In primaries, Conn. savors new relevance

Connecticut’s delegations to the presidential nominating conventions — totaling a modest 60 delegates for the Democrats and 30 for the Republicans — lack the girth of California’s and the glitz of New Hampshire’s. But in this year’s wide-open presidential races, those delegates may matter more than ever.

In June 2007, the Connecticut state legislature passed a bill rescheduling the state’s presidential primary election to Feb. 5 — known as Super Tuesday because of the 24 states that will hold their primaries that day. The decision was largely motivated by state officials’ concerns that a clear front-runner from each party would emerge immediately after the Super Tuesday elections, rendering any later primaries irrelevant and depressing voter turnout in states with post-Super Tuesday elections.

But neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have yet anointed a candidate, leaving many politicians and political strategists wondering whether Super Tuesday will be as decisive as previously assumed.

“The big concern was that there were so many states already moved up to Feb. 5, we’d wake up in March and the nominees would be picked already,” said State Senator Gayle Slossberg, who serves as chair of the Senate’s General Administration and Elections Committee and helped spearhead the legislation. “Of course, we’ve never had a situation like this, where it’s a completely open election on both sides of the aisle.”

Despite Connecticut’s new-found relevance in the nominating contest, none of half-dozen state political leaders interviewed for this story knew of any major candidate’s plans to visit the Constitution State before the primary.

State Senator Donald Williams said political party rules prohibited Connecticut from holding its primary earlier than Feb. 5, limiting rescheduling options.

“Either join Super Tuesday, or go after Super Tuesday, when it was widely thought the results would be irrelevant,” Williams said.

Michigan violated party rules by holding its primary on Jan. 15, which prompted the Democratic National Committee to disfranchise the state’s delegates to this summer’s convention.

Secretary of State Susan Bysiewicz said she hoped an earlier primary election would increase voter participation. She said she hopes voter turnout will surpass the 43-percent benchmark set by the highly publicized 2006 senatorial primary election, noteworthy for the showdown between Democratic candidates Ned Lamont SOM ’80 and Joe Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67.

By contrast, voter participation in the presidential primary in March 2004, which occurred after Super Tuesday, was less than 20 percent, Bysiewicz said.

“It was already a foregone conclusion that Kerry would be the nominee,” she said.

But no such conclusion can be assumed in this year’s election: No candidate, either Democrat or Republican, has emerged as the likely winner of his or her party’s nomination.

“The interesting thing is that we haven’t, through the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary, knighted anybody yet as the heir apparent like we did with John Kerry, for example, in 2004,” State Senator Bob Duff said.

Politicians and political strategists interviewed wondered whether even the 24 Super Tuesday primaries would necessarily determine the winner.

“It may be so close between Obama and Hillary, the nomination might not be settled after Super Tuesday,” Williams said. “We might have an ironic outcome: If Connecticut’s primary had been a week or two later, there might have been even more attention paid to Connecticut.”

Ray Occhiogrosso, a top Democratic strategist in the state, said Connecticut may have garnered more national attention by holding its primary after Super Tuesday, as is customary, especially if Super Tuesday fails to determine the two party nominees.

“There might be more attention if the primary was held almost on a day by itself, but it may well be all but over on Feb. 5,” Occhiogrosso said. “[If it’s still competitive after Feb. 5] you sure would have liked to see the primary later on in February.”

But Occhiogrosso said trying to pick the perfect date ahead of time is like “trying to thread a needle.”

Bysiewicz said she thinks two clear front-runners will emerge after Super Tuesday.

“I have a feeling on Feb. 6, we’re going to know exactly who the nominees are on both sides of the aisle,” she said. “It could well be the case that it will be so hard-fought that we won’t know, but I’ll bet by then we will.”

Slossberg said candidates often value Connecticut primarily for its fundraising potential rather than as an opportunity to meet and interact with voters — a reality that led legislators to reschedule the primary.

“For many years, we had seen major presidential candidates bypass Connecticut but for short, quick stops to collect money,” Slossberg said. “Connecticut looked like a big ATM to presidential candidates.”

But so far in this election, Connecticut remains uncharted territory to many presidential candidates. Heath Fahle, executive director of the Connecticut Republican Party, said while some prominent Republican candidates, including former senator Fred Thompson, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, have visited the state in the past twelve months — often for fundraising purposes — he does not anticipate any of the Republican candidates’ visiting the state between now and Feb. 5.

“There are some bigger fish in the sea,” Fahle said. “A place like California has far more delegates than we’ve got.”

Nancy DiNardo, chairwoman of the Connecticut Democratic Party, said she is unaware of any Democratic candidates’ plans to visit the state, although she has heard rumors that Senators Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 and Barack Obama may make it to the Nutmeg State.

Daniel Hopkins, a post-doctoral fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics, said the structure of the primary schedule limits candidates’ ability to visit all the states holding Super Tuesday elections.

“There’s going to be very little time for candidates to turn from state-by-state [primaries] to a national primary,” he said.

To vote in the primaries, Connecticut voters must register with a party by noon on Feb. 4.

-Aaron Bray contributed reporting.

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