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Michigan’s presidential primary has turned into a bizarre moveable feast

Feb 13, 2015

I’m so old I can remember when the California presidential primary, which takes place at the beginning of June, often played a major role in choosing both parties’ nominees.

These days, the contests start nearly two years before the election, and tend to be decided by the end of March, but there’s no reason that might not be different next year.

Michigan’s two most influential presidential primaries happened back when we used to hold them in May. Back in 1976, President Gerald Ford managed to slow down what looked like a Ronald Reagan tide by beating him nearly two to one in the President’s home state.

Had Ford not done that, Reagan would have been the nominee that year, and history would have been different. On that same day, in one of the closest contests ever, Jimmy Carter edged out Mo Udall here by less than one half of one percent. That ended any hopes for Udall, one of the smartest and drollest men in politics.

Four years later, Ronald Reagan was the nominee, but on May 20, George Bush the elder beat him by a landslide in our primary here. That came too late to save Bush’s presidential candidacy, but it did convince Reagan that Bush would be a good man to have as running mate, that he might help carry some of the big northern industrial states.

So Reagan chose George Bush as his vice president, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Almost certainly, if not for the 1980 Michigan primary that year, neither Bush would have ever become President.

Well, since then, we’ve turned our primary into a bizarre moveable feast.

Sometimes it’s been in February; sometimes January; one year, both parties ignored it. This year, the Legislature is talking about March.

Usually the Republicans have used the primary. Sometimes the Democrats have participated; sometimes they have semi-participated, sometimes they’ve selected their convention delegates in a system of bizarre caucuses. Seven years ago, they had a primary so early the party at first disqualified their delegates, and the one name not on that ballot was Barack Obama.

Now, it looks like legislators will set Michigan’s presidential primary for either March 1 or March 15.  That might be a good time to play kingmaker, depending on how things play out.

Or it might not.

Ohio does something sensible with its primary. For the last 20 years, they’ve always held it at the same time. Both parties take part, and vote the same day, so you can’t have Democrats making mischief on the Republican side, or vice-versa.

Republicans, by the way, feel they do better in both primary and general elections when as few people as possible vote; that’s why yesterday in the Senate, they killed a proposal to follow most states and allow anyone who wants an absentee ballot to get one.

But back to our constantly moving primary.

Someday we may again have a presidential nominating convention where nobody gets a majority on the first ballot. Then, suddenly, state delegations may become vastly more important.

And we’ll be hearing a lot more about how important Michigan is from all the surviving candidates, as our next primary approaches something like a year from now.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. You can read his essays online at Michigan Radio-dot-org. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.