Could New Hampshire's Parties Ignore Bill Gardner?

(With reporting from Mike Memoli, a National Journal / NBC News campaign reporter stationed in New Hampshire)

New Hampshire’s Republican and Democratic parties might hold alternative delegate contests if Secretary of State Bill Gardner schedules the primary for December.

Ray Buckley, the New Hampshire Democratic Chairman, has floated the idea, sources said.

Only primaries and caucuses sanctioned by the two national parties allocate delegates, and both national parties could easily allow separate contests in January. Many influential Republicans and Democrats staunchly oppose a December date, believing that it would completely dilute the state's ability to influence the delegate selection process. And Kathy Sullivan, the former state party chair and current co-chair of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the state, has pointed out that because party rules require New Hampshire Democrats to choose their delegates at a caucus before the primary, an early December primary wouldn't provide state Democrats enough time to give due notice to potential delegates. The December contest would automatically become a meaningless test of support -- no delegates could be allocated because none were previously chosen, Sullivan said.

Holding a separate primary would be too cost-prohibitive. But a caucus – which involves many fewer polling sites and would be controlled entirely by the party – is feasible, requiring the party to pull its current delegate selection plan, which presumes a January primary, and replace it with a plan to select delegates by caucus.

Under this scenario, Gardner’s December primary would not count toward the nomination, awarding no delegates, and candidates would be tempted to downplay its significance.

Fergus Cullen, the state Republican chairman, said that if Gardner were to choose a December there, there would be "plenty of time subsequent to that to have alternate delegate selection arrangements.”

“But,” he said, “we're making no alternative plans at this time."

NH Dems press secretary Pia Carusone said: "There's certainly no official strategy that's being discussed or implemented. ... Bill Gardner sets the date, and until then we go on and do other work. ... We can't say or do anything with clarity until the schedule [is set]."

Gardner has said that Michigan’s primary, scheduled for January 15, would prevent him from scheduling the New Hampshire primary any later than January 8, a duration that is required by state law. Gardner also endorses a separation between Iowa and New Hampshire, which would, in theory, give New Hampshire voters time to consider the candidates without being too heavily influenced by the winner of the Iowa caucuses.

If Iowa Democrats decide to hold their caucus on Jan. 5, Gardner has said he believes that the candidates would have little time to campaign in New Hampshire – just 48 hours. His allies have hinted that a Jan. 3 date would be amenable – and not coincidentally, Republicans in Iowa will caucus then, too. But Gardner also worries that Michigan will move even earlier.