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Michigan could play in a Big Ten presidential showdown

At this time next year, we will likely be poised to dive into the Michigan presidential primary season. You might find this slightly nauseating but the presidential campaigns are already ramping up, particularly on the Republican side.

Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz both have a presence already in Michigan. We would not be surprised to find a lot of the old John Engler (he was a close Bush family ally) team ready to coalesce around Jeb Bush if and when his exploratory phase ends and the ex-Florida governor officially jumps in.

Meantime, the questions continue to swirl around whether Governor Rick Snyder will jump into the race. And that particular question is driving a lot of the machinations surrounding the Michigan primary; specifically when it will actually take place and if it will even be a primary.

We’re speculating here but the Cruz and Paul campaigns might want a caucus. Caucuses typically work in favor of the more conservative candidates as their supporters are more likely to get out and spend a day working a caucus. The primary, on the other hand, is seen as a better bet for a more mainstream player, a Bush or even a Snyder. That’s because all voters are eligible to participate. (That’s also led to some shenanigans -- remember 2000 when a bunch of Democrats crossed over to meddle in the GOP presidential primary. John McCain’s Michigan primary win was considered a black eye for both George W. Bush and then-Governor Engler.)

This timing question is all about relevance - where to put Michigan on the calendar so it can have the most impact on who the nominee is. The conventional wisdom is, earlier is better. That’s why Iowa and New Hampshire fiercely protect their first-in-the-nation status.

So, Michigan Republicans need to figure out just what they’re going to do and some of that rests on the state Legislature, a bit of business left over from this past lame duck session. (State party leaders would like it done -- legislative leaders, though, appear to be in no hurry.)

Right now, Michigan’s February primary date is out of compliance with Republican National Committee rules. It’s too early (too close to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina and scheduled ahead of Florida). Michigan could see sanctions like having a number of its convention votes striped if the date isn’t changed.

However, a loss of convention votes is not such a bad thing if you’re one of the candidates who doesn’t expect to do well in Michigan.

But, if you see Michigan as a possible pick-up, or your first loyalty is to Michigan and the Midwest, there is another option being discussed: a regional Midwestern “super-primary.”

Being dubbed “The Big 10” primary, it could include eight, ten, maybe even 12 states like Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois. It’d most likely be scheduled for March 15th of 2016.

“The Big 10” primary would complement and compete with a still-unformed southern states primary being called the “SEC primary.” The SEC primary would winnow the field on March 1st and then, two weeks later, the Big 10 primary would be the second half of a double whammy that wraps up the nomination.

We should, of course, point out that we are far ahead of current events here because Republicans in Lansing haven’t come to a consensus on a date or whether it should be a winner-takes-all -delegates election, or apportioned.

The Republican Party however, does not have sit around and wait for the legislature. It could be like Michigan Democrats, and set a delegate selection process that isn’t determined by a state law.

That would mean holding a caucus or a convention, but that is a nightmare scenario for the Republican establishment. That arrangement would attract the same cast of players who run as delegates to state party conventions. And recent Michigan GOP conventions have turned into fractious, unpredictable affairs.

Few if anyone seem to think that later is better, but if Michigan were to take a chance, go much later in the process (there’s a regular May election date) and place a bet that the nominating process will drag on? That could make Michigan a king-maker.

After all, these primary machinations -- they’re guesswork. That’s because success in politics relies on predicting human behavior, which, of course, can be very unpredictable.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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