Democrats are dramatically shaking up the presidential nomination system, dislodging Iowa and New Hampshire to enshrine a new calendar. How much difference will this make? Does it portend a new reformed era, or will invisible primary coordination still rule before anyone starts voting? Josh Putnam, a practicing political scientist who watches the rule changes closer than anyone, finds a complicated dance between national parties, state parties, candidates, and state laws. He also understands how the rules fit into the dynamics that govern who wins nominations and who gains and loses power among party factions. For those gearing up for 2024, this is a must-listen conversation.
Matt Grossmann: Changing how we elect presidents, this week on The Science of Politics. For The Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
The Democrats may not have a competitive presidential primary in 2024, but they’re dramatically shaking up the system, dislodging Iowa and New Hampshire to enshrine a new calendar. How much difference will this make? Does it portend a new era of a reformed process or will the pre-voting invisible primaries still rule? This week, I talked to Josh Putnam of Frontloading HQ about the presidential nomination process and the reforms. He’s a practicing political scientist who watches the rules changes closer than anyone, finding a complicated dance between national parties, state parties, candidates, and state laws. He also understands how the rules fit into the dynamics that govern who wins dominations and who gains and loses power among party factions. For those gearing up for 2024, this is a must listen conversation.
So let’s start with the big changes potentially coming on the Democratic side of the presidential nominating process. What’s happening? How much is the done deal? And what are the most important factors in which of the changes come to fruition?
Josh Putnam: So I think the big ticket item is that the Democrats, this time around, have opted to reshuffle and insert some new states into what they call the pre-window period of the primary calendar. So functionally, it’s going to be during the month of February in 2024. So rather than what has become the traditional start of Iowa, then New Hampshire, then Nevada, then South Carolina has shifted to South Carolina moving up to the beginning, Nevada and New Hampshire sharing a day, three days later, Georgia’s primary coming in a week after that, and then Michigan’s primary ending that pre-window period on February 27th. And the Rules and Bylaws committee adopted that back in December, the DNC just adopted that this past weekend.
So in terms of what parts of this are a done deal and which parts aren’t, and what’s going to come to fruition and what’s not, we’re going to have to see. I took note of the fact that Rules and Bylaws committee co-chair Jim Roosevelt said during the meeting in which they extended consideration of waivers for Georgia and New Hampshire a week and a half ago, that he noted that we’re actually ahead of schedule from where we usually are. And that didn’t quite jive with my feeling on things because, again, the Democrats have kind of reshuffled not only their calendar, but how they’ve done things.
I mean, usually the pre-calendar and these waivers are done… And this is true for both parties to the extent each has waivers, but certainly having the rules in place by the end of the summer in the midterm election year has been the protocol throughout most of the post-reform era, so from 1972 onward. That Democrats broke with that, this cycle is noteworthy. And it made sense because to make a firm decision on, or a smart, shrewd decision on which states they were putting in there, they needed to know how the midterms are going to come out and where state legislative, state governmental control was going to end up.
But anyway, Roosevelt noted that we’re ahead of schedule, he said, in terms of where the Democrats are. And that makes sense from the perspective of they’ve got assurances from South Carolina’s Democratic Party, who gets to set the date, that South Carolina’s going to be on February 3rd. They’ve got assurances from Nevada Democrats that they’re not going to do anything to change what’s already on the books, is a February 6th primary there. And the same thing is true now for Michigan. Now there’s some issues with implementation there, but they’re already, based on a change made there, to occupy that February 27th spot on the calendar. Now that does leave… While that cements in place three-fifths of that, there are two other component parts, and maybe one other that we can add in there, that aren’t locked.
I just mentioned New Hampshire and Georgia, both of which received extensions in the consideration of the waivers for them to appear in the early calendar. Both have systems where the Secretary of State in each state gets to select what date the presidential primary falls on, and in both cases they are Republicans. Georgia is a little easier case, I suppose, to deal with. The February 13th spot on the calendar is not one that Democrats in the state of Georgia, nor nationally, are going to be able to talk them into moving to. The Secretary of State’s office in Georgia said, “Look, we’ve got some criteria here. We don’t want to split these primaries up. We don’t want to have one for Republicans, one for Democrats. That costs taxpayers too much. And number two, we don’t want to cost either party national delegates to their national convention.”
National Democrats can perhaps wedge Georgia into an earlier position, it just won’t be that February 13th position. The Republican rules allow states to go as early as March 1st. That precedes the Super Tuesday date that most states are going to gravitate towards by a few days in this cycle. So Georgia could maybe go the Saturday after the Michigan primary, the Saturday before Super Tuesday, but that’s really the only position where they can make that work. The position they’ve outlined for Georgia is not going to work. New Hampshire is similar in that the Secretary of State makes the decision, but they also have in place a state law that says they have to be seven days or more earlier than any other similar contests. Similar contest tends to mean primary and not caucus, but South Carolina obviously has a primary this go around.
