After the relatively focused early contests, the surviving candidates enter a dizzying array of primaries.  They must decide where to concentrate their efforts and resources as they jump around the country trying to hit key media markets and win enough delegates to gain the party nomination.

Overview of the Primary Process

To secure their respective parties' nominations, candidates compete in a series of state primaries and caucus/convention processes that select delegates to the national conventions.  The calendar of primaries and caucuses has been and continues to be based on the premise that several early retail contests serve to winnow the field in advance of the great mass of primaries and contests.  The theory is that the early retail contests allow even a candidate with modest funds to compete against better funded and more well known contenders.  The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary have traditionally gone first, although critics characterize the two states as being unrepresentative.  South Carolina is first in the South, and Democrats added Nevada in 2008 as an early state for demographic and geographic balance.

Rules governing primaries and caucuses and their timing are set out in national party rules and state laws.  Caucuses are multi-step, party run processes that generally start at the precinct level and work up through county and district levels to a state convention.  Caucuses generally have very limited participation because of the time commitment involved.  Presidential preference primary elections are usually run by the state, meaning state laws apply (there are party-run primaries, but they are rare because it is expensive).  Some states hold their presidential preference primaries on different dates than the regular state primaries while in others both the presidential primary and the state primary occur on the same date.  Some states allow unaffiliated voters to participate in party primaries (these are open primaries) and some do not (closed primaries).  Dates of Democratic and Republican contests generally but do not always coincide.  The two parties have different rules governing their processes.  Democratic delegates are allocated proportionally, whereas Republican rules allow for winner-take-all contests.

In recent election cycles, the calendar has been plagued by frontloading caused by states seeking to go earlier in the process and thereby have more influence.  In 2008 the crush of early primaries pushed the Iowa caucuses to January 3 and the New Hampshire primary to January 8, necessitating campaigning over the holidays, and there was even talk that some contests might be held in 2007.  More than 30 states (+) held their presidential nominating contests in February, including 24 on February 5.  Following the 2008 campaign, both parties adopted rules which aimed to push back the start of the calendar to February and to forestall frontloading. 

Combatting Frontloading

Out of the experience with the 2008 nominating process, the Democratic National Committee established a Change Commission charged with examining "1) changes to the opening of the window and pre-window, 2) reducing the number of superdelegates and 3) changes to the caucus system."  In December 2009 the Change Commission adopted its report recommending improvements to the nominating process (+); the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee moved to effect those recommendations, and the full DNC finalized the changes at its Fall meeting held August 19-20, 2010.  Most importantly the rules set out dates for the early contests: Iowa on February 6, New Hampshire on February 14, Nevada on February 18, and South Carolina on February 28; the window for the rest of the states is to open on March 6.  (Note however that the four days between the New Hampshire primary and the Nevada caucuses violates New Hampshire law, which requires a seven day cushion).  The DNC also diluted the numbers of unelected "superdelegates" about which there was some controversy in 2008 (+).  

A rules change adopted by the Republican National Convention in 2008 gave the Republican National Committee more flexibility in setting the timing of primaries and caucuses.  In 2009 the RNC established a Temporary Delegate Selection Committee to "review the timing of the election, selection, allocation, or binding of delegate and alternate delegates to the Republican National Convention."  On Aug. 6, 2010 at its Summer meeting, the RNC adopted changes which allow Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada to "begin their processes at any time on or after February 1" while other states can go starting the first Tuesday in March (+).

Party Rules Set Windows for 2012 Delegate Selection Contests
No primary, caucus, or convention to elect, select, allocate, or bind delegates to the national convention shall occur prior to the first Tuesday in March in the year in which a national convention is held.  Except Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada may begin their processes at any time on or after February 1 in the year in which a national convention is held and shall not be subject to the provisions of paragraph (b)(2) of this rule.

RNC Rule 15(b)(1)
No meetings, caucuses, conventions or primaries which constitute the first determining stage in the presidential nomination process (the date of the primary in primary states, and the date of the first tier caucus in caucus states) may be held prior to the first Tuesday in March or after the second Tuesday in June in the calendar year of the national convention. Provided, however, that the Iowa precinct caucuses may be held no earlier than 29 days before the first Tuesday in March; that the New Hampshire primary may be held no earlier than 21 days before the first Tuesday in March; that the Nevada first-tier caucuses may be held no earlier than 17 days before the first Tuesday in March; and that the South Carolina primary may be held no earlier than 7 days before the first Tuesday in March. In no instance may a state which scheduled delegate selection procedures on or between the first Tuesday in March and the second Tuesday in June 1984 move out of compliance with the provisions of this rule.

