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Texplainer: Will the Texas Primary Be Too Late to Matter?

Hey, Texplainer: With several states racing to move up their primaries, will my vote even matter when Texas holds its primary? Yes, at least for every candidate other than the ones running for president — and maybe for them, too.

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Welcome to The Texas Tribune's "Texplainer" series, where we answer questions from readers like you. 

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Updated 2:35 p.m. 10/07/2011: Iowa Republicans say that their caucus now is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 3, 2012. 

Hey, Texplainer: I keep seeing all these states moving up their Republican primaries to earlier and earlier dates in 2012. When is Texas' primary, and will my vote even matter by the time I get to cast it?

Several states are trying to exert more influence on who the Republican nominee for president will be by leapfrogging one another to hold their primaries or caucuses earlier and earlier in 2012 — to the point where Iowa may now have to stage its traditional first-in-the-nation caucus in late December. That's right, in less than three months from now.

Some of the calendar calisthenics are also motivated by resentment that two small and relatively rural states — Iowa and New Hampshire — wield outsized influence on who wins the nomination because they always hold their contests first.

Each state that has moved up its contest so far is hoping to create more interest in its own state and local elections by making the state more competitive in the presidential race, since more voters tend to turn out when the top job is at stake than in elections that don't feature a presidential vote. The Democratic Party (and to a lesser extent the Republicans) also had to deal with primary chaos in 2008 when the contest was bitterly contested by then-New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and then-Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

Traditionally the first four states to vote have been Iowa (a caucus), New Hampshire (primary), Nevada (caucus) and South Carolina (primary). Under the rules of the Republican National Committee, only those four states can have their contests in February 2012. After Florida announced it will hold its primary on Jan. 31, South Carolina pushed up its primary to Jan. 21. Then on Wednesday, Nevada announced it would hold its GOP caucus on Jan. 14. 

The moves could mean that New Hampshire stages its primary, by state law the first in the nation, in early January, with Iowa moving its caucus, by state law the first nominating contest period, to even earlier in January or possibly even late December, although many political officials want to avoid that.

The RNC had hoped to prevent this kind of primary free-for-all by punishing rogue states that violate its preferred calendar by slashing in half their number of delegates. So far, that hasn't seemed to dissuade Florida, Michigan and Arizona, which have also advanced their primary dates. Even New Hampshire and South Carolina could be punished, since they aren't supposed to vote before February, according to The Washington Post. The penalty doesn't really affect the caucus states since their delegates are not bound to vote for a specific candidate.

What does all this mean for Texas voters? The state's primary is March 6, 2012, the first Tuesday of the month. That date is also known as “Super Tuesday,” because eight other states are supposed to hold their primaries or caucuses then. Republican primary voters can expect to see two Texans — Gov. Rick Perry and Rep. Ron Paul — on the list of candidates for the presidential nomination. In addition, voters will select their nominees for the U.S. Senate, Texas House, Texas Senate and other statewide, regional and local offices.

Daron Shaw, a political science professor at University of Texas, said it is unlikely that any one of the Republican presidential candidates will wrap up the nomination before Texas votes, especially with the new RNC rules in place.  He sees one scenario where the front-loaded calendar does not provide for a clear frontrunner, making Texas a “huge prize” for the candidates still standing. That would draw significant interest from both Democratic and Republican voters, similar to what happened in 2008.

This could be particularly true if many of the early states have forfeited half their delegates by advancing their primaries.

"God forbid that we end up with the race going all the way to the national convention," Republican National Committee member Steve Scheffler of Iowa told USA Today on Wednesday. "There could be a real potential debacle and a lot of challenges if a lot of states end up with only half of their delegates."

Chris Elam, spokesman for the Texas Republican Party, said he doesn’t believe a later primary date will deter GOP voters, pointing to expected high turnout for the U.S. Senate contest. That race includes Railroad Commissioner Elizabeth Ames Jones, former solicitor general Ted Cruz, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, among others.

“The momentum and energy level that we have will translate to the races further down the ballot,” Elam said.

To move the state's primary date, the Texas Legislature would need to reconvene in Austin — highly unlikely between now and the March 6 date. A bill to push the primary election date to February was filed during this past legislative session but did not receive a hearing.

During the session, Texas lawmakers did change the window for candidates to file for a spot on the primary ballot from November 12 through December 12. May 22 was designated as the runoff primary date.

To comply with the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act passed by Congress in 2009, the state also must send primary ballots to overseas voters by January 21, 2012. All these dates would have to be reset if there were to be any change to the March 6 primary election date. 

Bottom line: It's possible that the Republican nomination will not be decided until well into spring, even with states racing to move up their contests, especially if the rogue states give up half their delegates as a result. So Texas could still play an important role in selecting the GOP's nominee for president. 

And even if the nomination is decided before March 6, it's still your duty as a citizen to turn out and vote. 

Editor's note: This story was corrected to reflect that Elizabeth Ames Jones is currently serving on the Texas Railroad Commission. An earlier version said she was a former commissioner.

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