TOPICS > Politics

States Seek Earlier Primaries, Greater Clout

May 7, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: The modern tradition in American politics has Republican and Democratic presidential hopefuls spending much of their time in Iowa and New Hampshire. In elections past, victories in either of these earliest contests helped catapult candidates to their party’s nomination.

For 2008, Nevada moved quickly to insert itself in between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary in January, joining South Carolina as one of the four firsts in the nation. In reaction, party activists in several other states, angling to play a bigger role in choosing the eventual nominees, have persuaded their legislatures to move their primary dates up, too.

California and New York, two blockbuster states on the electoral map, have advanced their primaries to next February 5th, a day which is fast becoming a new Super Tuesday of contests. Nine states have already moved their primaries and caucuses to that day, and 15 more are considering joining them.

But late last week, the Florida state legislature surprised the political establishment when it voted to leapfrog the pack and move its primary date from March to January 29th, the same day as South Carolina. Now, South Carolina officials say they’re considering advancing their primary date even earlier.

And in New Hampshire, where state law says that its primary is to be the first in the nation, officials have threatened to move its January 22nd contest into December of this year. Iowa officials say they might move their January 14th caucus earlier, too.

Nowhere is all this activity being watched more closely than among the 18 declared presidential candidates, who are busy calculating and recalculating where to compete, where to spend money, and when to start the costly process of television advertising.

Florida's earlier primary

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more, we are joined by Marco Rubio. He is the speaker of Florida's House of Representatives. He is a Republican. Michael Mauro, Iowa's secretary of state, he is a Democrat. And Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report.

Gentlemen, thank you all for being with us.

Marco Rubio, let me begin with you. Why did you want to move -- and I understand you were a leader in this effort -- to see Florida's primary move up to January?

MARCO RUBIO, Speaker, Florida House of Representatives: Well, it's good for Florida. Our taxpayers were paying for an election that didn't mean anything. We didn't have any delegates. We had a bunch of folks that got invited to a party in August and got to go to a balloon drop but had no role to play in deciding who the party nominee of either party was going to be.

So now candidates are going to have to come to Florida and answer questions which are important to Floridians and, by the way, closely mirror what are important to Americans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, in the past, Florida's primary has been -- at least the last few elections -- in March. That's still four months -- at least four months before the national primary conventions. Why isn't that early enough?

MARCO RUBIO: You know, well, in the intro to this piece, you highlighted exactly why, and that is all these other states moving forward, combined with the fact that, over the last three presidential cycles, all the nominations were, for all intents and purposes, wrapped up by early March, and Florida had no voice to play in choosing the nominees of either party, yet had a huge role to play come general election.

By the way, I think it's good for the political parties. You know, Florida, is, by far, the largest single swing state in the country and, over the last few election cycles, perhaps the single most important. I think it behooves both parties to know that their nominee is someone who would be palatable to Florida voters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Mauro, secretary of state in Iowa, what's Iowa's view of what Florida is doing?

MICHAEL MAURO, Iowa Secretary of State: Well, Iowa is moving forward. We have presidential candidates here every day, both on the Democrat and Republican side. They've opened offices. We're excited about what's happening here in Iowa, and we plan on being the first in the nation. And we're still looking forward to that January 14th date.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So January the 14th is -- could that move even earlier?

MICHAEL MAURO: The only way we probably would move it earlier, if someone puts us in a position where we have to move. We intend on protecting our first in the nation status. We believe retail politics in Iowa and New Hampshire are good ways for candidates to get started. It gives lesser-known candidates an opportunity to get out and make a name for themselves, and we believe it works.

And I think the candidates think it works, too, because they are here every day. Believe me, there isn't a day that doesn't go by in Iowa where you're not dealing with Democrat and Republican candidates for president wanting to be here. And the fact that they set up offices and are spending lots of money shows that they intend to make Iowa a big state.

First primary 'sets the tone'

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mr. Mauro, for people who don't follow politics closely, what would you say to them about why it's so important for Iowa and New Hampshire -- and, to a lesser degree, South Carolina and Nevada -- to be the first in the nation? Why is that so important?

MICHAEL MAURO: I think there are a couple of reasons. I think what you're going to see on February 5th is a mass media campaign in these states, where the candidates are going to be spending lots of money on TV, getting their name out. I don't know how much time you can spend in California, and in New York, and in Florida, and in South Carolina, and in all these other states who are going to be having that Super Tuesday.