So look, without getting too far down in the weeds on this, New Hampshire Democrats have signaled that they’re going to follow the state law, that they’re going to follow the decision that the Secretary of State David Scanlan makes there, which will likely be before the South Carolina primary, sometime in mid-January. Now that opens the door to penalties and all that, and I think that’s a saga that’s going to take probably 18 months to play out, for Democrats to play that. For national Democrats to play that to its logical end and actually penalize New Hampshire, they’re going to have to probably follow through with not ceding a delegation, not one chosen by the primary anyway, at the National Convention next summer.
The one addition I’d make to that is that part of the calendar plan is to kick Iowa’s caucuses out of the early window lineup altogether. They too have a state law there, signals are similar there that they’re going to follow that state law. The thing is both parties have violated that law in the past with no penalty. So again, both Iowa and New Hampshire will have an argument before the Democratic Rules and Bylaws committee. They won’t probably be successful in arguing that they should retain their first positions. And again, that gets back into this idea of the national party having to follow through with their threats to penalize them if they’re going to make this stick.
Matt Grossmann: So this seems strange that we’re having all this action on the Democratic side when it looks like Joe Biden is going to run for reelection and maybe only generate some token opposition, if any. So is this going to be all for naught, and then we’re going to redo it all in anticipation of the 2028 contest, or is this likely to entrench things, at least in degrading Iowa and New Hampshire’s role? And I guess what is the role of having this process in the midst of an election where it might not matter? Is that why it’s successful? Is it because this is a Biden driven process when nobody’s kind of out there to see the immediate loss?
Josh Putnam: Right. I mean, we should note right off the bat that, in most cases, an incumbent president running for renomination, reelection tends to keep the rules that got him or her nominated in the first place. Which means there may be some subtle rules changes here and there, but there aren’t wholesale changes to the primary calendar order or what have you. So that’s different this time around. But the Biden folks, and the DNC for that matter, can make this push because the stakes are pretty low this time around. But it means that if the Biden White House and the Democratic National Committee want this to stick, that they’re going to have to be consistent in how they treat states like Iowa and New Hampshire that break these rules.
Because really, from my perspective, I view this as kind of a trial run for 2028. If they can make an example of Iowa and New Hampshire, should they go rogue and break the Democratic rules in the 2024 cycle, they stand a little better chance of heading off some thornier issues should they opt to attempt to break the rules again in 2028, should they carry over. And again, there’s already a resolution that’s been adopted by the Rules and Bylaws committee that says they’re going to look at these states again, or this process again, in 2026 with 2028 in mind.
So I think they’re serious about keeping this idea of a rotation in play. But again, depending on the outcome of the 2024 election, and so on and so forth, that’s going to have a bearing on what decisions they make down the road and who those decision makers are going to be. Because while there will be some carryover on some of the membership, there will be some changes on the Rules and Bylaws committee between now and then as well. And it may be enough to tip the balance in favor of a change of direction. But as of right now, listening to the membership of the Rules and Bylaws committee, they’re serious about this idea, that they want to have an adaptive process that identifies states that are good for the party on the whole, with the goals of diversity and helping them better plan and streamline planning for general election and so on and so forth.
Matt Grossmann: I mean, if you had to guess, is this going to be the states that win this time will possibly get another chance? Is this going to be a rotation process? Or is this going to sort of start over from scratch with new criteria?
Josh Putnam: I think anything’s possible. But if this process has shown us anything, it’s that these traditions, the status quo rules, are difficult to change. So if you put South Carolina in that first position now, well, they may want that come four years down the road whether or not the national party wants to keep them in that position. So I mean, again, we’re talking about a moving target here. It makes sense now, given that the stakes are kind of low. It may get harder to do this when facing a competitive environment in 2028 or ahead.
Matt Grossmann: So what about the Republicans? Historically, I know that a lot of change has originated in the Democratic Party and then the Republicans have eventually gone along with it through some of these mechanisms involving the state driven decisions. But what do we know about when the Republicans follow the Democratic process or adapt alongside the Democratic process versus go their own way? And why does it seem like there’s just nothing changing that calendar on the Republican side?
Josh Putnam: Yeah. I mean, historically speaking, right, the reason we talk about the post-reform era that started during the ’72 cycle was that Democrats kind of pressed pause after the ’68 election and looked at reforming the process entirely to bring rank and file voters, members of the party, into the process, into the determination of who the nominee was going to be in a more direct way. The Democratic Party at the time benefited from the fact that they had so much control of state governments across the country. The law changes that were made in state legislature, state governments, during that period, not only affected Democrats in subsequent cycles, but Republicans as well. And that’s what brought the Republicans into the process somewhat reluctantly in ’76 and beyond, with their own spin on how this process would evolve and adapt over time.
