Friday, July 9, 2010

GOP Tweeks (Maybe) the Schedule

There's news on both sides about the 2012 nomination process today.  Go to FHQ for info on the Democrats.  The more intriguing idea this week, however, comes from the GOP, which is thinking of a significant schedule change: in the first month of the window, which the RNC hopes will be March (after the four early states that include IA, NH, NV, and SC), delegates would have to be selected by proportional representation; only after that month could states opt for winner-takes-all. 

There are a bunch of things to say about this idea.  First of all, if the goal is to give a meaningful incentive for states to stagger their caucus and primary dates, I think this is a winner. The parties have tried extra delegates as an incentive before, but a handful of extra delegates is pretty meaningless in a front-loaded system, since it wouldn't prevent the nomination from being decided in the early states.  However, the difference between p.r. and winner-take all is a big deal, and might well convince some states to hang back.

Second, is it a good idea to un-frontload the process?  I think so, to some extent.  I talked earlier today about what the voters do in the current system: they ratify the choices of party leaders; they break ties when party leaders cannot agree; and they give party leaders a chance to test new candidates by exposing them to real electorates (and the campaigning that goes with appealing to mass electorates) -- and for each case, read "party leaders" broadly to include such people as activists, elected officials, donor, and interest group leaders.  I think a well-ordered process of primaries and caucuses would serve those purposes well.  The biggest danger to a well-ordered process, in my view, is a national primary, and excessive frontloading could easily yield a de facto national primary.  So I like spreading things out a bit.

Third, I'll believe it when I see it.  The Hotline calls this an RNC plan, but Republicans have always been reluctant to impose too many rules on the state parties.  And even if they do manage to pass the plan, it's still not clear how states would respond.  Remember, actually setting the dates of caucuses and especially primaries is usually the job of the state legislatures, not the state formal party organizations.  We'll have to see how everyone reacts.

I'll add that there's a bit of a transition danger involved in dramatic changes, which might include this plan.  Party leaders are able to influence things in part because everyone knows and is comfortable with the rules of the game; it's hard for a candidate to work around insiders by exploiting creative strategies.  That wasn't always true, however; in 1972, 1976, and perhaps 1980, party leaders didn't learn the process as quickly as candidates, and so candidates were able to mobilize small factions to win instead of building party coalitions.  I don't know that this change would be enough to cause that problem again, but its something for the Republicans to think about.  That said, I'm not sure I agree with Doug Mataconis:
The other impact of these changes could be that it would bring an end to the GOP’s historical habit of nominating the heir apparent in every Presidential election cycle. Going as far back as Nixon in 1960, when the role of primaries was far less substantial than it is today, the GOP nominee has typically gone to the person “next in line.” Under these rules, that would be far less likely simply because it would be harder for the candidate with establishment backing, and money, to overwhelm their opponents in the early primaries.
My response to that is that the GOP nominates these candidates not because the system of primaries and caucuses happens to be biased, but because party leaders have learned to control the system.  And I don't see anything inherently more difficult, in the long run, about a more spread-out or even a backloaded system.  More likely, even if the incentives involved here do push some of the big states away from frontloading, the nomination will be essentially decided well before the winner-take-all states have a chance to act.  Candidates who fail to win primaries are still going to have a lot of difficulty finding the resources to continue in the race, even if there are technically still plenty of delegates available -- after all, there were plenty of delegates available in winner-take-all primaries in previous contests that were decided early.

On balance, I do think this is a good idea, and I hope that it does get implemented.

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