April is the cruelest month — at least when it comes to scheduling a presidential primary. Unfortunately, the Keystone State just can’t seem to see this.
Pennsylvania has long been considered one of the most important states when it comes to presidential general elections. Four years ago, we were one of the trio of states that narrowly provided Donald Trump an Electoral College victory.
Even before, and surely after this flip, Democrats recognized our outsized importance.
Yet despite our critical status, we’re set to have little to no say in the choice of the Democratic nominee.
The culprit seems to be tradition. Going back as far as the 1932 Republican presidential primary Pennsylvania has held its own contest on the penultimate or last Tuesday in April 21 times. The only exceptions were in 1984 and 2000, when it instead occurred on the second and first Tuesday in April respectively.
As a result, you’d be hard-pressed to find an example of a time when PA really made a difference in either party’s primary selection.
In 1972, George McGovern’s pathway to the nomination wasn’t slowed by Hubert Humphrey’s victory here. Four years later, Scoop Jackson’s hopes were crushed by Jimmy Carter’s already speeding bandwagon. 1980 actually saw Ted Kennedy and George H.W. Bush both win their primaries only to eventually fall short of the nomination.
One might counter by citing the 2008 Democratic primary. It was the perfect test case with over a month separating the previous contest from Pennsylvania’s balloting. Debates were held, the Reverend Wright videos emerged, Barack Obama gave his famous speech on race and Hillary Clinton scored a solid nine-point win.
All it amounted to was sound and fury, as just two weeks later Tim Russert was declaring Obama the nominee after his performances in North Carolina and Indiana.
Why does Pennsylvania consistently fail to make a difference? Because April is the no-mans land of the primary calendar. Since the evolution of Super Tuesday in the 1980’s the primary process has become more and more front-loaded, so the nomination is effectively sewed up before the end of March.
Even when a contest is prolonged the final result is still not in doubt. Take 2016 for example. Hillary Clinton’s victory over Bernie Sanders took place long after the Vermont Senator had any hope of overtaking the front-runner in the delegate count. There simply weren’t enough contests and delegates left to make a difference.
A commonwealth with a significant supply of delegates should still hold some importance, but a number of factors prevent this. One of those reasons is that our estranged big brother New York tends to vote a week or two before us and pulls any remaining attention and money towards itself. Just this scenario actually played out in 1992.
In 2020, these issues will only be exacerbated by California’s move from June to Super Tuesday. By the time we reach the Pennsylvania contest on April 28th, nearly 80 percent of delegates in the Democratic primary will already have been allocated.
Furthermore, Pennsylvania doesn’t even get the chance to be one of the last voices heard anyway as several states and territories hold their primaries and caucuses in May and June. Our neighbor New Jersey is one of them, as they traditionally seek to be among the final states to cast their ballots.
So why doesn’t the state legislature do anything?
It’s clear tradition isn’t a worthwhile reason. If they’re worried about the down-ballot races, other states hold separate elections for the presidency and local contests. The cost could be made up from candidate spending on regional TV and local vendors (also it’s not as if we’ve blanched at unnecessary additional elections before).
If we continue to sit back merely out of a sense of tradition, then we’ll find ourselves shut out of the presidential primary process for the foreseeable future.
It’s long past time to rise up and claim our spot atop the calendar.
Nick Field, of Bucks County, is a former managing editor of PoliticsPA. His work appears occasionally on the Capital-Star.