One of those adaptations has been that Republicans have tended to make their changes at the convention, right? So for 2024, for example, they would have made decisions on what the rules would be for that cycle during the 2020 convention, without the ability to make changes. That’s historically the way things have been. Now back in, let’s see, I guess after the 2008 cycle, what’s known now as Rule 12, which allows them the latitude to say, “Well, look, we can make amendments to certain rules that regard the primary process up to the summer of the midterm year if we so choose,” which has given them a little more latitude to make some changes along the way as well.
But again, historically, there’s been this kind of give and take between where both parties have been. I think we saw kind of a golden era of both Democrats and Republicans working together kind of in a window between 2004 to 2016-ish, when Democrats aligned their calendar for 2004 with the Republican process, in that they both allowed for earlier, in this case February, contest to take place rather than starting with the window at the beginning of March, as is the case now. But both, after the chaos of the calendar in 2008, kind of took a step back from that. [inaudible 00:15:47] common purpose starting the process a little later, that it wasn’t butting up against the beginning of the year. There was some kind of informal coordination between rules folks, if not coordination, then certainly conversations had that were taken back to the national parties, and may have and from the looks of it did affect the rules that came out of that. There was some coordination on saying, look, the process should begin in March for most states, and that was a steady state between, despite some rule breakers being in there in 2012, but for 2012, 2016, there was some alignment there, even 2020 for that matter. Since then, we’ve begun to see diverging paths between what the Democrats want to do and what the Republicans want to do in terms of the calendar.
Democrats obviously have pinpointed diversity issues with Iowa and New Hampshire and have wanted to address that. Republicans are less animated by those issues and have been fine with the process that early calendar lineup of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, then Nevada and their process have produced over the years. There has been some grumbling about maybe changing that up. There was just some implementation issues with Nevada back in both ’08 and 2012. So there was some chatter about replacing Nevada at that time, but nothing’s ever come of that.
But again, that speaks to just how decentralized this process is in general and how the national parties try to adapt to that decentralization to come up with rules that are as beneficial as possible for them for an upcoming cycle. But yeah, the Republicans have been in this position of basically since the 2016 cycle of carrying over their same set of rules, not just for the calendar, but for their entire delegate selection process from one cycle to the next.
Matt Grossmann: We talk about the misalignment between the two parties nationally, but you’ve also mentioned several instances in which the national parties are dependent on state parties and state governments. Talk a little bit about what we know from the history there. How often is there a unified cross party effort at a state level to move earlier against the national parties versus the state parties split with their national parties versus some of these other circumstances? Is this new that we’re dependent on a couple of officials in the other party to reform the process, or does that go back a long way?
Josh Putnam: Again, it speaks to the decentralized nature of this whole process. National parties just have only so much control over this. We hear about the potential for New Hampshire to cause problems on the Democratic side this time around because they’re wanting to hue to that traditional first position that they’ve had. But we hear about these instances because they’re really rare. Right? It’s not often that we see states break the rules. Arguably, Florida made the decision that they did in 2007 to move their 2008 primary into January, because from their vantage point and from a lot of other state capitals, the vantage point was that a lot of states are moving to Super Tuesday. If we follow suit, then we’re just going to get lost in the shuffle. If we want to make a difference, then we don’t need to go first. We need to fit into a slot that’s toward the beginning of the process but before this onslaught of contests. That rationale carried over not only from 2008 when Florida and Michigan did it, but also 2012 when, again, Florida, Michigan, and that time, Arizona decided to jump into earlier territory against the National Party rules. But yeah, we should say that the vast, vast majority of states are complying with the rules, and that’s in terms of both parties, and partisans on the state governmental level are making decisions that are consistent with those rules.
Now, have we seen cross partisan efforts, as you noted, to move up to earlier positions? Yeah. In both cases, though, the Florida legislature was controlled by Republicans in 2007. Democrats participated and supported that move. I don’t think all of them did, but a number of them did. And that hurt them later on in their discussions with the rules and bylaws committee on the Democratic side in their effort to avoid penalties. They complained that they weren’t able to make any changes now that the primary had moved and were resistant to do so. But again, they had taken part in that decision in the first place.
Similarly, Michigan in that cycle had a democratic governor, and I’m fairly certain that one of the chambers of the legislature was controlled by Democrats that cycle. Regardless, it was a bipartisan effort to push that primary up.
But oftentimes, again, since then we haven’t really seen as much bipartisan effort to move primaries up. The recent quick passage of the primary law or the new primary bill in Michigan demonstrated that. I wondered, given the context of a Republican National Committee chair election, whether or not they’d be engaged with state legislators, Republican state legislators in Michigan, during a simultaneous process to move the primary there, and wondered whether or not we’d see Republican legislators in Michigan oppose the move of the primary or not. As it turned out, they did. This turned out to have been a democratic led effort and Democrats made the move on their own.
But yeah, if push comes to shove and states are trying to make these moves, sometimes we see some bipartisan efforts. Other times it’s just a function of, well, this is a Republican cycle moving up ahead of us here that’s going to be competitive. And that gives Republican actors on the state level a little bit more impetus to shift around their contest to a more advantageous position.
