Other than Mike Huckabee’s libido gaffe and the discouraging vote condemning the National Security Agency’s intelligence collection, the big news from last week’s Republican National Committee meeting was its decision to shorten the presidential primary schedule, reduce the number of debates and hold their national convention in June rather than in August 2016. The new rules increase penalties on states that seek earlier primaries and caucuses, thus weakening the impact of the four early-voting states, and shortening the primary season to avoid the long and costly internecine bloodbath that so damaged Mitt Romney’s candidacy. The purpose of all the reform is to increase the chances of producing a viable nominee and strengthen the party’s ability to unite and deploy its financial resources in time to win the general election.
But while all these new rules make sense, Republicans should understand that no changes in its procedures can ensure that the GOP will pick an electable candidate in 2016. Though these measures address specific problems that the party encountered in 2012, there’s no guarantee that the new ones will do better or won’t, in fact, have the opposite effect. They could turn out to increase the chances that an outlier candidate rather than a mainstream favorite will sweep the compressed primaries and present the party with a nominee with little chance of beating Hillary Clinton, or whoever the Democrats choose.
The RNC is right to push back against the recent trend in which states wishing to gain the attention that is given to those that go first jumped the line and began the process back in January. A more rational schedule with Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada voting in February and then other states in March cuts down the already insufferably long primary season to more manageable proportions. The rules forcing the early-voting states to hand out their delegates proportionally but allowing later primaries to be winner-take-all should increase the influence of the March and April primaries and, at least in theory, produce a result that reflects the will of GOP voters in large states with mixed urban/rural populations rather than a contest that seemed to be more a product of the whims of Iowa farmers and inhabitants of small towns in New Hampshire.
But to assume that a different process will produce a different result is to make a leap of faith that isn’t justified by the circumstances.
It is true that the drawn-out schedule of debates, primaries and caucuses created a sort of “Queen for a Day” dynamic in which second-tier candidates took turns rising to the top of the heap, putting a good scare into a GOP establishment that spent the latter half of 2011 desperately trying to persuade some prominent non-candidates to jump into the race. Though Republicans wound up picking the most mainstream candidate in Mitt Romney, the process left him bloodied by his intra-party foes and his resources drained by the scrum.
But the length of the process also worked to his advantage. Though Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain (remember him?), Newt Gingrich, and then finally Rick Santorum all had their moments in the sun, the long slog actually benefited Romney since he had the money and the national appeal to weather his rivals momentary spurts of popularity.
A shortened schedule opens up the possibility that a less-electable candidate can appear at the right moment and then sweep the early states—where more conservative voters predominate—and then have the momentum as well as the mantel of inevitability to win the nomination.
But there’s a more important lesson to be drawn here. No process or schedule can ensure a Republican victory if the party nominates a candidate who can’t win. After all, even though Romney was the most electable Republican in 2012, he wasn’t elected, for reasons that had nothing to do with what happened in Iowa or the amount of money he raised. His defeat had everything to do with the party’s inability to turn out enough voters to stop the president. I would argue that no Republican could have beaten Barack Obama that year. But even if I’m wrong, the emphasis on process ignores more important problems relating to the types of candidates who run and the party’s inability to win the votes of groups such as women and Hispanics that abandoned them in droves in 2012.
No matter how the process works, the Herman Cains are not going to win presidential nominations. But the rules won’t stop a Ted Cruz or even a Rand Paul from gaining momentum at the right moment and sweeping through the late winter and early spring of 2016 to victory even though these two favorites of the GOP base have little hope of beating Hillary. If the deep GOP bench turns out for one reason or another to be not as deep as we now think, it won’t matter what rules the RNC designs or how few or how many debates they force us to endure. One can sympathize with the RNC’s hope that changing the rules will change the game, but it will take a change in the array of candidates, as well, to return the GOP to the White House.