After the relatively focused retail campaigns of Iowa and New Hampshire, the surviving candidates enter a dizzying array of primaries.  They must decide where to concentrate their efforts and resources as they jump around the country trying to hit key media markets and win enough delegates to gain their party nominations.

NCSL Calendar
NASS Calendar
By competing in the state primaries and caucuses leading up to the national conventions, candidates seek to win enough delegates to secure their respective parties' nominations.  The process that has evolved is a rather illogical system that starts with the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary and is followed by dizzying succession of contests that sends the candidates hither and yon across the United States trying to reach voters in the next primary or caucus.  The theory is that the early retail contests in Iowa and New Hampshire allow even a candidate with modest funds to compete against better funded and more well known contenders, and the subsequent contests then winnow the field.  However critics say that this gives Iowa and New Hampshire, which have gone first by tradition, undue influence.  (Iowa and New Hampshire are also criticized as being unrepresentative >).  As in past cycles, other states, seeking to have greater say in the selection of the nominees, moved their contests up earlier in the calendar.
Delegate Votes Needed to Nominate
Democrats: 2,118*
Republicans: 1,191
*The Democratic delegate numbers fluctuated slightly in the first part of 2008 due to changes in superdelegates (example memo), but through late May the number needed to nominate was in the 2,024-2,026 range.  On May 31 the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee, which had imposed 100 percent penalties on Michigan and Florida, approved full seating of the two states' delegations, but with half votes for each delegate, bringing the number of delegate votes needed to nominate to 2,118.

The Basics
Democrats sent over 4,000 delegates and 500 alternates to their national convention in Denver, CO; these included close to 800 unpledged delegate votes.  Unpledged delegates are the DNC members, members of Congress, governors and distinguished party leaders known as superdelegates; they comprise about 19 percent of the total delegate votes.  Republicans sent 2,380 delegates to their national convention in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, MN.

National party rules and state laws set out the timing and processes for selecting delegates to the respective national nominating conventions.  Caucuses are multi-step, party run processes that generally start at the precinct level and work up through county and district levels to a state convention.  Presidential preference primary elections may be run by the party (although this is rare because it is expensive) or by the state, in which case in state laws apply.

Complicating matters, the two parties' rules are not entirely in sync.  Republican rules governing delegate selection are adopted by the preceding national convention (i.e. the 2008 rules were set in 2004).1  Rule 15(b)(1) states:

No presidential primary, caucus, convention, or other meeting may be held for the purpose of voting for a presidential candidate and/or selecting delegates or alternate delegates to the national convention, prior to the first Tuesday of February in the year in which the national convention is held...
Therefore, according to a strict interpretation of the RNC rules, no contests should occur before February 5, 2008, and the RNC indicated it would enforce its rules.  Democrats have made a special exception for Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as Nevada and South Carolina, to go early.  The Democratic "window," when party rules allow the rest of the states to begin their delegate selection processes, started February 5 as it did for the Republicans.  Several state parties violated the window and were threatened by the national parties with a loss of delegates.

Amazingly, important details of the 2008 calendar remained in flux on into March 2008.  State legislatures and parties sought to move their presidential primaries forward to give their states a greater say in the selection of the nominees, while the traditional early states of Iowa and New Hampshire steadfastly defended their first-in-the-nation status, and the national parties vowed to enforce their rules.  There was even talk that there might be a contest or two in late 2007.  For the campaigns the situation was somewhat akin to playing a football or basketball game while the exact dimensions of the field or court had not yet been finalized.

In the first part of 2007 a veritable stampede of states moved the dates of their primaries or caucuses forward.  On November 26, 2007 Massachusetts became the final state to schedule its contest on February 5, 2008 as Gov. Deval Patrick (D) signed a measure accomplishing that into law.  All told twenty-four states held their contests on February 5, 2008, creating what has been dubbed "Super Duper Tuesday."

Several states, including Florida and Michigan, moved to go earlier than February 5 despite the penalties.  On May 21, 2007 Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R) signed a bill to move the date of the state's presidential primary from the second Tuesday in March to the last Tuesday in January (January 29, 2008).  On August 31, 2007 Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) signed a bill setting the state's presidential primary on January 15, 2008.  

At its August 25, 2007 meeting the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee found the Florida Democratic Party plan in noncompliance, and voted to penalize Florida Democrats 100 percent of their delegates to the national convention if they did not come up with a plan within 30 days that complies with the timing requirement.  However, Florida Democrats stood firm.  On September 23, 2007 Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Thurman announced the party would participate in the January 29 primary.  On October 4, 2007, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson and Congressman Alcee Hastings filed suit against Howard Dean and the DNC in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of Florida.  The Rules and Bylaws Committee voted to penalize Michigan Democrats 100 percent of their delegates at its meeting on December 1, 2007, while rejecting penalties for Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina (NH response).

