Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Do the Republicans Have a New Hampshire Problem?

I love, love, love this question from Jonathan Bernstein.

I mean, after all, if we are all going to be subjected to incessant questions about the rightward skew Iowa was supposed to have on the 2012 Republican nomination race, is it not also fair to inquire about the moderating influence New Hampshire -- with all its independents voting in the only-game-in-town Republican primary -- on the race as well? There are at least a few -- and that's probably understating it -- folks within the Republican Party and the Republican primary electorate that would and do have an interest in the process producing the most conservative nominee (or a nominee more conservative than Mitt Romney).

Now, Jon goes on to rhetorically ask about the possibility of Republicans reforming the system to that end: punishing New Hampshire for having an open contest. A few things:
1. Broadly, FHQ feels the same about New Hampshire's position on the calendar as I do about Iowa's. Neither is going anywhere. But I don't know that this was Jon's intent in posing this particular question, but I thought I'd throw it out there. ...just because. 
2. Now, on this point of punishing, things get tricky. The main question is how? How would conservatives attempt to punish New Hampshire or other similarly open states toward the beginning of the primary calendar -- where it matters most? Let me answer that but then take a step back and answer a few broader but related questions. On the how, I don't think we have to look much further than the new "proportionality" requirements handed down by the RNC for the 2012 cycle. The intent there was to marginally slow the process down, engender some competition and build from that grassroots enthusiasm a core of support for the general election campaign (see Democrats, 2008). Theoretically, then, there could be a similar rule that only allows "closed" states to occupy the spots at the front of the calendar.  
The only problem -- well, problems really -- is that that represents opening a Pandora's box of hurt that the RNC would never want to open. The simple truth of the matter is that the RNC -- or the DNC for that matter -- could turn the screws on the state parties and get them to comply with such a rule. But there would have to be a consensus within the national party that that was the right course of action; that potentially taking on state parties or state governments in court was/is wise. There is no such consensus. In fact, during the meetings of the Republican Temporary Delegate Selection Committee during 2009 and 2010, Saul Anuzis, former chair of the Michigan Republican Party and current national committeeman from the Wolverine state, was asked via Twitter if closing the primaries was on the committee's agenda. The answer? 
"no...that is up to the states." 
Short, sweet and to the point. There is no desire among the group of people within the RNC charged with the task of examining these rules to close off primaries. And I dare say, by extension, there is no desire to punish states that are not completely closed off to only partisans registered to the Republican Party. If there is any desire, it is not present in enough of the decision-making body to push the change through. 
Now, where we could see some change potentially is from within the New Hampshire Republican Party. The rules that make the primary in the Granite state both proportional and semi-open are based on state laws -- not state party rules. That arrangement is in good stead so long as both parties -- the state and the state party in this case -- are amenable to its provisions. Traditionally, everything has been kosher. But there is nothing to stop the Granite state Republican Party from challenging that. Time and again, based on a party's first amendment right to the freedom of association, the courts have sided with the parties on the questions of rules regarding nominations (see Tashjian). As long as the underlying rule is not discriminatory, it typically passes muster with the courts under the rationale that the parties should be allowed to craft the rules that determine who represents the party in a general election. 
On that point, though, in New Hampshire, FHQ is not aware of any problem within the Republican Party there with business as usual in regard to the presidential primary. If it ain't broke -- and the primary is still first -- don't fix it. 
So, do Republicans have a New Hampshire problem? Perhaps, depending upon whom you ask. [It is a great question.] But if they do, there is really no recourse that doesn't involve a lot of pain getting there. And in a game -- nominating presidential candidates -- where consensus and consensus building is the objective, the last thing a party wants to do is negatively affect the unity of voters behind the nominee or that state parties have behind the party.

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