Democrats Set Ground Rules for 2004
Washington, DC – Nov. 10, 2001  The Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee has recommended that the date on which states can begin conducting presidential primaries and caucuses be moved forward a full month to the first Tuesday in February (Feb. 3, 2004).  The delegate selection rules, which must be approved by the full DNC, will continue to make special exceptions for Iowa and New Hampshire, meaning that the Iowa caucuses could occur as early as Jan. 19, 2004 and the New Hampshire primary as early as Jan. 27, 2004.

The period in which presidential primaries and caucuses may be conducted is known as the “window.”  The Democrats’ window is now essentially the same as the Republicans’ window; however, the Republican rules, adopted by the 2000 national convention in Philadelphia, make no exception for Iowa and New Hampshire to go earlier.

In addition to moving the window forward, the committee also substantially increased the penalties for states that seek to begin their delegate selection processes in advance of the window.  The committee approved a number of other minor changes, but largely reaffirmed the delegate selection process that has been in place for a couple of decades.

James Roosevelt, Jr., chair of the committee, said that the earlier window gives Democrats “a little more flexibility” than in 2000.  In 2000, Democratic state parties in Arizona, Delaware, Michigan, South Carolina, and Washington had to stand aside while Republicans held early primaries.  The Democrats’ processes in those states occurred later and attracted very few participants, costing the state parties an important organizing tool.  Don Fowler, a member of the committee and former DNC chair, said Democrats will now have “a much better chance of a harmonious delegate selection process.”

A likely result of the Democratic rules will be the continued frontloading of the primary calendar.  Typically, many states seek to hold their primaries and caucuses as early as possible in order to have more influence in selecting the nominees.  In 2000, 11 states held primaries, and other states held caucuses, on March 7; both the Republican and Democratic nominations were effectively settled on that day.  Committee member Elaine Kamarck decried the “lemming-like move” of states all seeking to go on the earliest day, saying that it has let to what is “essentially a national primary.”

From the party’s point of view, it is desirable to avoid a drawn out, contentious primary battle.  In 2004, with the window starting a month earlier than 2000, the Democratic nominating contest could be over in February.  Thus DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe said at the outset of the meeting that the rules changes would “set us on the course for victory in 2004.”

However, a frontloaded calendar creates a number of problems.  Kamarck called for “a more rational spreading out” of big state contests and said that a frontloaded process “allows for very little self-correction.”  “Frontloading favors well-known, well-financed candidates,” said Fowler.  Another problem is that if the nominees are determined by March, voter turnout in subsequent primaries tends to be low.

The parties and elected officials have made unsuccessful attempts to address the frontloading problem.  In 2000, for example, Republicans used an incentive scheme, under which later states gained additional delegates, but this did not forestall the rush forward.  Also in 2000, a Republican National Committee advisory commission chaired by former Sen. Bill Brock (R-Tenn.) recommended an “inverted pyramid” system, whereby smaller states would go first; however, the full RNC did not approve the plan.  The National Association of Secretaries of State has called for development of a rotating system of regional primaries, and a couple of regional primary bills were introduced in the 106th Congress.  Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s ‘first in the nation’ status has also drawn criticism; a Michigan Democratic Party resolution from 1999 cited the states’ “unfair and disproportionate impact on the presidential nominating process.”

Recognition of the frontloading problem has even fostered a degree of cooperation between the parties, embodied in the presence of two representatives from the RNC counsel’s office as observers at Saturday’s meeting.

The Democrats’ delegate selection rules, which run 18 pages, set out not only the timing of delegate selection but the process.  The rules require proportional representation (as opposed, for example, to a winner-take-all process) and establish a 15% threshold for obtaining delegates.  They also require state parties to produce affirmative action plans so as to encourage participation and representation of African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian Pacific Americans in the delegate selection process.

The changes made by the Rules and Bylaws Committee must be approved by the full DNC at its winter meeting in January 2002.

Copyright 2001 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action