In Iowa and New Hampshire, and to a certain extent Nevada, you'll see retail politics at its best. Lesser-known candidates can come in here, without the money and big name, and make a name for themselves. It's proven so, what happened in Iowa four years ago with John Kerry. It proved itself with John Edwards, his close finish here, how it catapulted him into the presidential race and has done it in years before with Al Gore.

So it does work here. And it works on both sides of the aisle, and I think that you're going to see Iowa and New Hampshire. Because of that retail politics, where you actually come out, and they get into the living rooms. They get to talk to the voters. You get a real good feel for the political process. It sets the tone, to set the stage for future primaries.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Marco Rubio, why shouldn't what has been continue?

MARCO RUBIO: Well, by the way, we respect New Hampshire and Iowa's position, and that's why we haven't moved our dates even earlier. We think everything that's just been outlined here earlier is absolutely accurate. And then, after that, we think it's fair game.

In fact, we think Florida is important, because, after they leave Iowa and New Hampshire, they get to come to Florida, and they're going to be asked questions about Latin America, a part of the world that we've neglected, in terms of our national foreign policy. They're going to be asked questions about Israel, about immigration, about energy, about the care of the elderly.

They're going to be asked about taxes. They're going to be asked about a host of issues that only Florida is going to ask all these questions.

And so we respect Iowa and New Hampshire's position. But thereafter, we think that Florida is an important voice and an important place for candidates to come and answer questions that have a national impact.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There was a Florida Democratic official, we noted, Marco Rubio, you are the speaker of the Florida House, you are a Republican. There is a Democratic official in Florida named Mitt Cesar who said, "Don't blame the Democrats," he said, "for an act of the Republican-controlled Florida legislature." He said the Republicans may have been trying to do a good thing or they may have been trying to be Machiavellian. Was there politics involved here?

MARCO RUBIO: I'm not sure what he meant by Machiavellian. I mean, this measure passed in both chambers by an overwhelming margin, bipartisan support. In fact, it was sponsored by a Democrat in the Florida Senate. The fact of the matter is that Floridians were paying for an election that didn't count, and that made no sense to us.

'A desire to be relevant'

JUDY WOODRUFF: I'm going to bring you in, Stu Rothenberg, to help us understand what is going on here, because we haven't even mentioned South Carolina, where the Republicans say they're not happy with what Florida has done. They're saying they want to move even earlier now than the 29th.

From the standpoint of somebody who's been watching presidential politics for quite a few years, what's going on?

STUART ROTHENBERG, Rothenberg Political Report: Well, there are a number of things, Judy. There's front loading. If you look back to the 1992 presidential schedule for primaries and caucuses that I pulled out, the first contest was Iowa, February 10th. Now we're talking about mid-January contests.

The first four contests in February in 1992 were relatively small states. We didn't have a mega-state come until March 10th. Everything is moved up now. Plus, you have just chaos, sheer chaos.

Here we are. We're in May, and we don't know what states are going to be on exactly what days. There's talk about New Hampshire wanting to leapfrog and move into this calendar year.

If you're a campaign strategist, a campaign manager, the one thing you want is certainty. You want to be able to plan where you're going to play and where you're going to spend your dollars and spend your time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What's caused the chaos? I mean, what is...

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, some of it is what we've heard, the desire to be relevant. There is a...

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean, on the part of Florida?

STUART ROTHENBERG: On the part of states in general. We've seen this in many states, in Michigan, for example. Over the years, there have been complaints. "Well, why should Iowa and New Hampshire go first? They select the nominees, and we're at the end, and nobody pays any attention to us." And so now a number of states have said, "We're going to move up." Well, when one starts to move up, the whole system crumbles.

The Democratic National Committee and, to a lesser extent, the Republicans have been trying to kind of define choices here of when the states can have their primaries and caucuses, but really this is up to the states. And they're just rushing forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Mauro, are you worried that the first-in-the-nation status that your state of Iowa, that New Hampshire have enjoyed for so long is now really in jeopardy? Or is it just a matter that everything is moving earlier? You're still going to be first, but everything is moving earlier. And what effect does that have on the influence of Iowa in this election?

MICHAEL MAURO: Well, I think Iowa and New Hampshire are going to have all kinds of influence in this election. And it's been shown by the activity from the presidential candidates.