Matt Grossmann: There seems to be an assumption in a lot of this that first is best or second is second best, that we want to be as early in the process as possible. But the other irony of this change is that arguably by far the most valuable state last time was South Carolina because its position was right before all those other states voted and their momentum carried over. Whereas, that wasn’t true of the first two states. What do we know about how valuable these positions are and if it’s really true that first is better?
Josh Putnam: First we should say that this will be a… Hopefully, if it all works out the way Democrats have planned that this will be the first test of that hypothesis anyway. Right? We’ve never had a cycle where Iowa, New Hampshire have not gone first. So we don’t know what a process looks like where a South Carolina goes first, or insert state. That’s number one. But regardless of that, yeah, there’s something to the fact that South Carolina was seemingly, in retrospect anyway, well positioned to serve as a slingshot into a Super Tuesday in 2020 that was not completely dominated by southern states, but it had a certain southern flavor to it. Similar sorts of voters that were voting in the South Carolina primary were going to be voting in contests across the south just a few days after that.
It really depends on what the goals are. If the goal at the state level is to be first, like Iowa and New Hampshire want to be, it’s not necessarily to be determinative, it’s to influence the process, as the New Hampshire Democratic Party chair said in a recent interview with Politico. I think more to the point thereafter, the attention, whether it’s the candidate attention, media attention, or economic attention that they get from that, that they don’t want to give that up. Yeah, it’s a sequential process. The further down the line, the further we get into that sequence, the more determinative contests are likely to be. We get into a certain sweet spot there a few contests in where states are better positioned to do that than they are at the initial outset of a new primary calendar.
Matt Grossmann: It sounds very dependent on how the media and candidates react to the process. We haven’t had cycles where Iowa and New Hampshire don’t go first, but we have had cycles where the media and candidates decide to ignore Iowa because there’s an Iowa candidate or decide to try to make other states more influential. How is that likely to evolve with this change, especially since we might see a cycle where the Republicans, where the real contest is, aren’t changing, and so are we really going to get a test of whether it matters if South Carolina goes first if all the attention is just Trump and DeSantis and still in Iowa and New Hampshire?
Josh Putnam: Right, right. Again, as I said at the outset of this conversation, if Biden runs for renomination as expected, then a lot of this is a trial run of this system for Democrats with 2028 in mind that we’re not going to get a real firm test of the nature of these changes until the Democrats have a competitive cycle.
Where most of the attention is going to be is on the Republican process that’s going to look a lot like the traditional process that starts in Iowa and New Hampshire and so on and so forth. Even though Trump is the only announced candidate so far, much of the activity reflects the order of the contest so far. It wasn’t a mistake that Trump was in New Hampshire and South Carolina the other weekend. It’s not a mistake that candidates are lining up trips to Iowa. Nikki Haley’s supposed to announce in the next few days, and where’s she going? Well, up to Iowa really quickly.
The one missing link in all this and all the planning anyway, is that it only extends to those first three contests, is Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, that Nevada, despite having that fourth position in the Republican order, we haven’t really seen any of the activities extend to that deep into the calendar yet. Again, as we get deeper into the invisible primary, we’ll start to see campaigns take shape and the planning begin and will not only see continued activity on the part of candidates and median reaction to them in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, but we’ll start to hear about how they’re planning for Nevada’s process, whichever route it takes with respect to primary caucus on the Republican side, but also in terms of planning for a process that maybe goes beyond that, visits and spending in those Super Tuesday states and so on and so forth.
Matt Grossmann: Well, if this is so dependent on what the candidates and the media decide though, is there going to be any learning that this is more of a national process now? After all, you’re now going through these basically a year of pre-primary debates and coverage, and so part of the role of these early states is that everyone thought they would provide these early signals, and now we have all of these other early signals. Do you see any changes like that that are just slowly nationalizing the process to make these early states less important?
Josh Putnam: Yeah, we’ve seen a gradual nationalization of this process over time anyway. Despite the fact that there’s not been a lot of learning with respect to how the national parties approach it, certainly states are never going to acknowledge that it’s a national process because they want the attention on their contests, their issues, and the like.
We have seen some learning with respect to how the national parties approach this. Over the course of the last few cycles, we’ve seen both parties adopt rules that deal with the primary process. Sorry, not the primary process. The parties have adapted with rules that deal with the debates process, which was a new wrinkle in 2016 on the Republican side, and we saw Democrats push that along with more severe thresholds for candidates to be able to participate in 2020’s process, and Republicans are adopting that as well. That I see as a nationalized move at attempting to… Again, I don’t know that the parties are trying to winnow candidates, but it has the effect of winnowing the field, at least who is likely to do well, who’s on top heading in and so on and so forth. That’s one area where we’ve seen some augmentation on the part of the national parties over time with respect to their learning.