While the states jockeyed for position, the candidates and campaigns had to figure out how to navigate the field.  On the Democratic side, DNC Chairman Howard Dean sent a letter on August 31, 2007 to each of the Democratic candidates in which gave an overview of the Rules and Bylaws Committee's August 25 meeting and the Florida situation and wrote, "I strongly urge you to do your part and support the actions of the Rules and Bylaws Committee."  Also on August 31 party leaders in the four designated early states called on candidates to pledge not to "campaign or participate in any state which schedules a presidential election primary or caucus before Feb. 5, 2008, except for the states of Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire and South Carolina."  Richardson, Dodd, Biden, Edwards, Obama and Clinton quickly signed the pledge.

The Democratic candidates did not compete in the Michigan or Florida primaries, but Clinton's name was on the Michigan ballot and both candidates appeared on the Florida ballot.  The Clinton campaign put the two states in its win column.  A new chapter in the drama unfolded in March 2008 when the Democratic parties in the two states considered and put forth proposals to do re-votes so their delegates could be seated at the convention in Denver.  A cartoon by The Detroit News' Henry Payne brilliantly captures the of the situation.  The drawing portrays Obama and Clinton as runners far into a marathon, when a course official tells the tiring duo that they are going to rerun two stretches of the race.  In any event, the re-votes did not occur.  Democrats finally resolved their Florida and Michigan sagas at a tense, closely watched meeting of the party's Rules and Bylaws Committee on May 31.

The Republican National Committee also adopted a strict stance on violations of the window.  On October 22, 2007 the RNC Executive Committee voted to penalize New Hampshire, Florida, South Carolina, Michigan and Wyoming by half their delegates to the the Republican National Convention for starting their delegate selection in advance of Feb. 5, 2008; those penalties are reflected in the Call to the Convention the RNC issued on November 9, 2007.

Democrats' Superdelegates Situation
On the Democratic side, the role of the superdelegates drew considerable attention due to the closeness of the race.  Critics saw the ability of the superdelegates to determine the nomination as undemocratic.  Clinton had gained a significant lead in support among superdelegates in 2007 (>), but Obama achieved a steady trickle of gains in the first months of 2008, coinciding with his electoral victories, and the pace picked up in May (>) including some who switched from supporting Clinton.  Both the Clinton and Obama campaigns (and their allies: see example) expended considerable energies to woo the superdelegates.  Meanwhile, the daily exchange of charges and countercharges between the Clinton and Obama campaigns (example: March 26 memos from Obama, Clinton campaigns) caused concern among Democratic leaders looking forward to the fall campaign.  In a March 19, 2008 column in the New York Times, Gov. Phil Bredesen (D-TN), himself a superdelegate who has not announced a preference, advanced the notion of a superdelegate primary to be held in early June after the final primaries.  Bredesen envisaged "a tight, two-day business-like gathering" as "a final opportunity for the candidates to make their arguments to these delegates, and then one transparent vote."

Broader Consequences
The effect of states moving their contests up is a frontloaded calender; this has been a major concern in recent cycles because it has tended to produce early nominees, resulting in low participation rates in later primaries.  Frontloading also makes it difficult for lesser-funded candidates to compete.  According to this argument, if a momentum candidate were to emerge from one of the early retail states of Iowa or New Hampshire, he would have faced a very big challenge organizing to compete in 20 or so contests on February 5.  There have been efforts to produce a more logical calendar (see P2000 and P2004 pages and more recently the work of the DNC's Commission on Presidential Nomination Timing and Scheduling in 2005-06) but these initiatives have not met with success.

In 2008 the calendar was frontloaded to a far greater extent in the past.  Observers debated whether this would increase the importance of Iowa and New Hampshire.  Certainly the campaigns poured major resources into those states.  February 5, 2008 was an unprecedented day for both parties, but it did not decide the nominations as many observers had expected.  The Republican race actually continued to March 4 as former Gov. Mike Huckabee hung on despite Sen. John McCain's overwhelming advantage.  The Democratic race continued right through to the June 3 contests, and Sen. Hillary Clinton finally suspended her campaign on June 7.  Ironically, states which had not joined the stampede and moved up their contests, such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana and North Carolina, experienced spirited campaigns on the Democratic side.  Despite Democrats' concerns about a divisive primary, the protracted primary battle ultimately helped Obama by getting issues such as the controversy over Rev. Wright aired, and by allowing him to build the strong field organization and finance capabilities he took into the general election. 

The Calm after the Storm
During this period between the end of the primaries and the conventions, the presumptive nominees bolster their campaign organizations and place key people in the national party committees to prepare for the general election.  The campaign works on positioning for the general election.  For example, conventional wisdom has it that the presumptive nominees must move back to the center after playing to more committed or extreme elements of their respective parties to win in the primaries.  How the candidate uses this time can have an important effect on his or her success in the fall.

