US 2012: the early primaries

US presidential primaries are unlike any other election in the world. You have a massive expensive race involving a large number of candidates, where the race often hinges on small states with their own peculiarities.

It doesn’t even have much resemblance to primaries for lower levels of elected office in the United States, such as Senate, Governor or House of Representatives. Voting in primaries for Senate or the House are usually held on the one day, and thus tend to be between a smaller number of candidates.

There are a number of early states which tend to receive most of the attention, yet ultimately they only decide a small number of delegates to the parties’ conventions that will decide the parties’ candidates in August-September.

These races are far more influential because of other factors. They tend to be decisive in controlling the flow of fundraising dollars, perceptions of momentum and the perception that a candidate has the ability to attract votes in the general election. Candidates who poll above expectations can benefit from an early primary, even if they do not win the race. Similarly a candidate who was expected to easily win a primary can be hurt by a narrow loss.

The first few primaries and caucuses tend to narrow the field down to 2-3 key candidates, who then benefit from a surge in fundraising which allows them to build up the larger campaign infrastructure they need to compete in larger states. Sometimes the early primaries can be sufficient to result in a single candidate so far out in front that the race is largely over, whereas in other races it narrows the primary race into a two-horse race that will be played out over the coming months.

In 2008, John McCain clinched the lead over Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee in early February, and Romney soon withdrew from the race, leaving Huckabee to run an unwinnable campaign against McCain, who quickly turned his attention to the general election.

In contrast, neither Obama nor Clinton was able to deliver a knock-out blow in the first month, and the race dragged on into June.

The first state in the Republican race is the Iowa caucuses, on January 3. A caucus works differently to a primary, with meetings of local voters meeting all day before voting to choose delegates and express opinions between various candidates. This requires different organisational skills, but ultimately it will be treated similar to a primary, with overall percentage results for each candidate coming out of the caucus.

Iowa is a conservative state, and Mitt Romney has been performing poorly in the state. For a long time the frontrunner in the state was first Michele Bachmann and then Rick Perry, but for the last few weeks the race has been largely between Romney, Cain and Gingrich, with Ron Paul also performing strongly.

Romney was seen early on as largely ignoring Iowa, with his campaign focusing on other states, yet his problem is that almost any of the possible winners in the Iowa caucus would then likely benefit from a surge in the polls that would make them a serious rival to Romney in later races. Recent stories have suggested that Romney is making a play for Iowa, hoping for a big move in his direction if he manages to win in a state where he has been seen to be at a disadvantage.

New Hampshire holds its primary on January 10. Iowa and New Hampshire are usually seen as the two key early races, and a candidate who manages to win both will likely build an insurmountable lead.

Mitt Romney has consistently held a solid lead in New Hampshire polling, never falling from first place in polling averages. On the surface the race appears to be his: but in the bizarre world of presidential primaries that may do him no good.

If Romney manages to win a large victory in New Hampshire, it will likely be written off as a business-as-usual story. On the other hand, a narrow Romney victory or a Romney defeat would likely benefit the other candidate and damage Romney’s claim to being the most electable candidate.

Following New Hampshire there will be South Carolina on January 21 and the big state of Florida on January 31. While there is extensive polling in both these states, it is probably not much good in predicting a result. Before we get to January 21, we’re likely to see polling in the race shaped by the Iowa and New Hampshire results, and the field of 8 serious candidates will likely be whittled down to four or less.

Once we reach February, the race, if it isn’t over, will start to resemble a more typical election, except in slow motion. Most primaries are centred on a few key days: March 6, March 13, April 3, April 24, May 8, May 15 and June 5. One candidate will likely emerge as the frontrunner in February, who will then be fighting to maintain their lead over a stretched-out campaign period.

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