2012 primary plans would keep N.H. first

By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / June 8, 2010

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WASHINGTON — Intent on preventing a repeat of the chaotic presidential primary schedule in 2008, Republican and Democratic parties are completing plans to create an orderly timetable that would push most contests back while ensuring New Hampshire’s celebrated role as the first primary in the nation.

Officials from both parties have separate proposals that would ban states from holding their vote before the first Tuesday of March, with four exemptions: the Granite State; Iowa, which holds the first caucuses; South Carolina; and Nevada. And no state can hold a contest before Feb. 1.

Implicit in the plans is the parties’ determination to infuse more discipline into the scheduling. When the primaries of 2008 approached, defiant states leapt over one another in a bid to hold their vote earlier, and the national parties retaliated by withholding delegates from the most recalcitrant interlopers. As the process disintegrated, election officials in New Hampshire vowed to keep its role as the first primary in the nation, even if voters had to slog to the polls during the Christmas season.

It almost reached that point: New Hampshire ballots were cast on Jan. 8, the earliest ever.

Party officials are looking for a less frenetic approach.

“People want a little breathing room, so they don’t have to campaign on Christmas Eve itself,’’ said Tad Devine, a Democratic strategist and electoral map master. “I hope they can stagger the nomination process so it’s more rational.’’

The Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee are taking steps in that direction, through incentives to persuade states to hold later contests. The Democrats are dangling the prospect of extra delegates; Republicans are discussing allowing winner-take-all contests in later states instead of proportional allotment of delegates. A winner-take-all allotment makes a state’s haul more valuable to candidates.

Bill Gardner, New Hampshire’s longtime secretary of state and chief defender of the Granite State’s first-in-the-nation role, said he was thrilled that the parties — at least for the next election cycle — are protecting New Hampshire’s place.

Although other states grumble that New Hampshire enjoys an unfair privilege, the state provides a unique opportunity for any candidate to take a stab at the presidency, he said.

“It’s for the little guy. You don’t have to have the most money or the most fame to win here,’’ said Gardner, noting that Jimmy Carter was little known nationally before his New Hampshire primary win launched his run to the White House.

For Republicans, their proposal is the product of a first-ever “change commission’’ the party appointed after the 2008 convention to study the process. Although Republicans have a natural distaste for ordering states around, the national party wanted to make sure the primary system didn’t get out of control, said Ron Kaufman, a Massachusetts member of the RNC.

“The whole idea is to have the process pushed back so it doesn’t interfere with Christmas and New Year’s, and to give a little more longevity to the process,’’ Kaufman said.

Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party and a member of the DNC’s rules committee, agreed: “We’re strongly saying, let’s spread this out, and make our candidates have to campaign in Buffalo and Watts, Calif., and St. Petersburg and small towns throughout America.’’

Presidential candidates have been starting their campaigns — officially or unofficially — earlier and earlier in recent decades, and the trend caused a near-meltdown in 2007, when states submitted their 2008 primary plans.

Some states worried that their contests would become irrelevant if the nominees were essentially picked before their primaries came; Massachusetts for 2008 moved its primary to Feb. 5, a month earlier than it was held in 2004. Both Michigan and Florida defied the rules, holding primaries in January, and were punished by the DNC, which initially refused to count their delegates. Ultimately, the states were allowed half-votes at the convention in Denver, but they did not have a substantial impact on the selection of the presidential nominees.

Some states may still balk when they present their individual plans for primaries and caucuses next year, several officials said, although party leaders have not yet experienced a backlash against the proposed schedules. Massachusetts’ expedited primary was a one-time-only event in 2008, said Brian McNiff, a spokesman for state Secretary of State William Galvin. Unless the Legislature changes the law, Massachusetts will hold its 2012 primary on March 6, McNiff said.