We talk about in primary season sequence, but the invisible primaries a part of that sequence too. Campaigns are building out now at this point in time, and they’ll continue to do that. Some candidates will make the decision that we’ve made this effort, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, we were going to announce that we’re going to run, but we’re not going to. Some folks have… I don’t know how many stories I’ve read about Asa Hutchinson about to jump in, or he says it’s going to be a couple months from now. It keeps being a couple months from now every story I see on this, and maybe he opts to run, maybe not, but we’ll see on that. This is an increasingly nationalized process with states that have some input in how it runs, and that’s how we keep having this conversation about this back and forth between state centered process and the nationalizing process.
Matt Grossmann: We’ve also seen some other changes not having to do with state order for the Democrats especially downgrading caucuses and almost killing them off now. What do you see as the biggest other changes and what are we seeing in terms of the influence of those kinds of changes? I know there were big fights in both 2008 and 2016 over kind of the here’s who attends caucuses, here’s who attends primaries, things like that. Is that kind of thing mattering for the shape of the party or who wins?
Josh Putnam: We haven’t really gotten a good test of that yet either. I mean, I think 2020, we certainly saw a significant scale back of that, but I think it’s something that we’re going to need a few more cycles to see the extent to which a scale back from more caucuses to, gosh, now we’re down to… It was just Iowa last go around in Nevada. Nevada’s already switched to a primary on their side or out there as of now. But I flash back to the Unity Reform Commission that came out of the 2016 Democratic Convention, that battle between Clinton and Sanders, and one of the planks, one of the areas they were charged to look at was the difference between primaries and caucuses. Again, you kind of alluded to this in your question, is that we’ve got some participation differences there. Turnout’s higher for a state run primary than it is for a caucus.
So that’s been kind of where the focus has been, or the majority focus has been in the Democratic Party over the last couple of cycles, which is tamping down on what they view as voter suppression and allowing for increased participation in their process. But I still think back to a time that Unity Reform Commission, when they were looking at this, when someone who was on the Sanders campaign or part of that orbit in 2016, Larry Cohen, who was the vice vice-chair of the Unity Reform Commission, he passionately defended caucuses. And I think where we don’t really get a sense of the extent of this change is in organization. I think what is potentially lost in a movement away from caucuses is kind of that organizational aspect, getting and energizing foot soldiers who are going to be with you for organizing for a general election. He spoke about how, Larry Cohen that is, spoke about how, again, in that setting, you’re able to more intimately engage with folks, get them involved, not just to come out to the polls, but to help to organize other folks to come out.
That’s what you get from a caucus that you’re not going to see in a primary. Now, again, whether or not that is injurious to Democrats in future cycles, I think we’re going to have to see. That’s a question that we’re going to have to have in the back of our minds as we view that process. So far, I don’t think it’s really harmed them in terms of organization. Get out the vote drives and the like have proceeded unabated from my vantage point with or without those things. And we should note that the caucuses, though they may not be well attended, are still a place where delegates are on the whole being selected to participate in conventions, county conventions, state conventions, and up to the national convention as well. They still have that organizational aspect to them, but you may not see the energy that you got from a competitive caucus where delegates are being allocated as well.
Matt Grossmann: So that makes me think we should do some 101. So give me, and we’re assuming some knowledge here. Give me just sort of the broad picture review that these contests are about apportioning delegates affiliated with candidates. The final official vote is actually at the convention and sort of how we got to this point.
Josh Putnam: Right. Right. So the quick primer on this is there’s a delegate selection process, there’s a delegate allocation process. For the most part on the Democratic side, we’re talking about primaries now. The results in those primaries determine the delegate slots that are allocated to particular candidates based on those results. The delegate selection process happens in a variety of ways, but more often than not, it happens in a kind of concurrent caucus convention process where again, we already know which candidate has how many delegate slots, but the selection process determines the individuals and who they’re aligned with that fit into those slots that go to a county convention, a state convention, and ultimately to the national convention.
Matt Grossmann: And just because we did have this review in 2016 where people were switching delegates from the initial contests and stuff, just talk a little bit about to the extent to which these allocations are permanent versus not.
Josh Putnam: Well, so on the Democratic side, they’re locked in, right? Delegate candidates are typically lined up by the campaigns. The more organized ones are prepared for this than those who are less organized. But yeah, I mean, delegates are pledged to particular candidates, they’re selected with respect to those pledges. There’s a little bit more latitude on the Republican side and that they don’t have that pledged process. State parties can determine whether or not they want to bind delegates. If they hold a preference vote, whether it’s at a precinct caucus in Iowa or a primary like New Hampshire, then they’re bound to allocate delegate slots to candidates based on those results. Those subsequent delegate candidate or delegates that…
The people who subsequently fill those positions are locked into that preference, whether or not they’re aligned with a candidate or not. The reason we saw some issues there in 2016 on the Republican side was that there were a few states, Colorado, North Dakota, among them, that had precinct caucuses, but no preference vote in there. So there was no mechanism to bind delegate slots to particular candidates. It was just basically a selection process. The onus was on campaigns and candidates to make sure that their candidates for delegate slots actually got through to subsequent rounds.
