In April 2008, Hillary Clinton made a campaign appearance at the Wigwam in Anderson. About two hours before she took the stage, a huge line of thousands of people encircled the historic basketball gym, waiting to get in.
A few weeks later, just hours before this historic Indiana presidential primary, more than 25,000 people jammed the American Legion Mall in downtown Indianapolis to hear Barack Obama on a rainy night.
By the time of Obama’s historic victory in Indiana that November, there were about 150 presidential-level appearances by Obama and Clinton, by John McCain, Sarah Palin, Michelle Obama, and Bill and Chelsea Clinton. The Hoosier political junkies had not seen anything like it since the 1968 primary involving Robert F. Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy and Gov. Roger Branigin.
Earlier this month, Howard County Republican Chairman Craig Dunn told me, "We've got to move up the Indiana presidential primary.”
The reason is clear: Millions of dollars from the Obama and Clinton campaigns spilled into the state. They opened close to 50 regional offices. More than 200,000 new voters were registered. Primary turnout went from 21 percent in 2004 to 39 percent in 2008. Obama spent about $1 million in the week before the primary. Slate Magazine totaled up the Indiana experience: Hillary Clinton, 37 stops in the state, 14 days spent (2.64 stops per day); Barack Obama, 25 stops in the state, 16 days spent (1.56 stops per day).
The 2008 presidential race totaled $2.4 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Obama and McCain spent more than $1 billion together.
What is keeping Indiana from moving up the presidential primary calendar? The short answer is the Indiana General Assembly, where numerous legislative leaders have balked over the years at having to campaign while in session. Yet a legislator facing a primary challenge cannot raise money during the session and is severely crimped from a scheduling standpoint after the session ends.
So here’s a solution: Every four years, move the start of the General Assembly from the first week in January to the second week in February. Or just make that change for all sessions. That would give a new gubernatorial administration an extra month to staff up and develop a budget along with a more comprehensive legislative agenda.
There’s a law requiring the General Assembly to begin that first week in January. Change it. The Legislature could convene on Feb. 15 and adjourn before Memorial Day. The assembly is no longer dominated by farmers, as it was decades ago. This would allow all the primary campaign to take place before convening.
Another law concerning presidential ballot petition signatures could be changed to allow the signature submission period to begin in November or December of the previous year.
Indiana Democratic Chairman Dan Parker told HPI, “We benefited greatly from 2008. One of the major aspects was it improves the relevancy of the party at a time when it is deteriorating.”
“I think it’s a conversation worth having,” Parker added.
He is not alone.
Former Gov. Mitch Daniels suggested in 2009 that Indiana move its presidential primary to the same day as New Hampshire’s, where it originally stood. A tax on all campaign-related spending could be used to finance the extra election. Currently the costs of the primary are the responsibility of the counties.
“I hope there’d be more now that we've actually seen how much fun it is,” Daniels said. “I hadn't imagined – and no one did – that we’d actually have such a competitive, meaningful contest here. Now we've seen what it’s like. Hoosiers enjoyed it. I wish it were an every-time affair, so I think it’s an idea we should still talk about.”
Former governor and U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh agreed. “We ought to find a way to work together to make sure our voices are heard more often than every four decades,” Bayh said.
Indiana Republican Chairman Eric Holcomb also wants the conversation, and called Indiana “a piece of the puzzle” as the Republican National Committee eyes the 2016 schedule when it meets in Los Angeles this spring.
“Changing Indiana’s primary date will require input beyond our Statehouse leaders,” Holcomb said. “It’s a delicate balance between a desire to have a larger voice in the national debate and ensuring we meet all the applicable rules put forth by the RNC.”
There will be an array of proposals, including regional primaries that could have, for instance, an Indiana primary the same day as Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin.
Indiana reverted to form in 2012, with major candidates and the nominees swooping in to raise money.
But the key reasons are still voter participation and money. The exercise is good for our citizens, and good for our economy. And Indiana is more like the rest of America than Iowa or New Hampshire.
Let’s have this conversation and be prepared to legislate change in 2014.