Primary 2008: Maine left out?

By mid-February 2008, many states whose voters haven't already cast ballots may have a case of primary blues due to nominees from both parties being decided as early as the day after the potential 20-state super primary on Feb. 5.

The issue of the primary schedule crunch was raised as an aside by Sen. Hillary Clinton during the energy and climate change forum Tuesday hosted by Seacoast Media Group, the parent company of the Herald.

While telling the audience of 200 voters about the amount of new policy planning that will be necessary when the next president takes office in January 2009, Clinton said that planning could begin as early as February 2008, when she believes the Democratic Party nominee will be known only a few weeks after the New Hampshire primary, tentatively set for Jan. 22.

Clinton may or may not be proven right by early next year, but she touched on an issue that could have major impact on the 2012 primary process: Is it too much, too soon? And where does it leave primary and caucus voters in Maine and Massachusetts who have traditionally held later contest dates?

The evolution of the primary calendar has been ongoing for decades. For example, the New Hampshire primary in 1968 was held in March to kick off the season. The winners were Republican Richard Nixon (who won the general election) and President Lyndon Johnson, who was challenged for the Democratic nomination by anti-Vietnam War candidate Eugene McCarthy.

The 1968 California primary in June ended the process. The winners were Nixon and Sen. Robert Kennedy of New York, who was assassinated shortly after declaring victory in Los Angeles.

One New Hampshire presidential primary expert said while the goal of large, delegate-rich states such as California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Texas was to give their voters a shot at being more relevant by challenging the early primary dominance of traditional states of Iowa and New Hampshire, the opposite may happen.

"Six months ago, I heard political analysts say that the New Hampshire primary was going to lose its influence because some candidates were going to focus on larger states," said Dean Spiliotes, a longtime political analyst. Campaigns discovered it was "very difficult to run a national campaign in the primary. Now the conventional wisdom is that a candidate will be dead if they don't finish high" in Iowa and New Hampshire because there will be no recovery time between primary contests.

While Iowa and New Hampshire may have their primary influence enhanced by calendar crowding, officials in both parties in Maine and Massachusetts have scrambled to make their contests relevant.

Maine Republicans, who have run early season straw polls in the past, are planning to start their three-day caucus process as early as Feb. 1. Maine Democrats, who have seen their caucus date move up from much later in the process to Feb. 10 for 2008, said in June that they were considering a fall straw poll event essentially a political popularity contest for party regulars in hopes of drawing more presidential candidates to the state.

Massachusetts has taken a different approach. It moved its primary date from March 2 to March 4.

A Massachusetts Democratic Party spokesperson said it isn't too concerned about the state's primary clout because it traditionally had a middle place in the calendar.

"We are certainly no stranger to New Hampshire's popularity," said Alex Goldstein. The year 2008 "will be a little different than 2004 (when Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry was running). But we still have a lot of political excitement in the state."

In particular, Goldstein pointed out the state is often a major player in presidential politics through its candidates and its exporting of grass-roots organizing and campaign strategists.

One of the consequences of a truncated nominating process, Spiliotes said, is the politically awkward situation of having three "presidents" for almost nine months President Bush and the two nominees.

"There's no way to know for sure," Spiliotes said about how the calendar-crowded primary process will play out, which could include multiple candidates winning multiple states. "We've never seen this before."