RNC proposes key changes to 2012 presidential primaries

Call it the end of the era of early-win pre-emption.  After the 2008 Republican primaries produced an early and insurmountable lead for John McCain and effectively cinched the nomination before the arrival of February, the GOP has been looking for a way to reduce the impact of early primaries and keep states overloading the early schedule to compete with it.  Reid Wilson reports at Hotline that the RNC has quietly proposed a new structure that extends the primary process and keeps states from acting as kingmakers early in the process:

The new rule, written after months of painstaking negotiations among senior members of the national committee, would push the beginning of the presidential nominating process back a month, to Feb., as part of a plan to prevent wealthy candidates from stealing the nomination.

GOP caucuses and primaries would be held that month in the 4 early states — the rule codifies IA, NH, SC and NV as states allowed to hold contests in a “pre-window.” Every other state would be allowed to hold their nominating contests on or after the first Tuesday in March.

But there’s an important caveat, members of the Temporary Delegate Selection Committee said: Any state that holds its nominating contest before the first day of April — that is, any state that rushes to front-load their nominating process — will have to award their delegates on a proportional basis.

That’s a dramatic change from previous party rules; many states awarded delegates on a winner-take-all basis, setting up key dates on which candidates could win big chunks of delegates and shut out their rivals. In ’08, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) won all of FL’s delegates, even though he won just 36% of the vote. Mitt RomneyRudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee won a combined 59% of the vote — and no delegates. Giuliani, who had viewed the state as a firewall, dropped out of the race that night.

If that rule gets adopted, it would solve a couple of key problems for the RNC.  First, it would eliminate some of the incentive for states to move their primaries earlier in the year.  In one day in 2008, 24 states wound up holding contests, making it nearly impossible for all of the candidates to connect with voters in a rational manner.  That benefits the candidates with the highest name recognition and most money, while leaving other potentially better candidates in the dust.

Second, it would keep more candidates in the game longer, which would also incentivize states to wait rather than rush forward.  Instead of having decided the primary by Valentine’s Day with less than half of the states even casting ballots, those in the top four or five coming out of the proportionally-allocated states could still make their case to the remaining states and hope to do so effectively.  It gives more voters a larger say in the nomination, and therefore creates more incentive for those voters to remain engaged.  Finally, it would hopefully reduce the pressure to begin campaigning a full year before a front-loaded primary schedule in order to get an early knockout punch.  With that possibility removed, we may be able to return to a less grueling schedule, at least in 2011.

However, it does have a couple of drawbacks, too.  It will mean that more candidates will raise funds in the primary for a longer period of time, which could impact the ability to raise funds for the general election, although Barack Obama didn’t appear to have a problem despite fighting all the way to June before locking up the nomination.  Hard-fought primaries can damage candidates (although I’d say it almost always produces stronger ones), and the competition may prompt more negative infighting among Republicans for a longer period of time.  The states may simply refuse to play ball and schedule their primaries early anyway, despite the proportional representation required by the rule.

At least the RNC is addressing the issue.  This is an idea that should get tried at least one cycle to see whether it works better.  It could hardly work worse than what the GOP went through in 2008.