New York Republican officials are seriously considering changing the state's winner-take-all primary system to one with proportionality, meaning candidates could compete for the delegates doled out by congressional district and several hopefuls could snatch bits and pieces of the Empire State's haul.
The strategic implications of this are interesting in and of themselves -- and Haberman is right to point that out -- but overall this story paints an incomplete picture of the situation. The relationship between state party decisions on presidential delegate allocation and the strategic decisions of the candidates. However, the national parties and the role they play here is noticeably absent. As the delegate selection rules set by the parties have been relatively static on this front since the 1980s -- the Democrats requiring proportional allocation and the Republicans leaving the decision up to the state parties -- this would not usually be all that much of a talking point.
But the RNC adopted the Temporary Delegate Selection Committee's recommendations for rules changes last August. That had the effect of binding the applicability of certain delegate allocation rules to the timing of a state's primary or caucus. Any state that holds a delegate selection event prior to April 1, 2012 is required by the national party to allocate its national convention delegates on a proportional basis. Those states that maintain or move to dates after that point can, as has been the case in the past, decide how they want to allocate delegates -- whether proportionally or winner-take-all.
New York is one of those states where the state Republican Party has traditionally used winner-take-all rules and now the party is apparently considering a switch to proportional allocation. Why? Well, for starters, the Empire state's presidential primary is currently scheduled for February 7, 2012, which means that the state would be required by RNC delegate selection rules to shift to proportional rules based on where the primary is timed on the calendar.
There are a couple of additional points to make here. First, the New York state legislature has been quiet in terms of proposing legislation to shift the state's primary from the February date back into a period that complies with both national parties' sets of delegate selection rules. As I said before, if that's before April 1, then the decision to shift from winner-take-all to proportional allocation is not one that is being made at the state party level; it is being mandated by the national party. [The state legislature could move the date back after that point and indirectly hand the delegate allocation decision back to the party. From the state parties' and even the legislators' perspective, that runs the risk of removing New York from the period during primary season when the voters there could prove decisive on the identity of the Republican nominee.]
Now, one could ask whether the state party could, as Florida is doing on the timing question, flaunt the national party rules. Instead of breaking the timing rules, though, New York would be breaking the delegate allocation rules (depending on when the primary is ultimately timed). This is a debatable point, but it seems that the RNC would be more insistent on this rule potentially than they, or either party for that matter, has proven to be on the enforcement of timing rules. Since all or most of the delegates are going to cast their lot with the presumptive nominee at the national convention, the only period in which allocation rules matter is early on -- during primary season. That potentially affects the course of the nomination race. The intention of the Temporary Delegate Selection Committee in proposing the institution of an early proportionality rule was to ever so slightly increase the competition as a means of organizing voters in states. Think about how the course of the Democratic nomination race affected organization efforts in both Indiana and North Carolina late in the process. Those efforts, at least at the margins, paid dividends for candidate Obama in winning two typically red states in the general election. But as I said, that only matters early on when the nomination is undetermined. After the point at which one candidate has on 50% of the delegates plus one, he or she becomes the presumptive nominee that the party, or the delegates more precisely, is likely to rally around at the convention.
But what if New York opts to flaunt those rules? [I'm not suggesting they will since the discussion is revolving around a switch to proportionality anyway.] Again, the matter comes back to enforcement. The only enforcement mechanism that is discussed in the Republican rules is that a "substantial departure from these guidelines carries significant risk that not all delegates will be seated." But it seems to me that the presidential nominee, like those in both parties in the past, would be more interested in party unity behind him or her than in sticking to those rules on principle. That doesn't serve the party's best interests, especially when the goal is to beat an incumbent president.
This may not be an issue with New York but problems with the new proportionality requirement could arise somewhere else.