The Presidential Primary Meets the County Line

Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman LeRoy Jones.

In 1991 and 1992, I lived and worked in New Hampshire. I was trying to get Senator Bob Kerrey, a medal of honor winner and former Governor of Nebraska elected U.S. President. We didn’t even come close to winning the New Hampshire Primary. Even so it was an amazing experience that taught me many lessons about campaigns, politics, and primaries. Especially first in the nation primaries.

This is relevant because of a proposal floated by Democratic National Committee to move the first primaries from lily white Iowa and New Hampshire to somewhere (anywhere) more diverse, like say New Jersey. State Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones loved the idea so much he wrote a letter to the DNC advocating for it. Senator Dick Codey is ramping up legislation to move NJ up in the electoral calendar. Non-presidential candidate Phil Murphy is also reported to be in favor of the idea which would certainly make his run for president easier.

The arguments for New Jersey as a first in the nation primary are compelling. Diversity is certainly one of them.  In New Hampshire, we joked that an out-of-town reporter once asked a local pollster how he thought the Black vote was going to go in the state. He responded by saying, “I am not sure. I haven’t asked him.”  New Jersey is more way racially, ethnically, geographically and economically diverse than Iowa or New Hampshire will ever be. That alone is reason enough for the DNC to consider us as a place to go first.

New Jersey has other advantages for candidates as well.  New Jersey is also small enough that you can see all of that diversity in a single day of campaigning. That means lots of bang for the most important buck in a campaign, the candidate’s time. New Jersey, unlike Iowa or New Hampshire doesn’t have its own TV media market. That is unfortunate for New Jersey as a state but in terms of presidential politics it would mean that candidates have two pathways to prove they can win. They can work hard knocking on doors from Wantage to Wildwood to show a grass roots viability. Others can show viability by raising enough money enough to buy TV ads in expensive New York and Philly. In reality, most candidates would need to do both, which is a good thing.

So other than inertia and New Hampshire’s state constitutional requirement that they go first, what is holding us back?

The county line.

The “county line” is a metaphor for a collection of ballot design laws and practices in New Jersey that give an advantage to candidates favored by one faction of a political party. In it, the government allows political party organizations to group their favored candidates together on primary ballots.

New Jersey is unique in this matter; in most other states ballot placement is basically luck of the draw. A federal judge is currently evaluating the constitutionality of our system.  I have a suspicion that when (if) the folks at the DNC dig more deeply into how elections work in the various states who want to go first, our process of awarding the county line will hurt our chances significantly. To be clear, I am not necessarily advocating to get rid of it, just pointing out that what we are doing now is incompatible with a 1st in the nation presidential primary. Here is why.

Timing. Recently, county chairs (and their organizations) held conventions or other selection processed to gather the names of the candidates who are going to be on the county line. These processes typically take place 2-8 weeks before petition due dates, which for primaries are about 9 weeks before election day.  If New Jersey were to try to move our primary forward, that process would have taken place 6 to 9 months ago, maybe more. Do county organizations and their members really want to hold conventions in the summer? I think most would prefer to be down the shore.

Transactions: When we look at ourselves honestly, we kind of have to admit that New Jersey’s County chairs are pretty powerful. We have those conventions etc. but clearly county chairs have a huge say in who gets to be on the county line. In New Hampshire, county and local chairs are important but they don’t get to decide ballot placement. In Iowa, county chairs are also important, but ballot placement is meaningless in a caucus system because it has multiple voting iterations throughout the course a caucus night.

So basically, under the current system in New Jersey, the pathway to the most powerful office in the world goes through 21 New Jersey County chairs. As everyone knows, New Jersey’s County chairs have an unparalleled record of scrupulous honesty, high ethical standards, openness and transparency, so I am sure we have nothing to worry about here.

Ballot Logistics: Another problem with the line and presidential primaries is that 1st in the nation presidential primaries have lots of candidates. Donald Trump won New Hampshire in 2016, in part, because the Republicans had 17 (at least somewhat reasonably) viable candidates to pick from. If a county line system exists party leaders can play favorites with ballot order, instead of leaving it up to a random draw with all candidates having equal chances. In a county line system, it is possible, and I would argue more likely that an extremely viable (and DNC preferred) candidates will end up on second page ballot Siberia than it is with a random draw.

At the end of the day ballot placement isn’t definitive in who wins or loses a primary. Winning “off the line” happens in New Jersey. But in a presidential race where the stakes are so high and money so plentiful you can bet that competition for the line would be bloody and expensive. On one hand perhaps bloody and expensive primary fights crush weaker candidates before the opposing party can. But on the other hand, maybe they just make all candidates (but especially whoever manages to win) weaker. Not sure that is what the DNC really wants.

It is fun to get caught up in the thought of presidential candidate taking bus tours along the Garden State and having to answer whether Central Jersey exists (it does, BTW, 100%). It is cool to think of the economic bump a first in the nation primary gives local businesses. It is appealing to think that our votes might actually matter and make a difference.

But unless we are willing to modify or get rid of the county line, I think the DNC will move on to other options.

Matthew Hale, PhD

Department of Political Science and Public Affairs

Seton Hall University

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