Archive for Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Caucus shift may backfire

September 6, 2006

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New Hampshire and the Democratic National Committee, which wants to give other states more clout in the presidential primary process, are on a collision course over the date of the state's famous contest.

The dispute is not new, but this DNC effort comes at a time when New Hampshire's potentially key electoral votes in November give the state additional leverage. It was once sure to be in the Republican column, but is now a key swing state in presidential elections.

Dissing its first-in-the-nation primary could potentially have disastrous consequences for the Democrats come November.

Iowa is less upset by the schedule change because its caucuses remain first. But it could be caught up in the dispute if New Hampshire moves its date. Iowa is also a major swing state Democrats cannot afford to alienate.

The DNC regulates when states hold Democratic presidential primaries and has said that it will not seat delegates elected in contests that do not conform to its approved schedule.

By comparison, the Republicans leave the schedule up to each state party. The GOP has no complaints with the current system. The candidates the Republican primaries have nominated have won seven of the last 10 presidential elections.

Every four years Democrats tinker with their nomination process. Over the years the DNC has often threatened to ban the delegates selected in primaries that don't conform to its rules.

In the case of New Hampshire, the DNC has always backed down.

Now, the DNC has decided it wants to change the traditional arrangement in which Iowa holds the first caucus and eight days later New Hampshire holds the first primary. It has placed a caucus in Nevada between Iowa and New Hampshire on the theory that other states need to have greater input.

New Hampshire state law gives its secretary of state, who happens to be a Democrat, the right to schedule its primary whenever he wants - even in 2007 - to maintain the state's pre-eminent position. Iowa's date is eight days before New Hampshire and presumably would move if New Hampshire does.

Under the rules passed by the DNC, presidential candidates who campaign in states that do not conform to the approved calendar would be stripped of any delegates won in those states.

Nevertheless, several potential Democratic presidential candidates have said they may ignore the rules because of the massive favorable publicity the winning candidate gets in New Hampshire, and the state's relatively small number of delegates that would be forfeited.

But there is another reason the schedule change could backfire on the DNC - the November election.

The New Hampshire primary is more than a political and social event to state residents who get to rub elbows in small groups with potential presidents. It is a major economic force in the state. The same is true about the Iowa caucuses.

Reducing the clout of the New Hampshire primary would hurt residents' pocketbooks that benefit from hotel, car rental, restaurant and television advertising spending by the candidates and news media.

A party that was viewed within the Granite State - or in Iowa - as having messed with those states' status might pay a price in November.

Given that Democrat John Kerry only carried New Hampshire by 9,000 votes out of 675,000 in 2004 and George W. Bush won the state by 7,000 in the 2000 election, it might not take much to make a difference there. Bush won Iowa by 10,000 votes out of 1.5 million in 2004.

For those who think New Hampshire's four electoral votes aren't that important, consider the following: Making the rounds in Democratic circles is the view that all the party needs to do in 2008 is carry the states it did in 2004 and add highly competitive Ohio.

That would give the Democrats enough electoral votes to win the White House - but not if they carried Ohio, but then proceeded to lose New Hampshire.

We'll see how gutsy the Democratic National Committee is when the rubber hits the road in its dispute with New Hampshire and possibly Iowa.

Peter A. Brown is the assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute and a former editorial columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.

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