Here's a piece of advice for presidential candidates filling in their travel schedules for the fall campaign season: Use a pencil. The eraser will come in handy when facing an ever-changing primary calendar among states clamoring for more influence in the 2008 elections.
At least 15 states have moved up their primary dates in 2008, and more than a dozen moved up their contests to Feb. 5: With more than 20 states scheduled to hold primaries that day, Feb. 5 will become the biggest single voting day in primary history.
Some states are moving their primaries even earlier: Wyoming Republicans announced they will hold their primary on Jan. 5, edging out Iowa, which typically holds the first caucus in the nation and may now make its date even earlier than that. South Carolina Republicans moved their primary to Jan. 19, bumping New Hampshire's traditional second-place spot. Florida and Michigan moved their primary dates into January as well.
The glut of early primaries produces a stark reality: If the current schedule holds, more than half the states will have voted by Feb. 5. That means the race for the presidential nominations could effectively be over less than five months from now.
Both the Democratic and Republican national parties say they will penalize states that move up primary dates in violation of national party rules.
Democratic National Committee (DNC) regulations allow only four states to hold contests before Feb. 5. DNC officials threaten a hefty penalty for any other state that holds Democratic contests before that date: They say they will strip those states of all their nominating delegates at the party's national convention next year.
The Republican National Committee says it plans to penalize at least five states holding early primaries as well, and threatens to strip those states of half their delegates at next year's national convention.
Since a clear presidential nominee has usually emerged by the time of the conventions, stripping states of delegates likely wouldn't affect the outcome of the nominating process. But levying punishments against states could divide both parties at a critical moment late in the election season.
Some state officials shrugged off the threats, saying the national parties can't afford to go through with the penalties. "Why would you want to punish those states when you are trying to win the general election?" asked Saul Anuzis, chairman of the Michigan Republican Party.
Fergus Cullen, chairman of the New Hampshire GOP, said he was willing to take the risk: "If we end up being stripped of delegates, that is the price we are willing to pay."
David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University, says states are willing to pay that price to gain more influence: With Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada dominating the early primary schedule for years, Woodard says "more diverse states feel like the early states are getting too much attention."
Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm cited that very reasoning when announcing her state's early primary, saying candidates should pay more attention to what she calls unfair trade policies and the state's manufacturing crisis.
But clumping more than half of the states' primaries into the calendar by Feb. 5 creates problems, says Woodard: "The only people who can compete are rich athletes." He says candidates will need an enormous amount of cash to afford visiting dozens of states within a few days.
The candidates will also need huge reserves to buy advertising in dozens of states at one time. "If you don't have the money there's no way you can emerge from the pack and be a viable candidate," says Woodard. "A lot of good candidates won't be able to go forward."
All the Democratic presidential candidates have signed a pledge stating they won't campaign in states that hold early primaries in violation of national party rules. That move will take some of the pressure off candidates to campaign in an excessive number of states at one time, but Woodard says the mass of early primaries in the first weeks of next year will still mean the same thing: "Just three weeks and it's over."