[Ed. – Short version: front-loading is bad.]
If these rules had been in effect in 1976, for instance, Ronald Reagan’s challenge to sitting president Gerald Ford — and perhaps his presidential career — would have died aborning, and the Republican party itself might never have achieved its greatest triumphs. In that bicentennial year, Reagan lost Iowa to Ford on January 19. It was a whole month afterwards before they battled again, in New Hampshire — where Ford eked out a narrow victory. In slow motion Reagan then lost Massachusetts, Vermont, Florida, and Illinois. If more primaries had been condensed into a short time frame, as the new rules promote, Reagan would have been toast.
Instead, the Reagan campaign, drawing on grassroots activists nationwide, had time to regroup before too many states had already decided. When he won North Carolina on March 23 of that year, and then followed two more losses with a series of four big wins in early May, he resurrected his career, carried the nomination fight all the way to a thrilling convention, and set himself up for his successful presidential run four years later. The example of 1976 also undermines the view that hard-fought and drawn-out primaries risk fatally undermining the eventual nominee. The claim that Reagan’s prolonged battle hurt Ford’s fall campaign is nonsense: Ford roared back from a 32-point deficit that owed more to Watergate and a weak economy than to Reagan’s challenge, and he almost certainly would have won the White House had he not bizarrely said in a debate that Eastern Europe wasn’t under Soviet domination.
By contrast, consider the contest of 1996: Its extremely front-loaded design scared off potential candidates such as Michigan’s conservative governor John Engler and the then-conservative Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson. At the same time, the front-loading made it much more difficult for Texas senator Phil Gramm or the moderate but strong-campaigning former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander to regroup after early failures. Instead, a determined but unexciting Bob Dole nailed down the nomination on the strength of early name ID, only to be trounced by President Clinton in the fall.