Going by the headline and lede in this NBC News report, you might be tempted to think that two of the nation’s most populous states are considering moving up their primary dates even further and challenging New Hampshire and Iowa. In reality, that’s not the case. A least not yet.
What NBC is talking about is the fact that both early voting and absentee voting in California and Texas will have some residents casting their ballots before the first caucus and primary are held in the traditional locations. And that may wind up having a major impact on how the primary plays out.
A little over a year from now, millions of Californians will be mailed their ballots on the same day that Iowans head to their famous first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses and they could start mailing them back before New Hampshire holds its first-in-the-nation primary in 2020.
Meanwhile, Texans will likely have a chance to vote early, too — even before Nevada and South Carolina, which typically round out the earliest portion of the primary calendar.
The explosion of early voting and reshuffling of the primary calendar in 2020 could transform the Democratic presidential nominating contest, potentially diminishing the power of the traditional, tiny and homogeneous early states in favor of much larger and more diverse battlegrounds.
We’ve seen this movie before and it rarely ends well. If any states try to jump in front of New Hampshire and Iowa for 2020, they’ve demonstrated in the past that they’re perfectly willing to keep moving their dates up even earlier, even if it means going to the polls in 2019. Such games do nothing but take an already endless election cycle and drag it out even further.
But now there’s another wrinkle being introduced with the expansion of early voting and the increased drive to push for more absentee ballots. (Even if the people casting them will be in town and available to vote on election day.) This largely Democrat-driven agenda may wind up shifting the power away from those smaller, early voting states as candidates realize that they need to lock down their support in big states like Texas and California and begin spending their money there instead.
I’m all in favor of spreading the “first to vote” honors around and have long opined that New Hampshire and Iowa don’t merit such influence in perpetuity. But does this early voting surge really change the outcome? The only reason the first caucus and first primary punch so far above their weight class is the presumption that early wins deliver the Big Mo’ (momentum) that can propel a less well-funded candidate with lower name recognition into the thick of the race.
Early voting in Texas and California doesn’t translate to the actual winners of those states being known earlier. The votes won’t be counted until long after the victors in Iowa and New Hampshire have been crowned. In that sense, the potential aforementioned benefit for outsider candidates will still be felt. The only difference is that the well-funded candidates will need to spend their money in the big states sooner than normal.
If I had my druthers we would scrap the current system in favor of rotating, regional primary days where a collection of both small and large states would participate in going first every five or six campaign cycles. Sadly, that’s not controlled by the national parties, but instead by the states. And as long as Iowa and New Hampshire keep throwing hissy fits, we’re unlikely to see substantial reform on this issue any time soon.