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South Carolina Primary Move Puts Election Calendar in Flux

August 9, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: Today’s move by South Carolina Republicans to advance their primary date from February 2nd to January 19th once again upended the presidential nominating schedule. Party chairman Katon Dawson said South Carolina’s action was prompted by Florida’s recent decision to advance its primary to January 29th, ahead of South Carolina’s original date.

KATON DAWSON, Chair, South Carolina Republican Party: The process may be out of control, but right now we’re playing the cards that are dealt to us. And South Carolina, we are firmly committed to be the first in the South primary, have a historical preference, like New Hampshire, and we’ve exercised that right today, and proudly so.

MARGARET WARNER: Dawson made his announcement in New Hampshire, alongside Secretary of State Bill Gardner, a signal, he said, that South Carolina had no intention of trying to leapfrog New Hampshire’s traditional role as the first primary state in the nation.

But South Carolina’s move will have a domino effect. New Hampshire law requires that its primary be held at least seven days before any other state; that means the New Hampshire contest now must be January 12th at the latest. But it could be earlier than that if any other state tries to get ahead of South Carolina, as some are threatening to do. Gardner said today he’ll wait until other states finalize their primary dates before he sets New Hampshire’s.

BILL GARDNER, Secretary of State, New Hampshire: I don’t know when the New Hampshire primary is going to be, and I still don’t know when we’ll be able to answer that.

Election reporters' perspectives

Karen Tumulty
Time Magazine
For a number of years, the larger states -- places like California, New Jersey -- have essentially been afterthoughts in the nominating process.

MARGARET WARNER: The primary jockeying will also affect the timing of Iowa's traditional leadoff caucuses. Iowa state law requires they be held at least eight days before New Hampshire; that means Iowa's contest now must be January 4th at the latest. After these early contests, some 20 states will vote on the mega-primary day of February 5th.

And for more on the whys and the impact of this rush to the front, we turn to two reporters covering the campaign: Chris Cillizza of WashingtonPost.com joins us from Des Moines, Iowa; and Karen Tumulty of Time magazine joins us from New York.

And welcome, both of you.

Karen, South Carolina is just the latest state to once again advance its primary date, and so many have done it this year. Why? Why the stampede this year?

KAREN TUMULTY, Time Magazine: Well, for a number of years, the larger states -- places like California, New Jersey -- have essentially been afterthoughts in the nominating process. And they've looked at themselves and they've thought, "You know, here we are, big, diverse states where a lot of voters live, where a lot of politicians come to raise money, and yet by the time our states get around to voting, the nominations are essentially a lock." And so this was the year when a lot of those states decided that was the end of that, and they moved their primary dates up.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Chris, of course, Iowa and New Hampshire say, no, we should be first. We may be small, but we should be first. What's their argument?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, The Washington Post: Well, their argument is the traditional argument. They've done it for a long time, and it forces candidates to do retail politics. As Karen rightly points out, places like California and Florida have always said, "Hey, wait a minute, why are these small, relatively not diverse states getting to pick our nominee?"

What Iowa and New Hampshire say is, for a candidate to win here, they have to go three and four and five times to the small towns that they would ignore otherwise in a broad, national primary, where television ads matter a lot more than visits. So they say, "Look, this is something that we've always done. We do it well. We know how to do it. Our voters take it seriously, and we should keep doing it."

Challenges for the campaigns

Chris Cillizza
Washingtonpost.com
If you look at the visits and the money, you're still talking about vast amounts of time being spent in Iowa.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Karen, we now have a situation in which the chess board is still moving. We still don't know the actual date of New Hampshire. What is the impact on the campaigns of this very accelerated schedule and the fact that the targets are still moving?

KAREN TUMULTY: It creates some real challenges. The fact that so many big states have moved up their primaries means, for all intents and purposes, a candidate has to have a national organization in place probably by this fall. They're all looking at having to have big ad buys in the big states by this fall.

That means that the power of money in this campaign is bigger than it's ever been, because the table stakes for the nomination are probably going to be at least $50 million, but maybe even as high as $100 million. What that means is that the campaigns and the candidates, rather than doing that kind of retail politics that Chris was talking about, what they're doing is they're running from fundraiser to fundraiser.

And in a lot of ways, that cuts down on the amount of time that the candidates have to actually listen to voters. And they've got their talking points down; their pollsters are out; their messages are set. But you really don't get a lot of the kind of back-and-forth that we've seen in previous years.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Chris, if the intent of some of these big states was to dilute the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire, is that going to work? And do the candidates' schedules and where they're spending money suggest that? Or are they, in fact, still spending a lot of time in those two states?

