NBC news recently reported that California and Texas have shifted their Democratic presidential primaries earlier into the primary season. Thanks to early voting, voters in these states could even cast their votes on the same day as the Iowa Caucuses and before the New Hampshire primary.
Such a move might give the more diverse populations of California and Texas more influence over the outcome of presidential primaries. After all, winners of the early contests like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina usually wrap up the nominations shortly afterwards, and are almost always the last candidates standing by the end of the presidential primaries. Voters in later states, exposed mainly to horse-race media coverage, typically know little about the candidates other than who won earlier contests. Lacking other ways to decide on a candidate, they join the bandwagons established in the early states.
Jimmy Carter’s dark horse strategy in 1976 was to gain momentum from the early states, and after his victory that year, most candidates have followed suit. Many candidates exhaust their money and energy hoping to make up for it with the free publicity they receive from being a frontrunner. The one candidate since 1980 to bypass these two early states, Rudy Giuliani, failed to win a single contest despite leading in the polls and fundraising the previous year.
Candidates may therefore campaign more in California and Texas and adapt their agenda to voters in these states.
But electoral reforms designed to broaden voter involvement have failed before. The McGovern-Fraser reforms set up our current system of primaries in order to place nominations in the hands of the voters. The UCLA Theory of Parties has claimed that party elites have informally controlled presidential nominations since 1980, in part by manipulating the frontloaded primary system. Both politicians and intense policy demanders learned to use endorsements, networking, volunteers, and money to influence voters early in the primaries – often earlier than the Iowa caucuses in the “invisible primary.” They were arguably caught off guard by the 1972 and 1976 primaries, but quickly learned from their mistakes.
Intense policy demanders, by definition, are going to be more active in primaries than other rank-and-file voters. This means they are going to look for ways to “game” the system no matter what it is. In the days where conventions picked nominees, this meant ensuring that convention delegates were loyal. Since McGovern-Fraser, it has meant influencing the early states in the presidential primaries. Likewise, some have speculated that intense policy demanders failed to shape the Republican race in 2016 because of social media or the increasing visibility of the “invisible primary.” If there is a way to take advantage of new dynamics, the most informed and motivated activists will find it.
What this means is that even if California and Texas voter earlier, intense policy demanders will look for ways to obtain the same kind of nominee they want when Iowa and New Hampshire vote first. That being said, California and Texas Democrats may already resemble intense policy demanders more than Iowa and New Hampshire Democrats. It might be that the new early voters are more interested in issues like immigration reform, carbon taxes and marijuana legalization, which would not be out of sync with national intense policy demanders. If fact, to the extent that national intense policy demanders resemble California and Texas voters, they might have already found ways to maximize their impact in early primaries.
If there is a way for intense policy demanders to help their candidates when primary dynamics change, they will look for it. Of course, that does not mean that parties should stop trying to find ways to limit the impact of intense policy demanders. Maybe the best any system can do is stay one step ahead of them.