Commentary: Delaware deserves better timing in election cycle

By Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

As we survey Super Tuesday results, a question comes to mind: Why is everyone else having all the fun? During the last two presidential election cycles, Delaware’s primary was in late April. That is repeated in 2020 with the primary on April 28. A way to increase turnout and make the First State live up to its name would be for Delaware party officials to consider some alternatives. 

 Delaware changed its contest format from caucus to primary in 1996, and the state has seen limited success since in making itself relevant in the presidential nomination sequence.  After Delaware moved its primary to within seven days of New Hampshire in 1996, the state threatened candidates who visited Delaware with reprisal and only GOP contender Steve Forbes came here.

When Delaware repeated the procedure in 2000, it was forced to hold dual non-binding primary and caucus events. Although the 2004 presidential nomination witnessed the earliest primary date in Delaware history on February 3, it was a one-party contest. 

Probably the most successful presidential primary election in Delaware occurred in 2008, an open-seat race for chief executive. The primary election date was earlier, Feb. 5, and it was an unusually large turnout for both parties. Delaware dates have been progressing backward since: April 27 in 2012, and April 26 in 2016. This year, Delaware will shares its primary day with five other states and the fewest delegates available. Why would any serious candidate give Delaware any mind under this format?

There are alternative schedule formats available to highlight Delaware’s importance to presidential contenders. The 2020 election date appears to have some element of regional focus as we share the date with Connecticut, New York, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania, yet there is no excuse for burying these contests in a period when over 70 percent of delegates needed for the presidential nomination will have already been committed. Another format would integrate Delaware into a small-to-big-state sequence, thereby front-loading media and candidate interest. Finally, odds are that Delaware would fare better even if subjected to a blind draw for its primary date.

In this century, Delaware has lost its traditional party balance and presidential bellwether status. Moreover, those citizens who identify themselves as political Independents are growing at a faster rate than new major party registrants. This points to the need for new ways to engender excitement and participation. At the presidential level, that starts with state party officials making a diamond out of coal. After the fiasco in Iowa, the 2024 nomination sequence seems fluid, so it’s never too early to start lobbying for Delaware’s ascendancy.

 Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor for the Delaware Society of the Cincinnati and Professor Emeritus of History and Political Science at Delaware State University, and anine-time candidate for U.S. president.