DNC Delegate Selection Rule 11(a)

To combat frontloading, both parties adopted incentives to encourage states to go later in the process.  Republicans adopted a rule that requires states holding contests prior to April 1 to allocate their delegates on a proportional basis; states going from April 1 on can use the winner-take-all system, which gives them more clout.  Democrats developed a bonus delegate scheme to encourage states to move their primaries or caucuses further back in the calendar or stay further back in the calendar.  There are three stages—March 6-31, April 1-30 and May 1-June 12.  Depending on the changes they make, states can gain from 10-percent to 20-percent more delegates above the base level.  In an effort to counter the random hither and yon aspect of the primaries, Democrats also sought to encourage regional clustering.  (In 2008, for example, the February 12 Potomac Primary, encompassing DC, Maryland and Virginia, allowed for efficiencies in campaigning).  Under their rules for 2012, Democrats will give states 15-percent more delegates to encourage regional clustering. The effectiveness of these incentives remains to be seen.

As noted above, national party rules set windows when primaries and caucuses can occur.  Periodic attempts to challenge the privileged positions of Iowa and New Hampshire by states seeking to have a greater voice in the nominating process have not been successful; Iowa and New Hampshire officials and party leaders are fierce defenders of their first status (+) and candidates tend to favor the system as it is (+).  In 2008 some states violated the national party rules, set earlier dates, and were assessed penalties.  (Democrats had to contend with very messy situations with Michigan and Florida, and were actually talking about re-votes into March 2008; they eventually backed off on the penalties). 

The Democrats' protracted primary battle in 2008 did show that later states can have an impact.  Democrats had concerns about a divisive primary, but the long primary season ultimately helped Obama by getting issues such as the controversy over Rev. Wright aired, and by allowing him to build the strong field organization and finance capabilities he took into the general election.

For 2012, maximum attention will be focused on the Republican calendar since it appears likely the Democratic nomination will not be seriously contested.  Democrats will still go through their delegate selection processes; their challenge will be to encourage interest.

Setting the 2012 Calendar

Throughout much of 2011 individual state legislatures, secretaries of state and state parties determined when to hold their contests.  In the 2008 cycle (>), the date of the Iowa caucuses was not set until October 2007, the New Hampshire primary on November 21, and on November 26 Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) signed into law a measure setting the state's February 5 presidential primary.  This cycle, the Iowa/New Hampshire date drama was settled by November 2, 2011, but Texas' primary date of May 29 was not set until March 1, 2012 to legal battle over redistricting.

National Party Committees' Best Laid Plans Thwarted by Rogue States
National party leaders had envisaged a primary calendar that would have started with the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 6, followed by the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 14, the Nevada caucuses on Feb. 18, South Carolina on February 28 and Super Tuesday on March 6.  For a while it looked as if their efforts might work, and there might be a more measured primary calendar.

However, Republican leaders in a number of states again wanted to go earlier than the rules allow, despite the threat of losing half their delegates and other sanctions.  Seeking to dissuade such activity the RNC in April 2011 formed a committee to "educate RNC Members, state parties and elected Republican officials" on its rules.  At the RNC Summer meeting in Tampa in August 2011, this committee proposed a formal warning, but that did not advance; the matter is expected to be pursued again at the Winter meetings in January 2012.  Nonetheless, a few rogue states pressed ahead.

Arizona and Michigan have set their primaries for February 28, in violation of RNC and DNC rules.  In Arizona, on September 12, 2011 Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed a proclamation setting the primary date at February 28 (Brewer had been leaning towards moving the primary up to January 31).  In Michigan, the matter was handled by the state legislature; on September 15, 2011 the state Senate passed a bill setting the date of the primary on the fourth Tuesday in February, the House followed on September 21 and Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed the bill on October 4.

Florida was the most egregious violator of the rules.  As they did last cycle, Republican leaders in the Florida legislature looked to set an early primary.  In a March 31, 2011 letter (+) to RNC members then South Carolina Republican Chair Karen Floyd to suggested that, "If Florida refuses to move its primary date into compliance with RNC rules, I am respectfully requesting that the Committee convene a special task force to select a new site for the 2012 Convention outside the state of Florida."  Nothing came of that proposal, however.  On May 19, 2011 Gov. Rick Scott (R) signed an elections law (+) that among other provisions established a ten-person Presidential Preference Primary Date Selection Committee which is to pick a date (between Jan. 3, 2012 and March 6, 2012) by October 1, 2011.  On Sept. 16, 2011 the members of the committee were announced (+).  Meanwhile RNC co-chair Sharon Day, who is from Florida, was actively working for months to resolve this situation.  It was all for naught.  On Sept. 30, 2011, the Date Selection Committee voted 7-2 to set the date of the presidential preference primary on January 31, 2012 in violation of RNC and DNC rules.

