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Primary Tinkering in Cleveland Could Be Too Clever by Half

The G.O.P. is likely to alter the rules for the 2020 race. They’re not likely to have 20/20 insight.

July 19, 2016

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

CLEVELAND—Lost amid Melania Trump’s plagiarism and the last gasp of the never-Trump forces, the Republicans on Monday afternoon agreed to a post-election commission on the 2020 GOP nomination process. The commission was only a small part of the rules package gaveled through on a contentious voice vote. But it committed the Republicans to continuing one of the most enduring traditions of modern politics — revamping the nomination rules four years too late.

The modern primary system was created amid the tear-gas fumes of the 1968 Democratic convention. As a sop to antiwar delegates, the Democrats agreed to a reform commission to rewrite the rules for selecting convention delegates. The resulting commission, co-chaired by George McGovern, killed the tradition of backroom caucuses and ultimately led to the current primary system.

McGovern, of course, later became the 1972 nominee, in part, because of his mastery of the new rules. Ever since then, candidates and party officials have tried to tweak the rules and the primary calendar for future advantage. And, for the most part, these thumb-on-the-scale maneuvers have backfired.

The clustering of Southern primaries to create the original Super Tuesday was supposed to buttress moderate Democrats. Instead, the party nominated two northern liberals, Walter Mondale (1984) and Michael Dukakis (1988). In 2008, Democrats in Michigan and Florida illegally moved up their primaries partly in an effort to help Hillary Clinton. The result: The Democrats ultimately stripped half the delegates from these two outlaw states — and the difference was roughly equal to Barack Obama’s margin over Clinton.  

Then there is the enduring cleverness of the Republican National Committee under Chairman Reince Priebus. Troubled that Mitt Romney had to wait until mid-April to wrap up the 2012 nomination, the RNC encouraged states in 2016 to hold winner-take-all primaries starting March 15. Priebus got his desired rush to judgment all right—the anointing of Donald Trump, the most divisive presidential nominee in modern history.

The Republican vote to establish a 2020 commission (filled with 20/20 hindsight) was designed to preclude more far-reaching changes in how the Republicans pick convention delegates. Conservative activists — many of them loyal to Ted Cruz—had wanted the GOP to offer bonus delegates in 2020 to states that hold Republican-only primaries.

With Cruz already plotting a second presidential run in the wake of a likely Trump defeat, his supporters believe that increasing the number of Republican-only primaries would boost his chances. (In 2016, just 14 primaries were GOP-only). The Cruz crusaders calculate that true conservatives would make up a greater share of Republican primary voters if independents were not allowed to participate.

They argue — and the evidence for their case is shaky — that Trump was only nominated because independents and nominal Democrats crashed the Republican primaries to vote for the bilious billionaire. But exit polls in the first open primary (New Hampshire) found that Trump received a similar share of the vote from Republicans and independents. Utah, where Trump finished an embarrassing third behind both Cruz and John Kasich, was a GOP-only primary. And in the April 5 Wisconsin primary — the high point of the anti-Trump forces — Ted Cruz ran even among independent voters.  

The real problem with the Cruz calculus is not history but arrogance. Political operatives in both parties (for this is not just a Republican failing) are bloated with the belief that they can foresee the political contours of the next election. With their superior insights, the four years between presidential contests are the mere blink of an eye.

Remember that the political insiders — along with the campaign press corps that echoes their theories — blithely predicted that Hillary Clinton would romp home in both the 2008 and 2016 primaries. And in the spring of 2015, you couldn’t turn on a television set or have lunch in Washington without hearing someone confidently stating that the only Republicans with a chance of winning the 2016 presidential nomination were Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Scott Walker.

All of this futile scheming might be mildly amusing if it didn’t have real-world consequences. Every change in the primary system alters the importance of someone’s vote. Republican-only primaries, for example, disenfranchise GOP-leaning independents. Clustering primaries on the same day to create a rush to judgment means that fewer voters will get a chance to see a candidate in the flesh or even deliberate over their choice.

The history of American politics over the last half-century has been a monument to the Law of Unintended Consequences. And, alas, the GOP is likely to continue this march of folly when it convenes its commission on the 2020 election rules. 

(Photo: Thinkstock)

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist for Roll Call who is covering his tenth presidential campaign. He has also worked for two newspapers (USA Today and The Washington Post), two news weeklies (Time and Newsweek), two monthlies (Esquire and The Washington Monthly), and two online magazines (Salon and Slate). He has also been a columnist for Yahoo! News. He is the author of “One-Car Caravan: On the Road with the 2004 Democrats Before America Tunes In,” a chronicle of the early skirmishing for the presidential nomination, published by PublicAffairs in 2003. Shapiro teaches a political science seminar on the news media and the 2012 campaign at Yale. And he is working on a book about his con-man great uncle who cheated Hitler. He can be reached at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.