Matt Grossmann: So political scientists have tended to brush a lot of this to the side in talking about presidential nominations, especially in the Party Decides era, where it was assumed that pre-primary endorsements were the most important factor and tended to matter independent of or before the voters started voting. And to the extent we had a debate about that, it was often about the other pre-primary factors like polls, money and media attention that would matter before anybody before the early states. And certainly in the winnowing process that is not just in who wins, but in which candidates are left to vote by the time voters see them. So what’s the kind of current state of our knowledge on determinants of presidential nominations and the role of these early states versus all this stuff that happens beforehand?
Josh Putnam: Well, from my perspective, it’s all a part of that sequence. I mean, again, you go back to the, I mentioned this before, this idea of primary season sequence. That’s as part of this, but the other preceding part of this is that invisible primary, that’s a part of the sequence as well. The inputs that come out of that process affect what happens in those early contests. I mean, it’s akin to putting a puzzle together. I mean, I think most people, if they sit down to do a puzzle, they’re going to do the border pieces first to try and get that outline in place, but it’s not the only option to do that. If your strategy’s a little bit different, you may become to that picture of identifying who the nominee is a little bit different, but again, that speaks to the sequence of all this mattering.
Again, the party decides thesis and the literature that’s developed around that. The discussions that are developed around that, I think still pretty well hold on the Democratic side, and I don’t know that they don’t apply on the Republican side. It’s just that we’ve seen a reticence on the part of leaders to weigh in with which candidates that are behind and in particular cycles. And we’re already seeing evidence of that for this 2024 cycle on the Republican side, is that we’ll let the voters decide on how that’s going to go. So it’s not really the party deciding in that case, it’s the party not deciding or deferring to the voters for some input on that. But before we get to that, I mean, that’s where I see the state of things right now with respect to the party deciding or not deciding or what have you.
But it all comes back to the invisible primary is a process that starts, at the very latest, the day after the preceding presidential election. And there’s certainly evidence that it starts before that in terms of candidates kind of positioning themselves for future runs and so on and so forth. But every little bit of activity that happens between from that point to the point at which Iowa kicks things off, if it’s to do so, and it will on the Republican side in 2024, is going to have an input or a say in how the process comes out in the end. It’s all kind of determinative based on the steps that come before it.
Matt Grossmann: So we do still have this process where if you explain the rules to students or the public, it would seem like we were headed for problems, that is, or a contested convention every year. We need a majority, but we start with a lot more candidates and no one polling at 50%. So is it true that that’s just sort of a built in problem that will eventually face in the system, or do all of these processes, whether it’s the early states or the invisible primary process guarantee that we will get down to a number of candidates that the parties can make a decision?
Josh Putnam: From my perspective, it’s a long process. I just talked about an invisible primary that starts the day after the preceding presidential election. That’s a long process. Some of us are engaged from beginning to end on that. Others check in when Iowa, New Hampshire start voting, you’re maybe a little earlier when these debates start happening in the primaries and so on and so forth, but it’s a long time and is exhaustive process. And if you’re a casual onlooker who wants to be engaged or involved in the process, at some point you just want it to be over. That’s the benefit, I think, of a long and sequential process is that despite the fact that it looks like it’s going to be chaotic every time… In 2016 on the Republican side, the great example of this, right?
Trump got to a majority of delegates by the end of primary season, but there were still questions about his viability as a nominee and actually pulling the lever for him at the convention and all the rest of that. They ultimately decided to bind the delegates and lock in Trump as a nominee and so on and so forth. But if you were going to have a contested convention 2016, the Republican side was going to be it. I reserved the right to be wrong on that. But just the nature of the process is one that gradually moves things towards a front-runner emerging and alternative to that, front-runner emerging that allows somebody to ultimately get to 50% or close enough to it to be nominated at the convention.
Matt Grossmann: So the presidential primary process has also been blamed for the rise of Trump, and this goes back a long way. My advisor, Nelson Polsby, famously sort of predicted that changes in the reform process would lead to an increase in importance of celebrity of media and a decrease in importance of the traditional party elites. On the other hand, the same kinds of processes on the Democratic side haven’t necessarily led to the same kinds of outcomes. And there’s lots of other factors, of course, that led to Trump’s rise. But kind of address that, the extent to which this presidential primary process, including its reform actually opened the way for a candidate like Trump to gain power in the US.
Josh Putnam: Right. Right. So there’s a balance here, right? Well, the Democratic Party wanted to open things up to rank and file voters. I think the Republicans came reluctantly into that as the post reform era evolved, but that has opened the door too. Again, the literature that popped out of that was not only Polsby, but folks who focused on a candidate centered view of the process and so on and so forth. It does gravitate towards celebrity and name recognition and so on and so forth. But again, so much of this I think pushes back. I mean, you can change the rules all you want to to primary season. The big change was opening it up to voters, opening it up more to voters in the first place.
