Monday, March 11, 2013

Is South Carolina's First in the South Primary Vulnerable in 2016?

The short answer is no, but it is a bit more complex than just that.

The better place to start may simply be to ask why FHQ is posing this question in the first place. Over the weekend two former South Carolina Republican Party chairmen -- Barry Wynn and Katon Dawson -- penned an op-ed in the Greenville News under the headline "Don't lose the right to vote in GOP primaries". What prompted the piece was the current battle within the SCGOP (more so at the mass level than among state party elites) over the party's procedures for nominating candidates. On the heels of the 2012 state primary ballot being purged of a sizable number of Tea Party challengers, some within that faction of the state party have organized an effort to alter the state party nomination rules during the party's 2013 precinct reorganization. Now, what this movement entails is a shift from a primary election to a caucus/convention process as the primary means of nominating Republican candidates to a wide range of offices in South Carolina. Such a move is seen as a potential boon for candidates associated with well-organized factions within the state party that could, in turn, dominate a low turnout caucus/convention system.

That led to Mr. Wynn and Mr. Dawson sounding the alarm of not only that potential for what would functionally be voter disenfranchisement, but also the impact the overall shift may have on South Carolina's first in the South presidential primary. In their words, the primary may be "put at risk".

The reality is that the South Carolina presidential delegate selection event is probably going to be just fine. The same sort of thing happened in Oklahoma in 2009 after Ron Paul-affiliated activists within the Oklahoma Republican Party made inroads in the party during the 2008 delegate selection process in the Sooner state. A year later in 2009, the very same group attempted to install one of its own as state party chair and shift the means of delegate selection from a primary to a caucus. That effort failed. That does not mean that the Tea Party effort  in South Carolina is doomed. There is a reason a pair of former party chairmen are taking to the local op-ed pages. After all, Paul-aligned groups have been successful at wresting control of Republican Parties in several states in 2012 (see Iowa and Nevada for example). However, both are presidential caucus states with primaries in place for nominations to other offices. Neither have sought to end those latter contests. Furthermore, no state has been successful yet in making this change from primary to caucuses. It has been tried, but it has failed.

As for the first in the South primary in South Carolina, well, FHQ suspects that "threat" is being used to mobilize Republicans against the conventions proposal. But the nature of the threat is not particularly clear. What is vulnerable? The primary itself or the position on the calendar. Even if this switch was made, both national parties' sets of delegate selection rules protect South Carolina's position among the first four contests on the presidential primary calendar. And that protection is not conditioned by whether the contest is a primary or caucus.1 If we're talking about the primary itself, then, well, it was already at risk under the proposal.

The interesting thing about the presidential nomination process in South Carolina is how a switch to a conventions system would work out. If South Carolina Republicans opt out of the state funded primary, then the funds will be appropriated for only the Democratic contest in 2016. That is, it would only go to the Democratic primary unless there was a change in state law to sever the state funding mechanism that was instituted for the 2008 cycle. Before that point, parties funded their own primaries.2 A Republican-controlled legislature in South Carolina -- whether controlled by an establishment or Tea Party wing -- would likely not be open to that type of set up. In other words, the Democratic presidential primary would also potentially be at stake in all of this.

The ramifications of this potential shift are interesting, but there has not been a history of successful hostile take-overs of the nominating process like what is happening in South Carolina elsewhere. The primary likely is not in any jeopardy, and even if it was, South Carolina is not about to lose its position on the calendar as a result.

1 The Republican National Committee rules give South Carolina and the other so-called carve-out states added protection for the 2016 cycle and there has been no signal from the Democratic National Committee Rules and Bylaws Committee that South Carolina will not continue to have a privileged position on the calendar in 2016. That said, the RBC has yet to begin its work on the rules that will govern the 2016 delegate selection process.

2 It is not as if the funding issue has been absent in discussions of the South Carolina primary.

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