Quin Hillyer’s “Republicans May Rue Reince’s Rules” takes a familiar path. Rules changes at the RNC are portrayed as “entrenched consultants,” “centralizing power,” and “trampling over grass-roots activists,” as they “bleed the party dry.” Hillyer condemns RNC chairman Reince Preibus for “re-litigating the last election”; rather, Hillyer wants to re-litigate elections beginning with 1976. When he finally gets down to it, Hillyer’s sole objection is moving the convention to before July 18, rather than late August, as in 2012, and having the delegate-selection process completed 45 days before the convention, rather than 35 days as under current rules.
Sometimes what Hillyer describes does happen, as when Romney lawyer Ben Ginsberg forced through the 2012 Convention Rules Committee a provision that would have allowed the candidate to select the delegates to the national convention in the states he carried. I opposed that change and successfully got it revoked at the Convention.
However, this is not one of those instances. In fact, the RNC Rules package passed by a vote of 153 to 9 with 95 percent of RNC conservatives in support and only a couple opposed. Moreover, the RNC rules package has many significant changes that Hillyer either ignores or finds “not a bad idea.” So let’s look at the sweep of history since 1976 and how the whole rules package makes needed changes.
Since the 1976 election, much has changed that has impacted the presidential-nominating process and that Hillyer ignores. Most importantly, 1976 was the first presidential election under the post-Watergate amendments to federal campaign-finance law. Pertinent to this discussion, there were two critical changes, contribution limits — for presidential candidates, $1,000 up to the nomination and $1,000 for the general election — and public funding for qualified candidates for both the primary season and November election. Until recently, all candidates took public funding, but the amount allocated has not kept up with inflation, population growth, and new technology. The result has been that political parties have moved their nominating conventions later and later, to shorten the time that their candidate would have to use the insufficient allocation of public funds for the general election.
Of course, not even a moderately serious presidential candidate would take public funds for the general election. In 2012, the candidate would have received about $91 million to spend over two months, while President Obama was raising and spending hundreds of millions for the general election alone.
Contribution limits also play a part. First, there are two pots of money — primary and general. A candidate cannot spend general-election money during the primary. So the later the nominating convention, the longer a presidential candidate relying on private funds must only use primary funds — in 2012, eight months from the Iowa caucus in early January to the nominating convention in late August. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that contribution limits have also not kept up with inflation since 1976 and the rise of super PACs. The result in 2012: Romney became the presumptive nominee on April 25th and was out spent by Obama and his allied super PACs three to one over the next four months, from which he never recovered.
So, yes, the rules package is intended to “compress” the nomination process to about three and a half months by modernizing it — on the front end, in the middle, and at the back end. Public funding is kaput, so the distortions caused by it need to be corrected at the back end. But let’s start at the front end with changes that Hillyer finds are “not a bad idea.”
Efforts have been made over the last few election cycles to prevent a national primary and to shorten the process by several measures — one by moving the start of the primary season back into February, with only Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina permitted to go that month. In 2012, Florida jumped ahead, pushing those four states into January. Florida was willing to suffer the loss of 50 percent of its delegates required under the prior rules. However, the new rules package would reduce Florida’s 99 delegates to nine, and they have already moved their primary back. Hillyer ignores this change.
Next, the rules prevent a national primary and extend the primary season in the middle by imposing proportional allocation of delegates in March, rather than winner-take-all. This prevents a group of states bunching up on March 1 and creating, in effect, a national primary. Unfortunately, the 2012 Convention Rules Committee diluted this by making March’s mandatory proportionality to permissive, and the new rules package makes it mandatory again through March 1. Hillyer ignored this change too.
Finally, the only actual change in the rules package at the back end of the process is the requirement that delegates be selected 45 days before the convention, rather than 35. This is a very modest change that, even if the convention is moved into late June or mid July, which is a future decision for the RNC to make, would affect only a few states, including California, New Jersey, and Utah. The last primaries are already in early June, so moving them to ten days earlier, in mid May, hardly seems worthy of Hillyer’s overheated rhetoric.
While the rules package does not itself move up the convention, that would be a good idea. This relic of public funding means that there is now a gap of almost three months between the last primary and the nominating convention. Since the primary season is already over, what purpose does this serve other than to give the Democrats the opportunity to attack our cash-exhausted nominee? It does not give voters the opportunity to “wrest the nomination” from a newly raveled flawed candidate — the primaries are already over.
So the effect of the rules package is a careful balance between allowing adequate time to vet candidates, allowing adequate time for candidates to emerge, and ensuring that our nominee has the best chance to win the general election. But additional important reforms are also in the works at the RNC. In addition to moving the convention forward from late August, there will be a serious effort to wrest control of the debates from the mainstream media. The spectacle of dozens of debates where candidates are vetted by liberal activists masquerading as media types must end.
The bottom line is that the job of the Republican National Committee is to elect a candidate, not just nominate one. This rules package and additional upcoming reforms will help do that.
— James Bopp Jr. is a campaign-finance lawyer and former chairman of the RNC Conservative Steering Committee.