The actions of a small group of Florida Republicans pushed the sanctioned early states to move up their dates (1, 2, 3, 4).  South Carolina Republicans set the date of their primary on January 21 (+), Nevada Republicans set their caucuses for January 14, Iowa Republicans set their caucus for January 3 (+).  After New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner signaled that he might hold the first in the nation primary in December 2011 (+), Nevada Republicans moved back to February 4 (+).  The net result was that the Iowa caucuses were again held on January 3, necessitating campaigning over the Christmas and New Year's holidays as happened in 2008.

Most of the states that held contests in February 2008 did adjust the dates of their presidential primaries to later dates.  March 6, Super Tuesday, ended up on the biggest day on the calendar with contests in ten states..
Tight budgets were a factor in a number of states.  In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed a bill to move the presidential primary from third Tuesday in February to the first Tuesday in April coinciding with the spring general election.  In California, which held a February 5 primary in 2008, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed into law a bill to consolidate the presidential and statewide primaries on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in June.  In Washington, acting at the request of the Gov. Gregoire and the Secretary of State, the legislature approved a bill to suspend the state presidential primary, saving $10 million in general fund expenditures (SB5119 signed into law on May 12, 2011).  Josh Putnam's Frontloading HQ is the place to follow these developments. 

The Calm after the Storm

During the period between the end of the primaries and the conventions, the presumptive nominee bolsters the campaign organization and places key people in the national party committees to prepare for the general election.  The campaign works on positioning for the general election.  For example, conventional wisdom has it that the presumptive nominees must move back to the center after playing to more committed or extreme elements of their respective parties to win in the primaries.  How the candidate uses this time can have an important effect on his or her success in the fall.

In 1992 Bill Clinton used the month of June to regroup following a tough passage through the primaries.  In 1996 Bob Dole had essentially won the nomination by mid-March, but he faced the period from April to the convention with virtually no funds.  In June, Dole gained much attention when he surprised everyone by resigning his Senate seat.

Again in 2000 the post-primary period proved important.  Gov. George W. Bush effectively secured the Republican nomination on March 7, 2000; during late March and April he introduced a reading initiative, a plan to clean up brownfields, a "New Prosperity Initiative" to help people move from poverty to the middle class and a health care plan.  More such proposals followed in the months leading up to the convention.  For Vice President Al Gore, however, there were some bumps.  He moved his campaign headquarters to a third location and brought on a new campaign chairman, while weathering concerns about his polling numbers.  In June Gore launched a "Progress and Prosperity" tour.

In 2004 the calendar again led to early selection of the Democratic nominee.  Sen. John Edwards, the last major challenger to Sen. John Kerry, withdrew from the race on March 3.  In the months leading up to the convention Kerry engaged in record-breaking fundraising efforts.

In 2008, on the Republican side, Sen. John McCain wrapped up the Republican nomination on March 4, leaving almost six months until the convention.  In early April McCain did a week-long "Service to America" tour designed to highlight elements of his biography; later in the month he toured "forgotten places."  McCain also did a lot of fundraising in this period.  Sen. Barack Obama took a risk in his trip to the Middle East and Europe from July 18-26.

Vice Presidential Picks

Once a candidate gains enough delegates to become the presumptive nominee, speculation on possible running mates accelerates markedly.  People advocate for or against various prospects; there are columns and cover stories and websites devoted to particular favorites.  All sorts of rumors develop, but there is little reliable information.  Behind the scenes the campaigns do extensive vetting of vice presidential prospects, for the presumptive nominee does not want any unpleasant surprises as happened with Tom Eagleton in 1972 or the Dan Quayle choice in 1988. 

The presidential candidate weighs many factors.  The most obvious criteria is that the vice president should be capable of ascending to the presidency in the event of the unexpected.  Compatability is a concern.  The vice presidential pick should also add balance to the ticket geographically, ideologically or in terms of experience. 

The timing of the announcement must be considered as well.  One can envision a scenario where an early announcement might work, where, for example, it could be helpful to have the duo out on the trail spreading the message.  During the 2008 primaries, there were suggestions that Sen. Clinton, trailing in the Democratic race, might emulate the example of Ronald Reagan, who, on July 26, 1976, challenging Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination, announced that he would pair with Sen. Richard Schweiker (R-PA). 