In 1992 Bill Clinton used the month of June to regroup following a tough passage through the primaries.  In 1996 Bob Dole had essentially won the nomination by mid-March, but he faced the period from April to the convention with virtually no funds.  In June, Dole gained much attention when he surprised everyone by resigning his Senate seat.

Again in 2000 the post-primary period proved important.  Gov. George W. Bush effectively secured the Republican nomination on March 7, 2000; during late March and April he introduced a reading initiative, a plan to clean up brownfields, a "New Prosperity Initiative" to help people move from poverty to the middle class and a health care plan.  More such proposals followed in the months leading up to the convention.  For Vice President Gore, however, there were some bumps.  He moved his campaign headquarters to a third location and brought on a new campaign chairman, while weathering concerns about his polling numbers.  In June Gore launched a "Progress and Prosperity" tour.

In 2004 the calendar again led to early selection of the Democratic nominee.  Sen. John Edwards, the last major challenger to Sen. John Kerry, withdrew from the race on March 3. In the months leading up to the convention Kerry engaged in record-breaking fundraising efforts.

In 2008, on the Republican side, Sen. John McCain wrapped up the Republican nomination on March 4, leaving almost six months until the convention.  In early April Sen. McCain did a week-long "Service to America" tour designed to highlight elements of his biography; later in the month he toured "forgotten places."  McCain also did a lot of fundraising in this period.  Sen. Obama took a risk in his trip to the Middle East and Europe from July 18-26.

Vice Presidential Picks
Once a candidate gains enough delegates to become the presumptive nominee, speculation on possible running mates accelerates markedly.  The campaigns do extensive vetting of vice presidential prospects, for the nominee doesn't want any unpleasant surprises as happened with Tom Eagleton in 1972 or the Dan Quayle choice in 1988.   Arthur Culvahouse, chair of O’Melveny & Myers LLP law firm, headed Sen. McCain's search effort.  Sen. Obama's vice presidential vetting team included Eric Holder, an attorney at Covington & Burling and a former Deputy Attorney General, and attorney Caroline Kennedy.  (Jim Johnson, a former chairman and CEO of Fannie Mae who also headed John Kerry's search, left his role on June 11, 2008 due to controversy over a special loan).  Despite a dearth of reliable information all sorts of rumors developed about the current favorites and the likely timing of announcements.

The presumptive nominee weighs many factors.  The most obvious criteria is that the vice president should be capable of ascending to the presidency in the event of the unexpected.  Compatability is a concern.  The vice presidential pick should add something to the ticket geographically, ideologically or in terms of experience.  The timing of the announcement must be considered as well.  Frequently this is done in the week leading up to the convention to build momentum toward that event and the fall campaign.  However arguments can be made for an earlier announcement; for example it could be helpful to have the duo out on the trail spreading the message.  During the during the primaries, there were suggestions that Sen. Clinton, trailing in the Democratic race, might emulate the example of Ronald Reagan, who, on July 26, 1976, challenging Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination, announced that he would pair with Sen. Richard Schweiker (R-PA).

Many Democratic activists liked the idea of "Dream Team," either Obama-Clinton or Clinton-Obama.  In early April 2008 Adam Parkhomenko formed a committee to advocate for "a Democratic unity ticket with both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama;" this effort was quite active for several months.  The tricky question of what role former President Bill Clinton might play in a possible Obama administration was one factor that diminished prospects of an Obama-Clinton ticket.  Most frequently mentioned were Gov. Tim Kaine (VA), Sen. Evan Bayh (IN), and Sen. Joe Biden (DE).

On the Republican side, there was a sense that because of McCain's age the vice presidential pick would be particularly important.  There was also talk that he woud want someone with strong economic credentials to balance his military background.  Another theme in the McCain speculation was that he would seek to add someone "exciting."  As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich stated in July, "a relatively boring, normal, mainstream Republican white guy" might not be the best choice this cycle.  Among the names most frequently floated were former Gov. Mitt Romney (MA), former Gov. Mike Huckabee (AR), Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA), Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN), Gov. Charlie Crist (FL), and former Congressman and OMB Director Rob Portman (OH), and even Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman (CT). 

Both nominees ended up choosing somewhat surprising running mates.  Obama announced his selection of Biden five days before he accepted the nomination, on August 23 in front of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, IL.  Biden's foreign policy expertise and lengthy Washington experience were key attributes; it was also thought he could appeal to Catholic voters and that his Scranton upbringing might help in Pennsylvania.  On the downside, Biden can talk too much, he did fare poorly in the Iowa caucuses, and the selection of a Washington veteran did run counter to Obama's change message.  McCain announced his selection of Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) on in Dayton, OH, on August 29, one day after Obama accepted the Democratic nomination and six days before he accepted the GOP nomination.  The Palin choice was seen as a bold gamble and energized delegates at the Republican National Convention and Republicans generally.

