Southern Regional Presidential Primary Heading Toward Reality

Posted: Dec 21, 2014 12:01 AM

For most of 2014, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican, has been talking up the notion of an  “SEC Primary"  that would move a number of Southeastern states’ presidential primaries to March first 2016 to enhance the region’s clout. The addition of other Southern states not part of the SEC football conference could mean a larger role for the former Confederacy in the selection of both parties’ nominees.

The Democratic Party has been nearly eradicated across the South, as all the Governor’s mansions and United States Senate seats except in Florida and Virginia belong in GOP hands and Republicans control every state legislature in the Deep South.

Against this backdrop of near-complete domination of Southern politics by the Republican Party, Kemp’s move came after the Republican National Committee changed the rules of the GOP nominating process to compress the timeline with a later start date that preserves the traditional first four state contests and moves the Convention up.

Georgia’s Republican National Committee member Randy Evans wrote that a shorter primary season could lead to more regional primaries as the Midwest might seek to supplant the South in early primary importance.

Neighboring South Carolina will hold its primary – the first large-scale primary after caucuses in Iowa and Nevada and a New Hampshire Primary – in February as one of the traditional first four.

Jeb Bush, who announced earlier this week that he is “actively considering” a 2016 Presidential bid, spoke earlier that week at the University of South Carolina’s commencement, highlighting its role as an early primary state, and the location of important primary wins by his father George H.W. Bush in 1988 and brother George W. Bush in 2000.

In anticipation of the SEC Primary, Kemp set the Peach State Presidential Primary for March first, and has been speaking to his counterparts in other

Southeastern states to build support for an early Southern Super Tuesday.

Last week, his colleagues in Alabama, Arkansas, and Mississippi signaled they might join Georgia in March first presidential contests. Florida, Tennessee, and Texas have chosen that date for their primaries and current Virginia law sets the Commonwealth’s primaries as the First Tuesday in March.

The 2014 Delegate allocation by the Republican National Committee is not finalized, and some awards are still to be determined, based on “bonus delegates” awarded for criteria like state legislative delegation that are majority-Republican. There are also enhanced penalties for “line-jumping” like Florida’s decision in 2012 to hold a winner-take-all primary earlier than allowed under RNC rules, and which cost the Sunshine State half its 2012 convention delegates.

The 2012 delegate allocations for these states give us a sense of what’s up for grabs on March 1, 2016. Under the current schedule, South Carolina (February 13 – 25 delegates in 2012) and North Carolina (February 16 – 55 delegates) will be the first Southern states to have their say with early primary elections before March.

Eric Tanenblatt, a Republican strategist in Georgia who held leadership roles in Mitt Romney’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns and George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign, said, “an SEC primary in early March will definitely put the south in the national spotlight. However, as we have seen in the past, the field will be a lot smaller after the primaries and caucuses occur in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.”

After that winnowing process in the early states, on March 1, as many as 564 delegates from Texas (155) and Florida (100), Georgia (76), Tennessee (58), Alabama (50), Mississippi (40), and Arkansas (36) will be allocated among the remaining candidates. Based on 2012 Republican delegate allocation of 2286 convention seats, those states represent nearly a quarter of the delegates up for grab in the entire Republican primary process.

Under RNC rules, delegates in these states will be awarded proportionally among candidates according to each state’s rules. This too has implications for how candidates will campaign in these states.

“Given the new national party rules, an early March primary date will take away the guarantee of winner takes all primaries. There will be a lot of targeting done by campaigns as proportionality of delegates will be the name of the game,” said Tanenblatt.

Many within the socially conservative wing of the GOP see a Southern Super Tuesday as a way to put their own stamp on the eventual nominee. But it also means that no candidate can take all of the delegates by winning slim majorities in these states. If the field has fewer “establishment” candidates by this time, it could mean that social conservatives and libertarian-leaning voters spread their votes more thinly among a number of non-establishment candidates.

Florida, with the second-largest number of delegates in the geographic South, has a less distinctly Southern flavor than most of the others, and along with Texas may have a “favorite son” candidate or two.

The large number of delegates available across the swath of the South will place a premium on the ability to organize and fund multiple statewide organizations covering many square miles, also playing to the strength of an established candidate or an heir to a political dynasty.

Finally, the March 1 states include a large number of expensive media markets – 3 of the top ten in Dallas-Ft Worth, Atlanta, and Houston; nine of the top thirty most-expensive – playing to deep pockets and requiring mountains of cash to compete.