CORRECTION: The original version of this report misidentified the Iowa Christian Alliance.
If the Republican National Committee has its way, the 2012 election will look a lot different than 2008, when 30 states had held GOP primaries or caucuses as of February 5.
New party rules aimed at prolonging what has become a Twitter-speed primary season urge the earliest four states to push back votes from January to February; states that award delegates proportionately to vote in March; and winner-take-all states to vote in April. Relegating the states with the biggest bounties to the back of the line would prevent a candidate from quickly racking up delegates and squeezing competitors out of the race, as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., did in 2008 by early February.
“The timetable is very different than it was four years ago, when you had a very early primary season and everything was very front-loaded,’’ said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who started campaigning in late January last cycle but is not rushing to announce his plans for 2012. “The people who go out early, I’m convinced, are going to have a hard time going the distance. It will be like a marathon runner who runs 10 miles before the race starts, and then he’s got to start running the 26.2.’’
It’s unclear whether states will go along with the national party’s plan. Nineteen states currently have GOP primaries that clash with the party’s stretched-out timetable, according to Josh Putnam, a visiting assistant professor of political science at Davidson College, who writes a blog called Frontloading HQ. Only 10 of those states have bills pending to move their primaries in line with the party calendar.
Other states—Florida, in particular—are eager to leapfrog ahead and claim a major stake in shaping the nomination. States that break the rules risk forfeiting party delegates and diminishing their clout in choosing the nominee.
Those penalties were a major point of discussion when Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn met with reporters in Washington today to talk about the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus.
"I remain cautiously optimistic that we will be able to get the other states into compliance," Strawn said.
"Iowa-first" is a rallying cry for activists across the state.
“I guarantee you Iowa is going to go first. That’s the beginning and end of the conversation,’’ said Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Christian Alliance, which is sponsoring a candidates forum on Monday.
Under the cloud of uncertainty over the calendar, the only noted Republican to announce a presidential exploratory committee so far is the little-known former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, Herman Cain. Former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer and, more notably, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are expected to raise their hands today, tentatively.
Compare that to this time in the 2008 cycle, when McCain, Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Sam Brownback, and Tom Tancredo were off and running.
“There’s not really a precedent for this cycle,” Putnam said. “The trend has been toward front-loading the calendar and candidates throwing their hat into the ring quickly. It’s weird to see a cycle like this one in which candidates are so hesitant to jump in.’’
Money is certainly a factor holding potential candidates back. Once a candidate announces a presidential bid, expectations rise. A modern-day candidate is presumed to have a daily public schedule, offices in key states, and an ever-growing staff to map out strategy, handle media inquiries, and organize campaign stops.
“I think some of the candidates are looking at the last cycle and how much money it took to run and making better decisions,” said Ann Herberger, a major Florida-based fundraiser for Romney in 2008 who has raised money for the Bush family. “Certainly the Obama people are going to be a force to be reckoned with on the fundraising side. Why get in right now and have to start spending a lot of money? Work smarter, not longer.”
Still another reason for likely candidates to sit tight: Federal law requires fundraising reports every three months. So a candidate who gets into the race in early March only has until the end of the month to build up a war chest. Some likely candidates are expected to wait until the end of the month or early April to announce their plans, so they can show off a big fundraising haul at the end of June. That’s when the real primary begins.
Some Republicans have suggested that an elongated primary season could benefit President Obama, who has the luxury of sitting tight until faced with an official opponent. The trappings of the presidency will allow him to travel and address voters during an extended GOP primary—without charging those costs to an official Democratic campaign. Meanwhile, an exhausted Republican nominee gets less time to muster the resources to take on an incumbent.
But recent history suggests the benefits of a rigorous primary season. By the time Obama finally claimed the Democratic nomination in June, after months of fierce competition against Hillary Rodham Clinton, he was a much more seasoned politician.
“If the process is pulled out a little longer, the candidates can be vetted a little bit better,” Scheffler said. “It does not seem beneficial for a party out of power to nominate a candidate in early February if that candidate has not been fully vetted.”