Links "only web magazine dedicated to the ultimate #2s in our society"
Sarah Palin: Draft Sarah Palin +

No to Mitt Romney:  +

Eric Cantor: Eric Cantor for VP +

Haley Barbour: Draft Haley for Vice President +

Condi Rice: +

-DNC www.The website
-Change to Win July 30 press release on Fred Smith

"both Senators Clinton and Obama should run together for the general election"
Vote Both

Obama community blog "Vice Presidential Speculation Forum" 2008 Democratic Vice Presidential Candidate Selector

-Fidelis July 29 press release on
considering a pro-abortion Catholic
-Free Enterprise Action Fund June 24 press release on Sam Nunn

Looking Ahead: For 2012 or beyond...

There are ideas for broader reforms to bring some order to the presidential primary process, but these would require cooperation of Democrats and Republicans and would necessitate changes in some state laws.  One difficulty in harmonizing the two parties' process has been that Republicans have adopted their rules for the following cycle at their National Conventions.  Thus the rules for the 2008 nominating process were approved by the 2004 Republican National Convention.  Looking forward to 2012, on April 2, 2008 the RNC Rules Committee approved the "Ohio Plan" [PDF] which called for states to be grouped in a series of rotating pods.  Under the plan, Iowa and New Hampshire would have retained their first status going in the first week of February 2012, followed by Nevada and South Carolina, followed by small states and territories no earlier than the third week of February.  Three groups of states or pods would have then held contests in the first full week of March, the fourth full week of March, and the third full week of April.  Despite a lot of work put into the Ohio Plan, the Rules Committee rejected this plan at its pre-Convention meeting in late August 2008.  However the Committee did approve and the full Convention adopted a very significant change in party rules, setting out a 15-member Temporary Delegate Selection Committee which will, in 2010, make recommendations for the 2012 process (Rule 10d).  Thus there is at least the possibility that the two parties will be able to coordinate on the 2012 calendar.

On the Democratic side, on August 20, 2008 the Obama campaign announced a proposal to establish a "Democratic Change Commission."  According to the press release, "The goal of the commission will be to ensure that no primary or caucus is held prior to the first Tuesday in March of 2012, with the exception of the approved pre-window states, whose contests would be held during February 2012."  There does seem to be a willingness in both parties to tackle the issue; for example, one of the recommendations of the DNC's 2005-06 Commission on Presidential Nomination Timing and Scheduling was that the party chairman "begin a series of discussions with the RNC as the RNC begins to draft its 2012 rules." 

One major reform proposal is the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS)'s rotating regional primary plan.  NASS backed the plan in 2000 and has continued to advocate for it.  The Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform endorsed this idea as one of 87 recommendations in its Sept. 19, 2005 report.  On July 31, 2007 Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Joe Lieberman (I-CT) announced tri-partisan legislation to create a regional primary system based on the NASS plan.  Their bill, the Regional Presidential Primary and Caucus Act of 2007, is S.1905; Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-FL) introduced an identical bill in the House, H.R.3487.  Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI) has also introduced the Interregional Presidential Primary and Caucus Act of 2007, H.R.1523.

Another idea which has gained a bit of notice is the America Plan, also called the California Plan.  This would create a "graduated random presidential primary system," which would establish a calendar with a set of state delegate selection contests held every two weeks over a period of about 20 weeks.  The proposal is described in essence by the formula "sum of 8n with the value of n going from 1 to 10," where n is the number of congressional districts.  On the first date, contests would occur in states with a total of up to eight congressional districts.  On the second, date contests would occur in states with a total of up to 16 (8 x 2) congressional districts, and so forth; there would also be adjustment to insure that big states are not discriminated against.  Thomas Gangale (>) developed this proposal in his paper "The California Plan: A 21st Century Method for Nominating Presidential Candidates" (Political Science and Politics (2004), 37:81-87, >). FairVote/The Center for Voting and Democracy, a nonprofit group that promotes electoral reforms, is a leading advocate of this idea and in June 2007 launched a promotional effort.  Calfornia Democratic Party Chairman Art Torres has also supported the idea.  However, Tim Edwards points out a number of "fatal flaws" with the the American Plan, for example arguing that ten primaries is too many and that and the plan has a significant liberal bias.  He proposes a Modified American Plan.

Former DNC Chairman Don Fowler has said he thinks the only way reform can be achieved is if Congress acts, which seems unlikely.  If a president were to put his or her support behind a plan that might help as well.


Copyright © 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008  Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action