Politics & Policy

Fixing the Primaries

Change is a long shot.

The same bipartisan complaints arise every four years: Our current primary process is a poor way to choose presidential nominees. It gives undue weight to some states, and not enough importance to others. It is too expensive, consuming resources needlessly and benefiting only campaign consultants. It produces nominees who are badly damaged from bloody internecine contests. It produces nominees who are chosen based on petty, parochial considerations in blessed early states (ethanol, Yucca Mountain, etc.) rather than serious deliberation on issues or character.

In 2008, the presidential primary sequence also produced an enormous national race to the bottom of the calendar. State parties scrambled for the earliest dates possible, some willing even to sacrifice convention delegates in order to have their say before anyone else. As other states honed in on their territory, the traditional early states of New Hampshire and Iowa threatened to hold votes in December.

The process of choosing presidential nominees has evolved naturally into something hideous, like a neglected garden overgrown with weeds and flowering plants gone to seed. Nearly everyone agrees that the current system has gotten out of hand.

“It’s about time we had a primary process that looks like it was designed on purpose,” Ron Nehring, chairman of the California GOP, puts it. Alas, there is very little agreement as to what a new system should look like. And the process for changing the system could not have been better designed to stymie reform attempts.

It is bad enough that public complaints about the primaries are all but forgotten as soon as the nominees are chosen and the parties begin to focus on the November contest. But consider also that bipartisan cooperation is necessary for systemic changes, since in most states the parties hold their nominating contests on the same day.

Such cooperation is much more difficult than one might expect, for reasons that have nothing to do with partisanship. A party running an incumbent candidate is unlikely to worry itself about tinkering with the primary system. Moreover, coordination between the parties is limited by their rules. Republicans are required to make any changes to their 2012 process before the 2008 convention — but they cannot make changes afterward. Democrats, on the other hand, are forbidden from making changes until after the 2008 election. Democrats cannot exactly interfere with the Republicans’ process, but the Republicans cannot afford to ignore their concerns either, or else they risk having all of their changes rendered moot when the Democrats simply fail to reciprocate.

Reform must begin, then, with the GOP. But the party’s rules present serious further complications, as state parties look after their own interests. All changes to the process must pass four hurdles — the RNC rules committee, the full Republican National Committee, the convention rules committee, and finally the full Republican convention. In each of the first three bodies, small states are able to dominate the process, because each state is given an equal number of votes. It is only at the convention itself that states finally exercise power proportional to their size.

This system all but guarantees that plans favoring small states will be brought to convention. It also makes it very likely that those plans will lose on the convention floor due to objections from the larger states. Although amendments are possible at each step, it is unlikely that Republicans want to spend too much time on the floor of their nominating convention bickering about who goes first in 2012. Yet if they fail to act, the Democrats will be very limited in what they can do.

In April, the RNC rules committee adopted a reform plan that skews toward smaller states, known as “The Ohio Plan” because it was originally proposed by that state’s GOP Chairman, Robert Bennett. George Norcross, New Jersey’s Republican National Committeeman, presented this plan along with Bennett and James Roosevelt of the Democratic National Committee on Friday at the National Conference of State Legislatures convention in New Orleans.

“As we went through the years, the system would keep changing, with more and more states going early, and the early states going earlier still,” Norcross told me last week, before his presentation. “A lot of people are thinking we are going to end up with a national primary. And most of the people from both parties don’t like that idea. It would amount to having two election days, one in the spring and then a runoff in the fall. That virtually eliminates hand-to-hand politics. It becomes all television- and Internet- and money-driven.” Norcross and Roosevelt have been conferring in hopes that Democrats will approve of the changes the Republicans make this summer.

But Republican-party chairmen from larger states, even as they agree with Norcross on the basic notion of changing the system, are panning this plan because it allows 15 small states (with five electoral votes or fewer) and five U.S. territories to vote first every time after the first contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina are finished.

“It unfairly benefits the small states,” said Saul Anuzis, chairman of the Michigan GOP. “We put together 17 states that expressed their opposition to it after it passed the committee.”

Nehring was also opposed. “I’m not going back to Governor [Arnold] Schwarzenegger to tell him that we agreed to something that’s going to put California at a permanent disadvantage in this process,” he said. Connecticut GOP Chairman Chris Healy, whose state is small but not small enough to go early under the Ohio Plan, expressed similar sentiments.

The Ohio plan dictates that after the small states vote, three groups or “pods” of larger states, roughly equal in aggregate electoral vote strength, would have the chance to vote, one group after another. The three groups would rotate in each election between permissible early vote dates in the first week of March, the fourth week of March, and the third week of April. Most Republicans like this aspect of the plan.

“The beauty of the Ohio plan is the rotation,” said Anuzis. He said that opponents of the Ohio plan would propose two substitutes at the next RNC rules committee meeting. One is the so-called “Texas Plan,” which contains similar rotations but does not include early votes for small states. The other is a plan that simply keeps the status quo, but prevents any of the contests from beginning until March 2012. The RNC Rules Committee meets again this week, and will put its final plan before the RNC immediately.

Even if Republicans finally agree on a reform plan, there are limits to how broad the changes will be. None of the plans currently under serious consideration would limit what some see as the outsized role of Iowa and New Hampshire. Connecticut’s Healy suggests that more states should use conventions and party committees instead of elections to choose delegates. “We should give party leaders more of a say,” he said. “It also allows us to husband our resources a bit better, because we’re in this endless cycle of fundraising where all we’re doing is competing against one another. There isn’t even any time to govern after you win an election, because you have to start raising money.”

Republicans are obviously not united on this issue. And even the collaboration between Norcross and Roosevelt does not guarantee that Democrats from the various states will be united in following the Republicans’ lead. It is a reminder that American politics has many intractable problems that go beyond excessive partisanship.

– David Freddoso is an NRO staff reporter.

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