South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg holds a press conference during a recent visit to Atlanta. Bob Andres, bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

Why Georgia Democrats might be eager to duck 'Super Tuesday' in 2020

For decades, every fourth March, Georgia voters have taken a first pass at picking their presidential candidates on “Super Tuesday.” The earlier, the better.

That’s about to change. And the Georgia Democrats we’ve talked to say that’s not such a bad thing.

With a few notable exceptions, the traditional thinking has been that when Southern states coordinate their presidential primaries, economies of scale — in terms of media markets and travel — encourage more visits from White House wannabes.

More visits mean happier voters, and perhaps even a few more jobs for local operatives eager to make the leap to D.C.

A practice started by Democrats has continued under Republican rule. For the 2016 contest on March 1, then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp attempted to rebrand Super Tuesday as the “SEC primary” – a moniker that only worked because Texas A&M football had been admitted to the Southeastern Conference a few years earlier.

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Odds are, things will be different in 2020. Georgia is unlikely to join the 10 states now scheduled to hold “Super Tuesday” primaries for presidential candidates next March 3.

The underlying reasons are logistical. Tens of thousands of new electronic voting machines, the largest single order ever recorded in the U.S., have yet to be purchased and will need to be distributed throughout Georgia’s 159 counties. Thousands of poll workers will require training. Trial runs are planned for this November’s municipal elections before the machines are rolled out statewide for a more serious test — the state’s presidential primary.

A vendor for the $150 million contract has yet to be selected. Four firms proffered bids in April. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who took office in January, is expected to make his decision in the next few weeks.

But when it comes to mourning a long-standing political tradition, you’re likely to be disappointed if you look for tears from Georgia Democrats. (Given Donald Trump’s firm standing in the GOP, Democrats will have the only presidential contest worth watching next spring.)

The reason is simple: “Super Tuesday” has become too super.

But first let us observe the civil niceties. “While we in Georgia understand that there were some voting irregularities and problems that need to be fixed, we’ve got to give the secretary of state enough time to make sure that he does it right,” said Tharon Johnson, a Democratic consultant who served as southern regional director for President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012.

“This will be a good test run for the new voting machines to ensure that they’re secure and votes will be accurately counted,” Johnson said.

What concerns Johnson most is the lack of a date certain for Georgia’s presidential primary — whichever Tuesday that Raffensperger, under state law, is obliged to pick by Dec. 1.

Already, Georgia has seen an uptick in appearances by Democratic presidential candidates. The sooner that Raffensperger picks a hard primary date that allows campaigns to work the state into their strategies, the more likely candidates are to continue their swings through metro Atlanta and beyond.

“It may not be a bad thing. It may be a good thing. But the sooner we can plan, the better,” Johnson said.

If not on March 3, we have a few clues as to where Georgia’s 2020 presidential primary date might fall. Bid specifications for the new electronic voting machines mandate that they be delivered by March 31. By then, more than half of all Democratic delegates are likely to have been selected.

The last time a Georgia presidential primary fell outside March was in 1976, when Jimmy Carter was on the ballot. That vote was on May 4.

Also keep in mind that Georgia’s general primary — when nominees for the U.S. Senate and hundreds of other federal, state and local offices will be selected — is set by statute for mid-May. And as stated above, the presidential primary is intended as a first big test for the new voting machines.

So April is a possibility, but late March is a better bet.

But why might Georgia Democrats be ready to duck next year’s Super Tuesday? To quote the great Yogi Berra: “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”

For the first time, California will be part of “Super Tuesday” in 2020, making March 3 a coast-to-coast affair rather than a regional one. In 2016, California’s 475 pledged delegates comprised 12% of all delegates to that year’s national convention, and 20% of those necessary to win the nomination. It will be the biggest prize of the night.

With Texas also in the mix, Georgia would be something of a “Super Tuesday” afterthought.

But consider that the crowded field of Democrats in the 2020 presidential contest is likely to mirror the 2016 Republican race. With that in mind, a later date becomes attractive.

“If things are uncertain, Georgia could get a lot of attention. Given you’ve got a frontloaded calendar, and 20 candidates or more, it could be still be a jump ball, with three or four candidates, perhaps,” said Keith Mason, who served as chief of staff for Gov. Zell Miller.

It was Miller who engineered one of Georgia’s few deviations from Super Tuesday — in 1992, in order to help Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton revive his presidential campaign.

“Super Tuesday” that year was on March 10, and featured Texas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Florida and Louisiana. “Zell Miller didn’t like Georgia being in the so-called Super Tuesday vote, because there were too many states,” Mason said. Candidates were reduced to making “tarmac” speeches at local airports.

Georgia’s primary was moved to March 3, which allowed it to become the first Southern state in the 1992 primary process. Momentum is important in political contests, and Clinton took 57 percent of the vote.

Many political insiders know this story. But they may not know the other half. In 1992, because the Voting Rights Act was in full force, Georgia’s new primary date had to be approved by the U.S. Justice Department — under President George H.W. Bush, who was running for re-election.

But Bush was facing a primary challenge from hard-right newspaper columnist Pat Buchanan, who was expected to perform strongly in a March 7 primary in South Carolina.

“We were able to convince the George H. W. Bush administration to go along with it because they wanted to ward off Buchanan,” Mason said. Bush won Georgia by 64% that March 3, then trounced Buchanan with 67% of the vote in South Carolina four days later.

Even if new voting machines were not an issue, rules set by both the Democratic and Republican national parties now bar Georgia from pursuing an earlier date. A later one risks relevance in the contest, but there’s also the possibility of a timely reward.

In 1992, Georgia was the first Southern voice in the presidential contest. “Next year, it could be the last Southern voice – which, if it’s a wide-open field, could be a strategic prize for a candidate,” Mason said.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.
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