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Two Cheers For Republican 2016 Reforms

Two years before the 2016 Iowa caucuses we live in a politically besotted culture where every premature poll and minor news nugget about the far-away presidential race is devoured like Justin Bieber get-out-of-jail videos.

February 3, 2014

Two years before the 2016 Iowa caucuses we live in a politically besotted culture where every premature poll and minor news nugget about the far-away presidential race is devoured like Justin Bieber get-out-of-jail videos.

Time, in a cover line that the magazine is certain to repeat with minor wording changes in 2015 and 2016, dramatically asked, “Can Anyone Stop Hillary?” And until Chris Christie proved the maxim that “It’s not the crime, it’s the lane closures,” the New Jersey governor had been anointed by the frenzied media as the early favorite for the 2016 GOP nominee without a vote being cast.

That is why it remains baffling how little attention has been devoted to efforts to rationalize the 2016 primary and caucus schedule. The Republican National Committee recently approved by an overwhelming vote a series of mostly positive adjustments to the 2016 political calendar – and the Democrats are likely to go along with most of them.

I will get to the specifics of the scheduling changes in a moment, but first (drum roll, maestro) a little background.

The primary calendar matters for reasons that transcend horse-race politics. At stake is one of the most important, if little appreciated, aspects of voting rights. And that is the right to cast a meaningful ballot for a presidential nominee of your own party.

The legend surrounding John Kennedy’s dramatic 1960 victories in the Wisconsin and West Virginia primaries obscures the reality that a half-century ago most convention delegates were picked by party bosses. Elaine Kamarck points out in her invaluable 2009 book, Primary Politics, that one quarter of the delegates at the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago had been selected in 1967. For all the anti-Vietnam War passions of Democratic activists, the 1968 Convention had always been a rigged game virtually certain to nominate Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

But out of the tear-gassed Chicago Convention came the reforms of the 1969 McGovern-Fraser Commission that transformed presidential politics in both parties. Primaries became the gold standard for fairness – and, by 1980, 37 states were selecting their convention delegates through open balloting. As Kamarck puts it, “The cumulative effect of the McGovern-Fraser reforms was to transform the modern nominating system into a system where mass persuasion replaced elite persuasion.”

Yet the enduring triumph of mass persuasion left unanswered the knotty question: What is the fairest way to select presidential nominees in primaries?

Holding a national primary on the same day boasts a seductive appeal since all voters would have an equal voice. But such surface fairness would come with a hefty price tag. A national primary would guarantee that money would shout even louder than metallic rock played at top volume in an elevator. Under that theoretical system, there would be no way to successfully run for president without raising hundreds of millions of dollars before the formal campaign even began.

All this brings us to the virtues of the current little-states-first approach. For four decades both parties have nurtured a system that gives under-funded outsiders and White House dreamers a long-shot chance to mount a credible race. The Iowa caucuses in 1976 put a little-known former governor named Jimmy Carter on the political map and the 2000 New Hampshire primary allowed John McCain to temporarily dent George W. Bush’s aura of inevitability. In 2012, despite Mitt Romney’s overwhelming financial advantages, Rick Santorum (upset winner of the Iowa caucuses) and Newt Gingrich (surprise victor in the South Carolina primary) came close to preventing a GOP coronation.

As a reporter who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns, I will confess that I get as sentimental as a Frank Capra movie watching presidential candidates answer detailed voter questions in high school gyms in Iowa and New Hampshire living rooms. This is (pass a handkerchief please) what democracy should be all about.

I am particularly partial to the New Hampshire primary since turnout every four years is amazingly close to general election levels. This is a state that takes seriously its self-anointed role as the citizen monitors of presidential politics. The first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses have always been more questionable – since anyone is disenfranchised who cannot vote in person on a cold winter’s night. In 2012, only about one-sixth of Iowa voters who backed Romney in November participated in the January caucuses.

Still, taken together, the four states now at the beginning of the pageant of democracy represent a reasonable cross-section of America. We go from the Midwest (Iowa) to New England (New Hampshire) to the South (South Carolina) and finally to the West (Nevada, which is also a caucus). These are all small states that reward personal campaigning and do not demand outlandish budgets for television.

Now back to the plan that the Republican Party approved late last month:

The GOP agreed to make these four opening-bell states the only delegate contests held during the entire month of February 2016. To prevent larger states from jumping the queue as Florida and Michigan did in 2008, the GOP set new draconian penalties, primarily cutting an outlaw state’s convention delegates to as few as nine. If both parties can hold the line (no guarantee), we can finally eliminate the ludicrous fast-forward calendar that has led in campaign years to the political world spending New Year’s Eve in Des Moines.

After the four initial states winnow the presidential field, the most important aspect for voters is to cast a primary ballot with deliberation. Ever since a group of Southern states in 1984 clustered their primaries to create an early March Super Tuesday, there has been a built-in danger of a headlong rush to judgment. There has to be reasonable spacing among the major state primaries or else voters will over-react to the latest blips in media coverage.

This is where the new Republican plan falls short. To limit clustering, the GOP will ban winner-take-all primaries until the second half of March. Many states will feel that their influence at the convention will be muted if their primary votes are split among several candidates. So there will probably be only a few delegate contests in the first half of March.  (The Democrats choose all delegates through proportional representation).

But starting Tuesday, March 15, all bets are off, since the Republicans then want to choose a nominee as soon as possible. What we are likely to have is another round of Super Tuesday primaries as exhausted candidates hurtle from airport to airport as the American electorate becomes reduced to flyover voters. The Democrats will have a variant of the same schedule since most states will not fund separate primaries on different dates for each party.  

Challenging the recent trend of conventions being held as late as Labor Day weekend, the Republicans also committed themselves to holding the 2016 GOP Convention between June 27 and July 18. While this lessens the odds of losing a day to hurricane fears (as in Tampa in 2012) or having delegates felled by heat stroke, the primary motivation is financial rather than meteorological.

An early July convention means that the GOP nominee can tap into funds raised for the general election nearly two months earlier than Romney could in 2012. A rapid end to the presidential contest also means that conservative Super PACs can focus all their energies on the Democratic nominee rather than replaying the Sheldon Adelson-style internecine warfare of 2012.

In case you never noticed, selecting a presidential nominee is not an entirely rational enterprise. Which is why every quadrennial attempt to synchronize the primary calendar produces its own set of unintended consequences. My favorite example: A major reason why Barack Obama carried such traditionally Republican states as Indiana and North Carolina in 2008 was that his protracted battle with Hillary Clinton turned into a party-building exercise in states like these with May primaries.

But the Republican plan—which is likely to shape the contours of the 2016 presidential nomination fight – has more virtues than problems. And if most state legislatures can resist the urge to cluster their primaries in late March, it might offer voters a (shocking revelation ahead) sensible way to choose a presidential nominee.

(Photo: Flickr)

You can reach Walter Shapiro by email:

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