Struggling states may cancel or delay primaries

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press / March 14, 2011

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MONTGOMERY, Ala.—In these tough times, even how we nominate presidents is facing the threat of the budget ax.

Lawmakers and elections officials in at least six cash-strapped states are hoping to move or replace their stand-alone 2012 presidential primaries, sacrificing some influence over who wins the nominations in favor of saving millions of dollars.

The moves to either delay primaries by several months or hand over the nominating process to party-run caucuses comes as Republican and Democratic parties implement new rules to limit the number of states voting before March 1.

The last election cycle saw states move up their contests to get more say in a process that, ironically, ended up lasting months longer than anyone expected.

The 2012 cycle looks different, but not because the electoral map has changed significantly or because the nominating competition is likely to be on one side of the aisle.

States are facing billion-dollar deficits, and legislators are trying to cut budgets.

"We are in the mode now of looking after needs instead of wants," said Alabama Rep. Steve Clouse, who introduced a bill to move his state's primary from February or March to June, when it can be merged with a primary for state offices.

The move could save nearly $4 million. The governor has recommended $159 million in cuts to more than 200 programs to balance the budget.

Missouri and California are also considering shifting to June. In California's case, the savings could be $100 million.

Kansas, Washington state and Massachusetts are considering caucuses, the kind of political party-run public gatherings made famous in Iowa, where voters gather and cajole neighbors to back their candidate. More than a dozen other states hold such events.

There are several states that are trying to maintain their position in the nominating process.

Florida and Minnesota want to keep their primaries in February, figuring they will benefit from the increased media exposure and the modest economic bump that comes with campaigns buying advertising and staging events.

Those factors and heated races on both sides pushed a slew of states four years ago to try to move to the front of the line.

This time, it makes more financial sense to combine primaries for state and federal offices, said Ben Fong, a California Assembly Democrat who is sponsoring that state's bill to move the primary from February to June.

"It would save $100 million when every penny counts," Fong said. The state is facing an estimated $26.6 billion deficit.

California had moved its presidential primary from June to February in 2008, but it kept state-level contests June.

An Assembly committee is expected to sign off on the measure on Tuesday to comply with the parties' new rules, which mandate that only Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada can pick their presidential nominees before March 1.

With President Barack Obama unlikely to face a challenge, the chance remains that voters won't have much say in picking the GOP nominee should the outcome be determined by the early states.

"This is democracy and we should participate in it," said Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead, who opposes delaying the primary.

A proposal to merge Missouri's presidential primary -- usually held on Super Tuesday in February or March -- and the August state primary into a single June contest will shift the state to the end of the presidential primary schedule.

"We'll cut the costs in half," said the bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Jay Barnes.

The cost of an early primary could be justified in a state at the front of the primary calendar because of the influence it brings, but it would be difficult to justify the cost of being one of 20 on Super Tuesday, said Zac McCrary, senior associate with the Democratic polling firm Anzalone Liszt Research.

States looking to combine presidential and state primaries in May or June can draw hope from how the 2008 Democratic race between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton went late into the season.

"That was the exception to the rule," McCrary said.

In Massachusetts, where Gov. Deval Patrick has recommended cutting spending nearly 2 percent, reducing state services and eliminating 900 jobs, the chief election official told lawmakers they need to give him an extra $3.5 million or consider replacing the March 6 primary with party caucuses.

Lawmakers haven't decided what to do.

Washington Gov. Chris Gregorie, who is dealing with a $4.6 billion budget deficit, has likewise recommended caucuses instead of a primary, which would save $10 million. The secretary of state supports the proposal as a one-time cost-saving measure.

The Kansas Senate has passed a bill to cancel next year's presidential primary and allow the parties to hold caucuses, which would save $1.3 million.

It remains to be seen if candidates will encourage certain states to keep early primaries, despite the costs, said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina.

If Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia formally enters the GOP race, either might see a benefit in Alabama keeping an early primary and giving a strong vote to a Southern candidate, he said.

In 2008, the state Democratic and Republican parties helped make Alabama one of the February primary states. Back then, tax collections were setting records and candidates were flocking to the state. State officials were elated when 1.1 million voters, or about 40 percent of the electorate, turned out.

It did not, however, generate as much money as legislators had hoped when they approved an early primary, Clouse said.

And times are tighter. Gov. Robert Bentley has recommended eliminating state funding for many tourist attractions and cutting some agencies as much as 45 percent over two years, which could lead to hundreds of layoffs.

Against that backdrop, a legislative committee unanimously approved Clouse's bill to move the presidential primary.

"The General Fund is in such dire straits that $3.9 million is a lot of money and it would be hard to justify," House Speaker Mike Hubbard said.


Associated Press writers Chris Blank in Jefferson City, Mo., John Hanna in Topeka, Kan., and Manuel Valdes in Olympia, Wash., contributed to this report. top stories on Twitter

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