primaries for before Feb. 5.
Ultimately, all the front-loading of primaries "is likely to enhance the importance of the early primaries," says Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
And if one assumes that Iowa and New Hampshire will do whatever its takes to maintain their status as "firsts," those two states could be more important than ever in shaping the nomination races. Typically, only the top three candidates out of Iowa for each party are able to compete effectively in subsequent contests, and New Hampshire then typically winnows the field even further.
Now, with the front-loading trend, the importance of money is bigger than ever. If other states move up their primaries to Jan. 29, only those candidates with the biggest war chests will be able to compete in all those states. The cost of Florida's expensive media market alone could force some candidates to skip that contest.
If the parties stick to their guns and punish the candidates who campaign in states that have scheduled primaries outside the prescribed "window," that could have the result of skewing the nominations, especially for the Democrats.
Under both parties' rules, any state (except Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, and South Carolina) that holds its primaries or caucuses earlier than Feb. 5, 2008, will lose delegates. Candidates would also be penalized for campaigning in a state too early. On the Democratic side, half of the regular delegates would be lost, as would half of the superdelegates – members of Congress and the governor, if he or she is a Democrat. On the Republican side, the sanction is to lose half of the regular delegates. In a delegate-rich state like Florida, the loss of so many delegates could cost a candidate the nomination.
But some observers predict the problem will be solved by having the violating states schedule later caucuses that are the real nominating contests. The early primaries would, in effect, be "beauty contests." But history has shown that such early nonbinding contests are taken seriously by candidates and voters, and can still have a winnowing effect on a field of candidates.
Another point is clear, political analysts say: The early states do have an outsize effect on who wins the nomination.
"People in different regions tend to look favorably on people from their own region," says William Mayer, an expert on the primaries at Northeastern University in Boston. "That's one reason Massachusetts politicians – Michael Dukakis, John Kerry, and now Mitt Romney – have done well."
Florida opted to move up its primary to give its large, diverse state greater say in the nomination process. In the current lineup, the first four states are small and quirky. Florida is also a swing state in the general election, and advocates for Florida's early primary argue that winning that contest will provide an indication of who can do well in November 2008.