All the subsequent rules changes have been within that system and the like, right? So once you make that change, and it’s one that either party’s going to have a difficult time of pulling back from. But again, it hinges on a party kind of staying together on what’s important and we’ve seen that Democrats have been willing, Democrat elites I should say, have been willing to let a process play out, but also to weigh in ahead of time in an effort to winnow things. And in the case of 2024, to select states that are good at picking nominees who can win. But again, with 2016 and the Republican side of the exception, the process has been pretty good at spitting out candidates who are well-equipped or well enough equipped to deal with the issues that are attended to the presidency.
Matt Grossmann: So we’re in a weird circumstance where, in some ways, we seem to be hurdling towards a Trump, Biden rematch in 2024, or at least that potential, even though voters say they don’t want that rematch. And I’ve been in rooms of party officials on both sides where it’s clear that lots of people don’t want that, and almost no one wants both. So how are we in a circumstance where it’s so hard to move off of the obvious, I guess, front-runners or continuing on the same path versus shifting, even if people profess to want something different?
Josh Putnam: Right. Again, this gets back to how strong the national parties actually are or trying to be in all of this. I’ve sat in several Democratic meetings over the years, particularly in incumbent reelect years, where they’re setting the rules and they continually come back to this mantra of, our goal is to renominate and reelect the president. And that’s why they tend to not rock the boat and change rules and so on and so forth. There’s a disconnect I think this time.
I mean, I think what we saw the other weekend when the DNC adopted the calendar rules for 2024 was a party that was very much lined up behind the president. So there’s a disconnect there. Whether that changes when Biden actually says he’s going to seek renomination, reelection, we’ll see whether or not Democrats begin to line up in greater numbers behind him. But as of now, for Democrats, they at least have an opening. There’s a possibility that someone else could jump in there, and that may live on past when Biden throws his hat in the ring, or as expected, throws his hat in the ring, but we’ll see.
The Republican side, again, it’s a continuation of what we’ve seen since 2016. It’s a reticence to deal with the elephant in the room more or less, which is, there’s feelings against Trump, but there’s no effort to really coordinate against him. Or if there are efforts, they’re disjointed and are difficult to coordinate above a microscale in the process. So you see the beginnings of coordination behind this notion of DeSantis, but I don’t think we’ve seen a real test of that yet.
My approach to 2024, I think is the same as it was in 2016. In 2016, I was fond of saying, “Look, this is Jeb Bush’s nomination until it’s not.” And it very slowly moved away from him and then very quickly was apparent that he was not going to be the nominee. We may see the same thing this time around with respect to the Republican process and Trump, but again, there’s some institutional advantages that Trump has as a former president, having had input on officials that are in power on the state level that insulate him in a way that was not true of Jeb Bush and I guess the Bush dynasty, if you want to call it that, heading into 2016.
Matt Grossmann: So Josh, how did you get into this mess? And repeatedly coming back to it, what was interesting when you started and how much have those interests changed as you follow this each time?
Josh Putnam: Gosh, the story I’ve told over the years is that at some point in first semester of my grad school experience, I had to choose a topic to write a research design on. And my only inkling at the time was, well, I’m interested in presidential elections among a lot of things, but I really like this presidential election stuff. A lot of that stemmed from some stuff that I did as an undergraduate in the class that Georgia Benowitz taught at University of North Carolina. But anyway, the notion of the movement of primaries was enticing to me. At the time, Bill Maher and Andy Bush had written a book, The Front-Loading Problem, that I thought asked some good questions that had not had some hypotheses fully tested. So that’s where I got involved in. And the rules, broadly speaking, was just in looking at calendar movement, trying to explain why it was that some states were moving around from cycle to cycle and other states…
I grew up in North Carolina. North Carolina traditionally had a first Tuesday after the first Monday in May primary, and rarely moved from that. Why was North Carolina different from say, Georgia, where I was in grad school at the time where Georgia moved around? And the best performing variable in that that explained it was that North Carolina had a consolidated primary, that there were costs involved with moving around that a state like Georgia, who very early in the post reform era said, “Look, we’ve got a late primary that comes after… The late primary for all offices that comes after the conventions. So we’ve got to create this new and separate presidential primary that can fit into a window that feeds, delegates into a national convention.” They incurred those startup costs early and reap the benefits later on when they had the ability to shift around to earlier or later dates, depending on the cycle.
The way that developed from a topic for a master’s thesis or basically a chapter in my dissertation to dissertation research and something broader through the blog that I’ve run for, gosh, 15, 16 years now, is that I took that question, like I said, I wanted to test some hypotheses that I don’t think had been rigorously quantitatively tested to that point and actually do that. And I did that in my dissertation, and when I went on the job market, I got some feedback that this is a great question, a great series of questions. I got this feedback from a comparativist who said, “It really screams for some case studies.”