CHRIS CILLIZZA: Well, that's what's fascinating. As you said, I'm in Iowa today, and I think me and every Republican politician, except for Fred Thompson, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, who's running for president, are here. I mean, I saw Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback today. Mitt Romney was just a few miles north of where I am.

You know, if you look at the visits and the money, you're still talking about vast amounts of time being spent in Iowa. Next week there's going to be a debate at the end of next week. You've got Barack Obama here, Hillary Clinton here. Chris Dodd is spending 10 straight days in Iowa.

And that's the interesting dynamic is, for all the change that we've seen -- and Karen is exactly right, the emphasis on money has been more and more important -- we're still seeing candidates spend a lot of time in Iowa, a lot of time in New Hampshire, and a fair amount of time in South Carolina, which is how things have traditionally been.

Reaction in Iowa

Karen Tumulty
Time Magazine
By early February, both parties are going to know who their nominees are. And at that point, the general election campaign kicks off between the two parties.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Chris, being out there in Iowa now, what are you hearing, in terms of reaction to what South Carolina did and what New Hampshire clearly signaled? I mean, I heard the governor say today, the governor of Iowa, "Iowa will be first." Are you hearing talk of this nightmare scenario which would be the caucuses in December?

CHRIS CILLIZZA: I was hearing a lot of that yesterday as I was flying here. When I got here, this idea -- the date that had been thrown around a lot was December 17th. The folks I've talked to on the Republican and the Democratic sides out here today say, "Absolutely not. That is out of the question. We will not do it."

The problem is though, Margaret, as you point out, we're looking at the way the rules are set up for each of these states, we're looking at January 4th. Is that a lot better than December 17th? You're talking about a lot of ads being run over Christmastime, maybe some negative ads over Christmastime in that period between Christmas and New Year's. We've never had something like that, so it's hard to know the impact.

But I'm not sure people in Iowa are going to want to be sitting around their Christmas table watching negative attacks. And how does that play? It's a total X factor that we just don't know the answer to, because it's not happened before.

MARGARET WARNER: So it might actually put a crimp in negative advertising. But, Karen, go back to the impact on the voters here. You know, the state legislatures when they do this say they're doing it for the voters of their state. But are the voters of America going to be anymore involved or are any more voters going to be involved in the nominating process this year than in past?

KAREN TUMULTY: They will be, but the problem, Margaret, is that the general election campaign as a result of this. By early February, both parties are going to know who their nominees are. And at that point, the general election campaign kicks off between the two parties. That's where these big independent organizations move in with their negative ads and where the candidates just start going after each other left and right.

And so what you're going to see is nine months of very negative, very intense campaigning next year. And that may be something that really tests the tolerance of voters.

But then again, it also may open up an opportunity for an independent candidacy. I mean, the talk, too, is that Michael Bloomberg may come in as a third-party candidate. So it is just going to make everything very unpredictable. And, like I said, I really do think it's going to really test the tolerance of Americans for politics.

A nine-month general election

Chris Cillizza
Washingtonpost.com
People are looking for a change. They want something different. They do not want the status quo. And if we give them a nine-month-long, nasty, brutal general election, that strikes me as more of the same.

MARGARET WARNER: Chris, do you think that's what's coming, test the tolerance of Americans?

CHRIS CILLIZZA: I do. I mean, if you think back to the last few last presidential elections we've had, with President Bush and John Kerry, President Bush and Al Gore, by the end of it, public polling showed that the American public wanted basically the two people to disappear rather than one of them be elected. They had just gotten so sick of seeing it; the campaign had been relentlessly negative for an extended period of time.

Karen is exactly right. We're talking about a nine-month general election. And I can guarantee you that, while a month or two of that might be about positive ads and introducing the candidates to the electorate, a lot of that time -- probably two-thirds to three-quarters -- is going to be about trying to define your opponent either as too conservative and a clone of George Bush or too liberal.

And, you know, that kind of thing, I think, ill-serves the American public, who I really do think want something different. They want a change from the status quo. There's a reason that Barack Obama, with his message of change, and Fred Thompson, with his message of sort of populist outsiderism, have really caught fire, less so Thompson now.

But there's a reason that has happened: People are looking for a change. They want something different. They do not want the status quo. And if we give them a nine-month-long, nasty, brutal general election, that strikes me as more of the same.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Chris Cillizza and Karen Tumulty, thank you both.

CHRIS CILLIZZA: Thanks, Margaret.