It seemed like such a good idea at the time. The Republican primaries in 2012 would be their own version of Obama vs. Clinton, prompting excited conservatives to register to vote in droves, donate early and often to the candidates, and keep the attention solely focused on the GOP’s message instead of the White House’s bully pulpit. But only two years after deliberately retooling their primary rules to encourage a lengthier fight, Republican politicians are struggling to remember just what on earth they were thinking.
“You’re running against an incumbent president who will not have a primary, so your idea is make ours longer so we can beat each other up longer?” New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R) complained to FOX News last week, calling the new rules “the dumbest idea anyone ever had.”
Indiana governor Mitch Daniels (R), whom many in the party had wanted to run himself, is gobsmacked by the way the primary is playing out.
“I don’t know anybody who thinks if you started out to design a good process to pick a president you’d choose exactly what we have now,” he told reporters this weekend.
Maine governor Paul LePage (R) even suggested the candidates have already been so badly damaged by the fight, that the GOP may need to nominate someone new entirely.
So where did it all go wrong? Critics, most notably Christie, have fixated on new RNC rules encouraging proportional representation over winner-take-all allocations in primaries. But the proportionality requirements are so vague that they won’t likely make a huge impact on the delegate counts. The real culprit is the primary calendar.
The RNC’s plan when they designed the primaries in 2010 was to start the whole process in February, with the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary kicking things off as they usually do, only a month later than in 2008.
In order to enforce the new schedule, the RNC penalized states half their delegates for breaking ranks. But their plan failed when it turned out that states were happy to take the hit in order to boost their importance to the race. Florida moved its primary to January, causing the core first four states — IA, NH, SC, and NV — to leapfrog behind it in order to keep their esteemed place in the pecking order. Meanwhile, Arizona and Michigan also moved their contests back to February while others, like Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, and Maine, held non-binding contests that also demanded candidates’ attention (and, more importantly, money).
“States jumped ahead and that’s created some of the problem that we have now, to the extent we have a problem,” RNC committeeman John Ryder, who helped craft the new process, told TPM. “We need to figure out next time how we come up with a system of penalties that will persuade states it’s not in their best interest to jump the line.”
This change in schedule might not have been such a big deal were there a big race that could decisively end things before they got out of hand. In 2008, the February 5 Super Tuesday contests in 21 states settled the race in John McCain’s favor. But this time, the Super Tuesday is stuck a month later in March and has only 11 states up for grabs, meaning it may not be enough to break the race open.
While the candidates fight their way to a bloody stalemate, it’s not clear the party is receiving any of the gains that Democrats did for their sacrifice in 2008. The intense Clinton/Obama battle inspired huge surges in voter registration and helped spread the Democrats’ message in states that normally didn’t hear from them. Some observers credited the primary with swinging North Carolina and Indiana to Obama in the general election, after years of Republican dominance. In addition, the eventual nominee Obama burnished his reputation with a surprisingly resilient campaign and filled his coffers with a spectacularly effective fundraising machine.
On the Republican side, however, turnout is down from 2008 levels in most states and Mitt Romney’s favorability ratings have been dipping into dangerous levels, especially with independents. While the primary helped Obama cultivate a huge fundraising operation, Romney’s money is dwindling fast as he’s forced to spend huge sums to keep his upstart rivals from knocking him out. Adding to the mix, the newly legal Super PACs have turned into an ideal vehicle for devastating attack ads that help drag the entire field down. The rules may be there to encourage an Obama/Clinton marathon, but the candidates aren’t.
“Generals always fight the last war,” University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato told TPM, faulting Republicans for failing to recognize that running against a powerful incumbent president is very different than 2008’s open primaries. “If ever there was a case when the out-of-power party would have been helped by a quick, painless nomination of a strong challenger, it’s 2012. No such luck for the GOP. The long hard-edged campaign will leave Republicans divided, unhappy, and missing many millions they otherwise would have had at their disposal for the fall.”
Ryder admits the new campaign setup hasn’t been without its drawbacks, but that the changes were “probably worth it” given that the extended race keeps the focus away from the White House and gives Republicans a chance to make their case to the public.
“It carries a price with it,” he said. “There’s money, the accumulation of negative advertising, there’s just the simple wear and tear on the candidates. But I think the alternative is that you have a candidate who wraps up the nomination very early and then disappears from public view for several months until you get to the convention.”
Eric Kleefeld contributed to this post.
Image from ruskpp/ shutterstock
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.