And that came at a time when I talked about the calendar evolution on the blog and so on and so forth, but I was looking for a direction for not only that, but for my research moving forward. And that case study outlook was a good thing for me to latch onto, I think, not only for my research, but for the blog itself. It allowed me to take those big questions that I treated in an overarching way with the system in mind to looking at how these decisions get made on a real micro level in a way that I don’t think I had prior to that. So that’s how things have evolved. That got me into discussions of not only the calendar, but also the delegate selection and allocation rules that both parties are using.
That opened the door to not only further research questions, but also opportunities to have these discussions with practitioners who are involved in campaigns. I mean, the blog got picked up by the Romney campaign in 2012 when I was talking about delegates in a real antiseptic way and nonpartisan way and all that, but they used the information that I was putting up about the particular inability of his opposition to be able to catch him in the delegate count, but also led to opportunities for me to consult with… I advised briefly the Biden campaign in 2020 on their delegate process, and that’s where I am now. A long evolutionary tale, if you will.
Matt Grossmann: And so yes, you have worked not only as a political scientist researcher, but as a practitioner looking at the rules from their perspective and in the media as well, trying to explain the process to the public. So talk a little bit about your experiences there and what it says about our different views. Are there things that practitioners know that the media and political scientists don’t, and vice versa? What should practitioners take from the political science world and what should we bring back in?
Josh Putnam: Right. I mean, obviously the goals are different. The bottom line for a practitioner is, look, they’re wanting to come up with the best way for their candidate or their party to win. And it can be a microfocus at times. You can lose sight of the forest for the trees. I think from a scholarly standpoint, we approach it from the opposite angle, that there’s a lot of this minutia that’s in there, but we’re trying to fit it in together to tell a broader picture of trends of change and so on and so forth from a party perspective or what have you. That’s where the disconnect, I think often takes place is just the goals are different, but also our approaches are different.
I think my evolution is a microcosm of all this. I mean, I think I looked at it from this broad perspective to begin with, with some little anecdotes here and there that could fit into, again, the hypotheses that I was testing. But you can lose sight sometimes of some of the minutia in that, and that’s where both sides, I think… I don’t know that one side does things better or worse. It’s just that, as I said, the goals are different. We should be mindful of that when having these conversations between both camps, is that, hey, from a political science standpoint, from a scholarly standpoint, think about the bigger pictures.
I mean, a conversation that I think Jonathan Bernstein and I have had on Twitter, just broadly speaking about the changes to the calendar, is that one thing that’s being lost right now is the stability of the system. If you’ve got a stable system of events on a calendar, that allows candidates and parties to learn, for starters, over time, but also to adapt to what they’ve learned in path cycles as they go along. So in the rush for the Democratic Party, this go around to try and prioritize diversity in battleground states and so on and so forth, they’ve to some extent lost sight of that.
I mean, I think I approach this cycle in particular with the mindset that I’ll believe Iowa and New Hampshire get thrown out of this when it actually happens. Well, it’s actually happened. They’ve cast that vote. But at the same time, I don’t know that they necessarily, the party that has looked at this from that perspective of the stability loss, because I think the democratic process in particular has gotten to a point where you know what you’re getting out of Iowa and New Hampshire at this point. It may be mismatched with what the party’s goals are, but how we interpret the results in those contests is such that we tend to discount those results. I mean, the reason everybody was waiting for South Carolina last time was because Iowa and New Hampshire didn’t necessarily match up with where the party was. So in some respects, South Carolina, we talked earlier about what differences does it make that South Carolina’s going to be first now. Well, more or less, I think some people still viewed South Carolina as the first contest in the Democratic process last time.
Matt Grossmann: So anything you want to tout now about what’s next or what you’re going to be up to in this cycle?
Josh Putnam: Well, it’ll be more of the same for me. To the extent I’m able, I’ll keep rattling my saber, I guess, about what’s going on in this process, what people are missing or misinterpreting, whether it’s the media or the parties or what have you. But also, I’m at a stage in the cycle where I’m sitting back and fielding offers. I’m in between gigs right now, so open to fielding offers from candidates, should they reach out. But yeah, like I said, it’s just kind of more of the same, of following what’s going on in this process as it evolves. Just because the Democrats voted the other weekend to settle on a calendar doesn’t mean it’s locked in or set in stone. As we talked about earlier, that process will continue and the impact that has on the subsequent contest will also continue to play out. And we’ve also got a competitive Republican process that’s coming up as well.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The science of politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. If you liked this discussion, here are the episodes you should check out next, linked on our website, do early primary states still pick presidents, congressional primaries, how the parties fight insurgents, do the parties prefer white male candidates, how donor opinion distorts American democracy, and how primary elections enable polarized amateurs. Thanks to Josh Putnam for joining me. Please check out Frontloading HQ and then listen in next time.