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Early voting and a super Super Tuesday to change 2020 primary campaign

By Tom Baxter

In recent weeks, Sen. Cory Booker and Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Eric Swalwell have visited New Hampshire. Booker and his Senate colleagues Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar have turned up in Iowa, and a local Democratic official there said the reaction to rumors that Rep. Beto O’Rourke had been spotted was “like Beatlemania.

We know what this means. With the midterm elections over, the 2020 presidential election campaign has begun, and Democrats interested in winning their party’s nomination — which, this time, is a lot of Democrats — are making the trek to Des Moines and Manchester to get in touch with the voters who’ll have the first say two years from now.

That’s the way it has been since Jimmy Carter put Iowa on the map in 1976, elevating its party caucus to the status already enjoyed by the New Hampshire primary, as “early states” with a key role on the nomination process. The Nevada caucus and South Carolina primary have since been added to this short list of states allowed by the two parties to hold their contests in February.

Over time, the logic of candidates staking so much on a few small states at the beginning of the line has eroded, as other states have moved their primary and caucus calendars up closer and closer to the February no-go zone. There have been a series of Super Tuesdays over the past several cycles — big combinations of states voting early to increase their impact. But there’s been nothing to compare with the Super Tuesday coming in 2020.

On March 3, 2020, nine states including California and Texas plan to hold primaries. It’s not a national primary, but in terms of raw numbers of voters it’s a huge cross-section, with two super states in the mix.

But that’s not all that makes the 2020 campaign a threat to the old norms of presidential campaigning. California mails out ballots for voters who prefer to vote early on Feb. 3, the same day as the Iowa caucuses. Texas may also allow early voting that begins in February. So campaign managers trying to figure out where to spend their last resources are going to face some stark choices.

California had early March primaries in 1996, 2000 and 2004, but the legislature moved it back to June because the early primary had made their own general election races longer and more expensive. California’s early vote was a big help to George W. Bush in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004.

In 2020, California’s early primary could give Harris a boost, while Texas could be a great launch for O’Rourke. It will be a while before those things become clear. What we know already is that only those who have won the competition for money over the coming year will be able to compete in these huge media markets. For the Democrats, winning the battle for $25 internet contributions may be tantamount to winning Super Tuesday.

In stories up to now, these developments have been treated as if they mattered only to the Democrats, the assumption being that Donald Trump has a solid lock on his party’s base and is assured the nomination. But suppose Trump decides not to run for a second term after all, or that his current problems multiply to the point that they generate a serious challenge within the GOP? Then the calendar matters a lot, and the battle for Texas becomes particularly interesting.

Iowa and New Hampshire won’t be entirely overshadowed in this process, but not for the old reasons. They are no longer going to be states where candidates go to spend lots of “retail time” with voters, trailed by camera crews. There just won’t be as much time for that on the 2020 calendar. But every campaign needs a place to begin, and the nationally televised debates in these early states will still get a lot of attention.

Georgia hasn’t officially designated a date for its presidential primaries in 2020, a matter the new governor and the legislature will presumably take up in the upcoming session.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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