In 2010 there were a number of musings that President Obama might or should replace Vice President Biden.  Journalist Sally Quinn penned a column "Hillary Clinton should be Obama's vice president" (Washington Post, June 18, 2010) suggesting that the two should change positions.  Former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder advocated an Obama-Clinton ticket in 2012 in a column in Politico (Aug. 2, 2010).  Washington Post op-ed columnist David Ignatius weighed in (Aug. 22, 2010), arguing that Obama is "going to need someone to light a fire under him, someone who can play politics fiercely—and also can bring in some new voters."  He concluded that Vice President Hillary Clinton would be a "second-term masterstroke."

In recent election cycles the VP announcement has most frequently been done in the week leading up to the convention.  This draws the period of speculation out and creates further interest in the candidacy, in addition to allowing for a triumphal tour into the convention.  Mitt Romney's announcement, a bit more than two weeks ahead of the convention, was a tad earlier.  Often extraordinary measures are taken to keep the selection secret until the announcement, and that certainly was the case with the Ryan pick.  The location of the announcement can also have significance; in many cases the presumptive nominee has opted for his home state.  In 2008 John McCain made the Palin announcement in the battleground state of Ohio; Mitt Romney had planned to make his announcement in New Hampshire but the shootings at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, WI pushed that off, and the event ended up in another battleground state, Virginia, fittingly in front of the battleship U.S.S. Wisconsin.

Recent Vice Presidential Annoucements

Conv. Start
Norfolk, VA
Aug. 11 (1)
Aug. 27
Springfield, IL
Aug. 23 (1, 2)
Aug. 25

Dayton, OH
Aug. 29 (1, 2)+
Sept. 1
Pittsburgh, PA
July 6 (1, 2)
July 26
'00 Bush
Austin, TX
July 25
July 31

Nashville, TN
Aug. 8
Aug. 14
Russell, KS
Aug. 10
Aug. 12
Little Rock, AR
July 9
July 13

Observers described Romney's choice of Ryan as bold.  Conventional wisdom was that Romney would probably choose a "safe" pick such as Sen. Portman or former Gov. Pawlenty.  More than anything, the Ryan choice signals an emphasis on fiscal responsibility.  Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee, was best known as the architect of "The Path to Prosperity" budget proposal (+).  Choosing Ryan should motivate conservatives and Tea Party activists, but also may help Democrats turn out their supporters, particularly on the Medicare issue.  Ryan brings youth to the ticket, he could help affect the Catholic vote, and he puts Wisconsin firmly into the battleground state category.

Commentators suggested the Ryan pick may mark an important turning point in the campaign.  Romney had been running his campaign as a referendum on Obama, hammering away at the theme that Obama had not fixed the economy, while not offering much of his own agenda (summed up by the slogan "Obama isn't working").  Overall the campaign had become increasingly vapid, with a lot of back and forth charges.  Now, the theory goes, the campaign may take on more of a policy focus.

.  An interesting article in the April 6, 2011 Boston Globe suggested that national Democrats were encouraging Massachusetts and other Northeast and less Republican states to hold their primaries later, in part to boost prospects of more conservative candidates in the Republican primary contest.  A DNC spokesperson said the objective was simply to produce a more rationale calendar.  See: Frank Phillips.  "US Democrats seek to delay primary."  Boston Globe (online), April 6, 2011.

2.  Given the daunting challenges facing the country, some argue that a bipartisan ticket is a good idea.  That was the premise of Americans Elect, which sought ballot access in all 50 states, but ended up as a debacle.

3.  See also:  Tom Rosenstiel, Mark Jurkowitz and Tricia Sartor.  "How the Media Covered the 2102 Primary Campaign."  Pew Research Center, April 23, 2012.

Results Summary Page
Overview: Road to Tampa

Vice Presidential Speculation

Primary Events in States Other than IA, NH SC, FL and NV

June 15-18, 2011 Republican Leadership Conference and Reagan Centennial Celebration in New Orleans, LA.

Sept. 7, 2011 - Reagan Presidential Foundation/Politico/NBC News Debate in Simi Valley, CA (orig. scheduled for May 2, then Sept. 14).

Sept. 23-25, 2011 - Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference on Mackinac Island, MI.

Oct. 7-8, 2011 - 2011 Midwest Leadership Conference in Bloomington, MN. +

Nov. 9, 2011 - CNBC/Michigan Republican Party Debate in Rochester, MI.

Nov. 22, 2011 - CNN/Heritage Foundation/AEI Debate on National Security and Foreign Policy in Washington, DC.  

Feb. 22, 2011 - CNN/Arizona Republican Party Debate in AZ.

March 19, 2012 - Oregon Republican Party-hosted debate in Portland, OR..