Event Summary: “”Front-loading”” the Primaries: The Wrong Approach to Presidential Politics?

January 14, 2004

On the eve of the official start of the 2004 presidential campaign, a Brookings panel of experts discussed the cascading primary and caucus system that has shortened the nomination process to a sprint. This phenomenon—known as “front-loading”—occurred when an increasing number of states, beginning in 1980, began scheduling their primaries and caucus closer to the beginning of the delegate selection calendar.

“Where once the primary season started up very slowly, now it begins very rapidly,” said panelist William G. Mayer, an associate professor at Northeastern University.

State primaries and caucuses were once conducted over three to four months; primary front-loading has condensed the nomination process to four or five weeks. In their new book, The Front-Loading Problem in Presidential Nominations (Brookings Institution Press), Mayer and co-author Andrew E. Busch, an associate professor at the University of Denver, show that in 1976 only 19 percent of all delegates had been selected by the sixth week of the primary season. Currently, 58 percent will have been selected by then, and 72 percent by the seventh week.

Mayer attributes the front-loading trend to “New Hampshire envy,” named after the nation’s first primary state. This year’s New Hampshire primary will take place on January 27.

“New Hampshire envy,” said Mayer, “refers to the perception that New Hampshire gets an enormous range of benefits by holding the first primary in every election cycle, and that other states will benefit if they, too, can hold their primaries as close to the start of the process as possible.”

According to the book’s authors, states with early primaries enjoy such benefits as prominent press coverage, rich attention from candidates, heavy and disproportionate influence on the nomination race, economic benefits from campaign and media spending, free publicity for state businesses and resorts, and special policy concessions like discretionary spending and favorable bureaucratic treatment.

Mayer worries that front-loading was diluting the democratic process. “It greatly condenses the time that voters have to learn about the candidates and make their decisions,” he said. “Most Americans don’t really start paying attention to the nomination race until the delegates are already selected?.By the time the nominee is chosen, voters still won’t have any idea of who they are or who the defeated candidates are.”

Anthony Corrado, a professor at Colby College and a visiting fellow in Governance Studies at Brookings, agreed, saying “we have a process now that—in the best case—will disenfranchise the voters in at least a third of the states because the die is already cast before they go to the polls.”

Corrado said that this “hyperaccelerated calendar” has made fund-raising (and the exemption of federal matching funds) a more important and crucial part of campaigning, as candidates need to be well-funded long before the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary.

“We’ve created a process that puts a premium on what [former Texas Republican senator] Phil Gramm called ‘the politician’s best friend: ready cash.’”

He pointed out that current Democratic frontrunner Howard Dean has spent $4 million in Iowa and $2 million in New Hampshire, making it difficult for candidates who adhere to federal spending limits to compete. Additionally, Corrado said that fund-raising prowess in the year before the election (what Corrado called “the money primary”) has become an increasingly important way for candidates to garner attention and launch their campaign.

Corrado said that, given the front-loading primary calendar and the trend towards opting out of matching funds, “you’re better off trying to raise as much money as possible in the year before the election so that you can have enough cash on hand to forego public matching fund payments on January 1, still be able to pay for all of your television and campaigning in the front end of the year, and still offer yourself the prospect of raising an unlimited amount of money during the election year.”

Such a system benefits “brushfire candidates,” according to Corrado. “If you were a candidate who can catch fire coming out of New Hampshire,” he said, “this is a process that is made for you because you have the option of riding a wave of momentum in national press coverage that will not crest until the nomination may be sewn up.”

Panelists agreed that this pattern does not bode well for the future of publicly-financed campaigns. “In 2008, only those candidates who lack broad fundraising bases and are less well-known are going to be willing to obey the public finance system,” said Corrado.

Brookings Senior Fellow Thomas E. Mann said that a publicly-financed candidate would “be at a distinct disadvantage vis-a-vis President Bush in the long period between when the nomination is known and the conventions” given the amount of money that would likely be spent early in the delegate selection process under the current front-loaded calendar.

Mann said that the current system created an “invisible primary” during the year leading up to the Iowa caucus New Hampshire primary.

“The activities of the candidates during that year in raising money, organizing in Iowa and New Hampshire, garnering party endorsements, trying out campaign themes and messages, garnering respect from various gatekeepers in the process are all exceedingly important,” said Mann.

Mann reminded panelists of other crucial factors in determining a party’s presidential nominee. “It’s worth reminding ourselves that the best predictor of who wins the nomination since 1980 has been—believe it or not—not the polls alone, not the money,” he said, “but really sophisticated measures of party endorsements, of the major players in the democratic and republican party who are making judgments about candidates during this invisible primary year.”

Panelists recognized that a simple solution to primary front-loading was not available.

“It’s a tough nut to crack,” said Mayer. “It’s difficult to come up with an easy way for solving it.”

Mayer said that incremental changes, such as changes in the campaign finance system, were the most politically feasible, but also the least effective in bringing about real change. Comprehensive changes, such as national or regional primaries, failed to adequately address the problem. The Supreme Court was not likely to intervene, said Mayer, because any drastic restructuring could be construed as unconstitutional.

True change, according to Mayer, can only come from the national parties, but the parties would be unlikely to act unless both agreed to similar rules. The unlikelihood of this happening, according to Mayer, left “little prospect that [front-loading] will disappear anytime soon.”