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GOP Ought to Trash Caucuses in 2016

The blowback from the right against the Republican National Committee’s autopsy of the 2012 election has begun with a barrage of bitter attacks from supporters of Rand Paul and Rick Santorum. But no one should be under the assumption that the critique of the report—especially its blueprint for revising the 2016 presidential nominating process—has anything to do with better representing the grass roots of the party or enhancing its chances of winning the next election.

As I mentioned earlier today, the RNC’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” is a comprehensive attempt to assess the failings of the party and cited the article by our Pete Wehner and Michael Gerson on “How to Save the Republican Party” in the March issue of COMMENTARY. But it also recommends streamlining the nominating process and making it less likely that well organized minorities can hijack the delegate selection process in some states via undemocratic caucuses and state conventions rather than primaries. While some on the right are curiously uncomfortable with the notion of a methodical look at where the GOP fell short in 2012, some are particularly unhappy with any idea of shortening the process, reducing the number of debates or diminishing the number of states that pick their delegates in a manner that requires the fewest number of participants.

While keeping the system just the way it is makes sense if you are running a campaign that appeals primarily to a narrow ideological faction, it doesn’t make sense if the purpose of the whole exercise is to choose the Republican with the most broad-based support or the best chance of winning in November. That’s why the huffing and puffing about the RNC report, especially from the Paulbots, strikes a particularly disingenuous note.

As Politico reports, the reaction from the camp of Rand Paul to the report was predictably over the top, with one of his supporters saying it meant “nuclear war with the grassroots, social conservatives and Ron Paul movement.” But this is an empty threat.

Rand Paul looks to be a far more formidable candidate and may well be able to appeal to a wider cross-section of Republicans than his extremist libertarian father Ron. But rather than showing confidence that he can parlay his filibuster-fueled celebrity into mainstream appeal, Paul’s faction appears to be worried that any nominating process that doesn’t tilt the playing field in the direction of a candidate that appeals to the base rather than the center of the party hurts them. The same goes for Santorum and others who are unhappy about the prospect of fewer states that can be won by out-organizing opponents rather than winning the votes of the most Republicans.

The willingness of some states to go on picking delegates by a process that seems to be a function of 19th and early 20th century “smoke-filled room” politics is itself an anachronism. Primaries were first championed a century ago by Republicans like Theodore Roosevelt and others who sought to democratize the presidential selection process at the same time they were also seeking to end the practice of electing U.S. senators by the votes of legislatures rather than the citizens of each state.

Looking back at what happened in some of the caucus states last year, it’s easy to see why the Rough Rider and other Republicans thought this procedure should be relegated to the dustbin of history along with other practices, such as citizens having to announce their vote at the poll rather than having a secret ballot.

It’s not just that caucuses deter voter participation by their insular nature. It’s that the votes of even the people who are able to figure out how to get into each local caucus and then cast a ballot are not always respected. In several cases, those elected to participate in state conventions by caucus-goers wound up supporting candidates other than those to whom they were pledged or were even circumvented by maneuvers that allowed outliers like Ron Paul or even Santorum to win the convention delegates. That’s not only unfair but a turnoff to anyone inclined to vote in November.

The pushback against the RNC is all about the fear on the part of some in the base that a national party establishment will steal the GOP from them. Given the often-unwarranted critiques of the Tea Party heard by some party grandees and officeholders, that resentment is understandable. But changing the process to make it less of a circus in which the sideshows overshadow the serious candidates (as was often the case over the course of the numerous debates) or to maximize participation doesn’t preclude the nomination of a conservative.

Once upon a time, conservatives deplored state conventions and caucuses because they feared establishment types would use their better ground games to elect people like Gerald Ford over the more popular grass roots favorite Ronald Reagan. But now those who claim to have inherited the Reagan mantle want to skew the results to have the least representative candidate rather than one with a broad appeal.

That may serve the interests of a libertarian fringe that doesn’t have much confidence in their ability to seize control of the party even with a Rand Paul at their head, but it doesn’t make sense for the rest of the Republican Party. The RNC needs to ignore the critics and implement the report’s recommendations. While the new rules may allow Iowa to retain its traditional first-in-the-nation caucus, it is high time that unrepresentative state’s influence be cut back. Unless the goal of the 2016 GOP nominating process is to lose rather than to win the election, other caucus and state convention systems from the horse-and-buggy era of American politics ought to be trashed.