GOP leadership finally discussing an overhaul of the primary system

Right off the bat I’m going to label this bit of breaking news as I’ll believe it when I see it, but it’s at least somewhat more plausible than it’s traditionally been. Jeremy Peters at the New York Times is reporting that Republican Party leaders are finally talking about serious reforms to the primary process ahead of the 2020 election cycle. If true, some of these modifications will have the old guard in GOP establishment circles setting their hair on fire. The first, biggest change would be a modification to the order in which the early states line up and include some new players on a rotating basis.

Leaders of the Republican Party have begun internal deliberations over what would be fundamental changes to the way its presidential nominees are chosen, a recognition that the chaotic process that played out this year is seriously flawed and helped exacerbate tensions within the party.

In a significant shift, Republican officials said it now seemed unlikely that the four states to vote first would all retain their cherished place on the electoral calendar, with Nevada as the most probable casualty.

Party leaders are even going so far as to consider diluting the traditional status of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina as gatekeepers to the presidency. Under one proposal, those states would be paired with others that voted on the same day as a way to give more voters a meaningful role much sooner.

For years now I’ve been calling for scrapping this legacy system of having Iowa and New Hampshire go first, but old habits die hard and there hasn’t been any indication that the will exists to do so. Iowa has been something of a disaster in a few of the recent cycles, and both they and New Hampshire punch so far above their weight class in terms of impact on the primary that it’s mind boggling. Personally, I’ve been in favor of a rotating series of regional primaries where groups of roughly seven states (including both large and small ones) vote every week over a period of a couple of months. That way the entire nation gets to take a turn in leading things off.

That seems to be a bridge too far for traditionalists, but I’ll admit that the leadership seems to have hit upon a compromise which I’d never considered. If we must have the same four small states leading the parade, matching them up with some other, rotating states each cycle would at least dilute their influence a bit and bring some new blood into the equation. If this manages to make it to a vote I’ll be supporting it wholeheartedly as a workable compromise.

Another possible change on the docket is one which is long overdue in my opinion and would really differentiate the GOP from the Democrats. They’re looking at making all of the states go to closed primaries.

But in a move that would sharply limit who could participate in presidential primaries, many party activists are also pushing to close Republican contests to independent voters, arguing that open primaries in some states allowed Donald J. Trump, whose conservative convictions they deeply mistrust, to become the presumptive nominee.

While this is a good idea, we need to be careful how it’s framed and explained. Making any sort of rule changes in response to the success or failure of a single candidate in one election cycle is a terrible idea. Further, creating some sort of “anti-Trump” rule in the middle of a convention to nominate Trump is a formula for disaster in November. The party is struggling with enough internal divisiveness as it is and we don’t need to add to it. But with that said, the primary is a process designed to select a nominee for the party, not for the entire nation or groups of voters who may have woken up that morning feeling like doing something different. I don’t know why there are non-Republicans voting in the GOP primary anywhere, honestly.

The Democrats are going in the opposite direction, looking at making all of their primaries open to independents. I suppose that’s up to them, but it actually just opens the door to more mischief. They can portray it however they like in terms of inclusiveness and democracy, but in the end it’s the party members who have to live with the results. Frankly, I don’t see a downside to having the GOP move to closed primaries, but the question remains as to whether or not the RNC can “force” that decision on the states. I don’t believe they can, but with the various carrot and stick options at their disposal they can certainly make it more attractive for all the states to do so.

The one subject which doesn’t seem to be on the table (and perhaps one of the biggest which we should be talking about) is the binding of delegates and ensuring that the party’s voters in each state get a direct voice in selecting those delegates based on the candidate they prefer. Having states allocate delegates based on the whim of party leaders in any fashion insulated from the direct vote of registered Republicans across the state makes us something of a laughing stock. But hey… any progress is better than none and change takes time. Perhaps we can address that one four years from now.


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David Strom 9:21 PM on March 24, 2023