Tuesday, February 26, 2013

2016 Rules: Penalizing Candidates for Participating in Unsanctioned Debates?

This idea has been floating around since the RNC Chairman Reince Priebus mentioned it to reporters during the RNC Winter Meetings in Charlotte in January. But now the idea of penalizing presidential candidates delegates for participating in primary debates not sanctioned by the Republican National Committee is making the rounds again in an item by Ramesh Ponnuru over at the National Review.

In my discussions with folks involved in the rules-making process in the RNC this debates/delegate penalty never came up. That is not to suggest that it has not come up or will not be pushed in some form at future RNC meetings. There is some sincere frustration over the perceived impact those primary debates had on the process within the party, but this seems more like an idea that is being floated more than a directive for change from the chairman.

That is the FHQ interpretation of it anyway. Here's why:

This is a tough [TOUGH] penalty to enforce. Again, that is not to say that it cannot be enforced, but it is something that is difficult to achieve. Functionally, it works more as a threat than an actual penalty. The Democratic Party had something similar on the books in 2008 (and 2012). The rule did not apply to debates. Rather, it was a penalty put in place to dissuade candidates from campaigning in states that violated the rules on timing. In 2008, that meant that none of the candidates could campaign in Florida and Michigan until the day after the primary in the violating state. If the candidates had campaigned in either state they would have lost any and all pledged delegates won in that primary (Rule 20.C.1.b).

But no candidate violated that rule. And that was probably fortunate for the DNC and its Rules and Bylaws Committee. Imagine if that question had been layered into the Clinton-Obama delegate fight in the waning days of primary season in 2008. [That threat also worked (or mainly worked) because Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina were in on it. Each collectively and effectively threatened the support for and to any candidates who campaigned in any states jumping the queue.]

Again, as in that 2008 case, it is easy to threaten to take away delegates from candidates, but tough to enforce without also potentially hurting the state parties, not to mention individual delegates, in the process. How does the national party identify which delegates get the axe? What is the percentage? How does the party account for the varying penalties that will occur based on different methods of delegate allocation? Furthermore, does would the RNC ultimately care? [The standing, yet unofficial, rule on the Republican side has always been to just leave it up to the states. But there has been an evolution to that since 2008. In other words, instead of "do what you want states" it is "these are the rules, do what you want/can states".]

Ultimately, this really is not a penalty on the candidates. Yes, the proposal targets them, but the reality is that this but the first step in how the RNC likely sees this playing out. As was the case with the Democrats in 2008, the likely intent is to in some way curb the incentives state parties and other groups have in scheduling these debates in the first place. If the state parties are rational, they will not want to hold/sponsor a debate if it means the party will potentially not have a full slate of candidates -- or at least the main competitors -- participate.

But what is the mechanism by which state parties or other groups acquire the RNC's blessing for holding a debate? Is there a mechanism at all or will early states (or perhaps competitive general election states) have the upper hand in planning and orchestrating such debates?

All we really have in Chairman Priebus' comments is the wisp of a plan. It is not fully fleshed out and as such is rife with unintended consequences.

FHQ should also mention one of the other talking points circulating in response to this already: That this is a rules change that seemingly advantages the supposed establishment candidate; something those in the grassroots and/or among the Tea Party would not necessarily be favorable toward. That response is apt, but focuses too heavily on the candidate-specific penalties instead of the state angle proffered above. Functionally, I think candidate angle is correct. A frontrunning establishment candidate is motivated to participate in as small a number of debates as possible. This just provides some institutional national party-based cover for that candidate or candidates. That, in turn, affects the calculus of those planning these debates in the first place. But again, that is the goal of this particular rule should it ever come to fruition.

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