The Republican National Committee, falling back on its default option of centralizing power while trampling over grassroots activists, may have made a terrible mistake last week in condensing its presidential-nominating process, with a plan to schedule the convention for no later than July 18, rather than late August, as in 2012.
Front-running candidates with early access to big money will benefit, as will the entrenched consultants who bleed the party dry. Initial might, rather than staying power, will determine the victor, and the party could get stuck with a candidate whose flaws become manifest only after it’s too late for voters to wrest the nomination from his grasp.
In pushing the changes, RNC chairman Reince Priebus is making the mistake of re-litigating the last election, rather than learning from a broader sweep of electoral history. And that’s giving Priebus the benefit of the doubt for his motives. (A less charitable take would be that Priebus and the RNC insiders value their control of the party more than they prize the voters’ will.)
The new rules punish states (other than Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada) for holding nominating contests before March 1, 2016. In itself, that’s not a bad idea, because it gives voters time to leave the holidays (and the worst of winter) behind and get started on a new year before they must decide who will carry their banner in November.
But everything else in the new rules works in favor of wrapping up the process quickly, rather than letting it play out over time. Indeed, the Priebus plan would require all states to choose their convention representatives at least 45 days before the convention – in other words, by mid to late May. Several states require delegates to be chosen after this date.
Conservatives worried about these changes can point to history. If these rules had been in effect in 1976, for instance, Ronald Reagan’s challenge to sitting president Gerald Ford — and perhaps his presidential career — would have died aborning, and the Republican party itself might never have achieved its greatest triumphs. In that bicentennial year, Reagan lost Iowa to Ford on January 19. It was a whole month afterwards before they battled again, in New Hampshire — where Ford eked out a narrow victory. In slow motion Reagan then lost Massachusetts, Vermont, Florida, and Illinois. If more primaries had been condensed into a short time frame, as the new rules promote, Reagan would have been toast.
Instead, the Reagan campaign, drawing on grassroots activists nationwide, had time to regroup before too many states had already decided. When he won North Carolina on March 23 of that year, and then followed two more losses with a series of four big wins in early May, he resurrected his career, carried the nomination fight all the way to a thrilling convention, and set himself up for his successful presidential run four years later. The example of 1976 also undermines the view that hard-fought and drawn-out primaries risk fatally undermining the eventual nominee. The claim that Reagan’s prolonged battle hurt Ford’s fall campaign is nonsense: Ford roared back from a 32-point deficit that owed more to Watergate and a weak economy than to Reagan’s challenge, and he almost certainly would have won the White House had he not bizarrely said in a debate that Eastern Europe wasn’t under Soviet domination.
By contrast, consider the contest of 1996: Its extremely front-loaded design scared off potential candidates such as Michigan’s conservative governor John Engler and the then-conservative Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson. At the same time, the front-loading made it much more difficult for Texas senator Phil Gramm or the moderate but strong-campaigning former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander to regroup after early failures. Instead, a determined but unexciting Bob Dole nailed down the nomination on the strength of early name ID, only to be trounced by President Clinton in the fall.
A process that takes a little longer, on the other hand, is a process that lets a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses emerge over time. It also allows activists and voters in more states to have their day in the sun rather than being lost in the shuffle. Virginia National Committeeman Morton Blackwell, a party-rules expert for more than 40 years and a legendary steward of the conservative movement, put it this way: “We need an adequate amount of time in order for presidential candidates to be tested.” The lesser-known candidates merit more time to make their case.
In an open letter to Preibus, Blackwell laid out further the risk of having too little time: “Front-loading increases the possibility that someone would win our nomination because of some short-term fluke.” In other words, somebody might nail down the nomination before being fully vetted, thus turning a flash in the pan into the party’s standard-bearer even though later developments could make him an almost sure loser in the fall.
In wrapping the nominee-selection process up early, Preibus and company apparently want to make sure the GOP pick has enough time to prepare for the fall campaign. But time gained for the Republicans is also time gained for the Democrats to attack. It’s a zero-sum game.
Recent history, meanwhile, shows that a long, hard-fought contest is hardly a death knell for the candidate in the fall campaign. In 2008, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton brawled well into the summer (while John McCain wrapped up the Republican contest relatively early). Their long and bruising battle didn’t harm Obama in the slightest in November.
Indeed, rarely has an early end to seriously contested primaries done much to help that party’s candidate. In 1988, George H. W. Bush effectively got the Republican nod long before Michael Dukakis secured the Democratic bid, but that didn’t stop Dukakis from building a 17-point lead over Bush (before Willie Horton, a bad tank photo, and an emotionless debate performance sank the Democrat). In 1992, Bill Clinton’s long and messy nomination battles with Paul Tsongas and Jerry Brown didn’t keep him from winning the presidency. In 2000, Al Gore coasted to the Democratic nomination while George W. Bush had his hands full with John McCain, but Bush won in the fall anyway.
In sum, there is no good evidence that condensing the process will help produce a victor in November. But there is every reason to believe that a rush to judgment will leave grassroots activists feeling as if they had no voice in the process, while perhaps producing a nominee who hasn’t proved his mettle.
There’s still time for the Republican National Committee to reverse the primary-process mistake it made last week. If it doesn’t do so, Hillary Clinton will surely be smiling.
— Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review.