I do think that, with all this leapfrogging and moving around, the domino effect that's going into place, it could have a lot to say about the future of presidential primaries and caucuses in years to come. For this election cycle, I know Iowa intends on keeping its first-in-the-nation status and will do everything it possibly can to work with New Hampshire to make sure that those two states in particular keep their first-in-the-nation status as a caucus and primary state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mr. Rubio, I saw today a quote from some of the Republican officials -- in fact, I think the Republican state chair -- yes, the Republican state chair in South Carolina, who said, "South Carolina is going to name a date that will keep us first in the South." He said it could be as early as Halloween. He was prompted to say this when he saw what Florida had done.

MARCO RUBIO: Well, that's their decision, and they pay for their primary. They can do it any time they want. We're not competing with South Carolina, but I think, by and large, if you asked people across this country, what state looks more like the rest of this country? Is it South Carolina or is it Florida? They would tell you it's Florida.

People move here from all over the country. And it's an accurate reflection of what this country is about. The issues that you will be forced to answer in Florida are national-type issues.

And, with all due respect to South Carolina, that may not be the case in their primary. They have the right to hold it any day they want, but I can assure you that presidential candidates will be paying attention to Florida this time around.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you saying the same thing about Iowa and New Hampshire?

MARCO RUBIO: You know what? I think the gentleman earlier outlined exactly why it's important that they go first and earlier, because you do get that retail level of politics you're not going to get in other states.

But after that, isn't it important to know where our next president stands on places like Venezuela, on Cuba, on Latin America, on immigration, on energy, on offshore drilling, on a national catastrophic fund, in light of all these natural disasters that our country is facing? And the list goes on.

And what other state in the country, particularly what other state that's really going to be in play in November, is going to ask these questions? So I think that outlines our case for why Florida should be earlier in the cycle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stu Rothenberg...

STUART ROTHENBERG: Every state could say the same thing that Mr. Rubio just suggested, that their state, they have interests, they have concerns, and they want to be addressed. And that's certainly the case. And that's the problem. Everybody now wants to go first; nobody wants to go last.

Settling the debate

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where does this end? I mean, it's going to get settled one way or another.

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, this cycle, states are going to pick their dates, and New Hampshire is going to decide if it has to leapfrog individual states. Judy, we don't know when it's going to end.

I mean, at some point, there have been suggestions, as you know, over the years, for regional primaries, national primaries, some rotating system. So far, it hasn't worked. Right now, it is still the Wild West, and each state decides for itself where it wants to be. And we have a number of gunfights going on right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And earlier and earlier, is that best for the American voter?

STUART ROTHENBERG: Well, there are a number of things. It is earlier and earlier. It's more compact, as well, so there's less time between the first contest and these mega-contests. Many of us think it's not a great idea.

Once the selection process truly gets under way, we'd like to see more time for candidates to be evaluated. Maybe somebody comes from a second tier and suddenly is in the top tier and, a week later, the voters have to decide, is this going to be the nominee or not?

The whole process has moved earlier. I don't think it's particularly healthy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Mauro, what do you say to that?

MICHAEL MAURO: Well, Judy, I think that there's some considerations that have to be taken in place in both the Democratic National Committee and the Republican committee, who put some rules and regulations in place that could affect some of these states who move too early, could cost them some delegates.

I think there's some rules and regulations that could cost them half of their delegates at the national convention and cost them all their super-delegates. So I think that both national committee on the Republican and Democratic side are trying to implement some rules to try to keep this thing in check.

And one of the rules they're putting in place is that, you go too early, it could cost you some of your delegates. So that's something that each of the individual states have to address.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you saying that could happen to South Carolina? I'm sorry to Florida, to Florida.

MICHAEL MAURO: I think it can. I'm not here to speak against Florida, but I think that that could be a situation that they'd have to address in Florida. As a matter of fact, I read an article just somewhere recently where both the Democratic and Republican parties were -- the national committees were concerned about this and were making overtures about this could jeopardize some of their delegates. Mr. Rubio could probably elaborate on that a little bit more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes, Mr. Rubio, we've only got about 15 seconds. Are you worried about Florida being penalized, losing delegates?

MARCO RUBIO: We don't have any delegates now, because all they get invited to is a party. They don't get to make a choice. But I'll tell you what: Both parties are going to have to come back to Florida and campaign, and it's really hard to win the presidency of this country if you can't win Florida.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gentlemen, we are going to leave it there. And this is a story we are going to be watching very closely. Marco Rubio, who is the speaker of the House, the state of Florida, Michael Mauro, secretary of state in Iowa, Stu Rothenberg, thank you all.