If the status quo holds, come April we’ll have a clearer idea of who Democratic voters will choose to oppose President Donald Trump next November. After Iowa inaugurates the selection schedule on Feb.3, 33 additional states hold Democratic primaries or caucuses by early April.
And New York, the second most-populous blue state, is not among them. The Empire State’s Democratic Party primary is scheduled for April 28.
A state with the second-largest guaranteed Electoral College haul for the Democratic nominee should play a prominent role in choosing that nominee. Officials in the largest blue state, California, realized this: in 2017, the state moved its primary from June to March 3, joining 13 other states as the largest Super Tuesday prize.
Rightly, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo wants to rectify this by moving New York's primary to February. "I want a robust debate and dialogue among the Democratic [presidential] candidates that takes into consideration New York’s issues," he said on Friday.
There is reason for skepticism. Cuomo’s plan also would move State Senate and Assembly primaries up from June 23, aligning them with presidential voting. His argument is one of public convenience: "Why would you have to tell everybody ‘Come out and vote in April’ [or February],” he said, “and then, by the way, two months later you have to come out to vote for the congressional and the state races?’"
The catch is the resulting uptick in turnout would likely favor incumbent Democratic state lawmakers, shielding them from primary challenges. But whether the move amounts to an “incumbent protection program” for state-level Democrats, moving the primary up is the right choice.
Why? Because influence at the national level simply outweighs the protests of longshot state primary challengers.
With extreme polarization and an expansive gap between the two major parties’ visions for America, 2020 is the most urgent presidential election in generations. For a state as populous and trendsetting as New York, bringing up the electoral rear is too little influence too late in the process.
When New York’s April 28 Democratic primary was initially chosen, the sweetener for voting so late was extra delegates – about 25 percent more. State party leaders imagined a tight race where New York plays kingmaker in the home stretch. But what if the playing field has changed drastically by then – or, worse, the game is already over?
The last two Democratic primaries, 2008 (Obama v. Clinton) and 2016 (Clinton v. Sanders), were essentially one-on-one contests. The heads-up matches meant voting later wasn’t a detriment unless one candidate scored an early-round knockout.
But 2020 is different. The field is wide open, as candidates with broad backgrounds and marked policy disagreements vie for the party’s mantle. There are frontrunners, yes, but no clear presumptive nominee has emerged – nor is one likely to before voting commences in early February.
On this landscape, the states that winnow the field and turn frontrunners into favorites have the most influence. By late April, New Yorkers will have many – and perhaps all – decisions already made for them. Historically, by then the race likely will have just three serious candidates, and possibly only two.
New York has a deep, diverse Democratic base, with sizable sets of voters espousing views as disparate as 2020’s crop of candidates. We should have our say early; we should be narrowers, not narrowees.
Whether or not Cuomo has incumbents' interests in mind, moving New York’s primary to February places New Yorkers where they belong: at the heart of applicant screening for the most important job in the free world.
Christopher Dale is a freelance writer who writes on society, politics and sobriety-based issues.