Monday, March 18, 2013

Thoughts on the Growth and Opportunity Project Recommendations

The Republican National Committee today unveiled its Growth and Opportunity Project report this morning which contained a number of recommendations that would affect the 2016 presidential primary process if passed by the full RNC. Needless to say there has been some reaction to the sliver of suggestions that would specifically alter the primary rules as well as the rest of the nearly 100 pages of the report. FHQ has spent some time already on the matter of debates regulation, and will focus on the primary changes instead.1

Here are the presidential primary process recommendations (see pages 72-73)2:
  1. The Republican Convention should be held earlier in the summer. It should be movedto late June or sometime in July, allowing our nominee more time to begin thegeneral election phase. (Note: The 2016 Olympics will be held August 5–21.) 
  2. Because the nominee will still need an estimated 60–90 days to prepare for the Convention,changes will need to be made to the primary calendar. If the Convention were to be held
    in July, the last primary would need to be held no later than May 15. If the Convention
    were to be held in late June, the final primary would need to be held no later than April 30.Moving primaries up will require states and state parties to cooperate.
  3. We take no position on whether a contest should be winner take all or proportionate.
    The fact is, both methods can delay or speed up the likelihood of a nominee being chosen.It all depends on who is winning and by what margins in each primary or caucus election.
  4. To facilitate moving up primary elections to accommodate an earlier convention, the
    Party should strongly consider a regional primary system or some other form of a majorreorganization instead of the current system. The current system is a long, winding, oftenrandom road that makes little sense. It stretches the primaries out too long, forces ourcandidates to run out of money, and because some states vote so late, voters in thosestates never seem to count. Such a change would allow for a broader group of Republicansto play a role in selecting our nominee.
  5. Recognizing the traditions of several states that have early nominating contests, the newlyorganized primaries would begin only after the “carve-out” states have held their individualelections. It remains important to have an “on ramp” of small states that hold unique primarydays before the primary season turns into a multi-state process with many states voting
    on one day. The idea of a little-known candidate having a fair chance remains important.
  6. We also recommend broadening the base of the Party and inviting as many votersas possible into the Republican Party by discouraging conventions and caucusesfor the purpose of allocating delegates to the national convention. Our party needsto grow its membership, and primaries seem to be a more effective way to do so.The greater the number of people who vote in a Republican primary, the more likelythey will turn out and vote again for the Republican candidate in the fall election.
Let's look at these one by one:
Earlier Conventions:
This is nothing more than a strategic move. An earlier convention means a nominee can begin spending (and continue raising) general election funds earlier. This was an issue in both 2008 and 2012 for the Republican Party presidential nominees, but for different reasons. John McCain was stuck in the federal matching funds system in 2008 and was hamstrung by those limitations relative to his Democratic counterpart, Barak Obama, who had opted out of the same system and was able to raise an unlimited amount of funds. That hurt but so too did the point at which McCain could tap into that money; after the September 2008 convention. It is worth noting that Republicans held the second convention in that year. That is only a minor difference though (one week).

In 2012, Mitt Romney was also facing Obama, but an incumbent Obama. With no competitive primary, the president's campaign could utilize his cash on hand more strategically (i.e.: with the general election in mind) than his opponent before the conventions. Meanwhile, Romney was forced to fend off his would-be nomination challengers. That put him at a competitive disadvantage as he emerged from primary season and headed into the summer months of a general election campaign that was not a general election campaign from a campaign finance perspective until late August.

That will not be an issue in 2016 with or without an earlier convention. The Democrats, as the report points out, will have a competitive nomination race as well. The scenario where history repeats itself is the one that has the Democratic nomination race wrapping up quickly while the Republican race continues into the spring. Even under those conditions, the "lead" the Democratic nominee will have will not be the same as the lead that an incumbent Democratic president would have.

Earlier conventions, part II:
To accommodate an earlier convention, the party would also have to conclude its pre-convention delegate selection processes at the state level earlier as well. Nebraska Republicans, for instance, could not continue with their July convention to select delegates. Some have questioned how this would affect other states' processes (i.e.: Oregon, Texas). One matter FHQ has constantly raised on issue of forcing changes to state laws is that it is easier said than done. There has to be motivation on the state-level to make the change, but there also has to be some ability. Republicans pushing for change in a Democratic-controlled state may find some difficulty in complying with the new rules. See Oregon for a good example of not only that very partisan conflict, but the costs of creating an all new and separate presidential primary election. As it stands now in the current RNC rules, all non-carve-out states must conduct their primaries within a window from the first Tuesday in March to the second Tuesday in June. The more the party shifts up the backend of that window the more states will have to make changes. And it should be noted that most of the states that populate the tail end of the primary calendar typically hold the presidential contest concurrent with the contests for state and local offices.

This is kind of a big one. States that cannot comply with the rules would not be penalized any in terms of the number of delegates in their convention delegations (under the current rules), but they would run over into that 60-90 day window the party wants between the end of delegate selection and the convention. That could force some of those state parties to hold earlier caucuses to comply with the rules. That obviously conflicts with the above recommendation to reduce delegate selection by caucus/convention (Recommendation #6).

Winner-take-all versus Proportional:
Nothing states the impact of these delegate allocation rules better than, "...both methods can delay or speed up the likelihood of a nominee being chosen. It all depends on who is winning and by what margins in each primary or caucus election." In other words, it is difficult to measure the impact of these rules changes without prior knowledge of the conditions facing the party in any given election year. If there is a consensus candidate, then it will matter very little what the rules are. 2012 demonstrated that minor changes on the state level from 2008 to 2012 did very little to alter the Republican nomination race. The calendar changes did, the allocation rules changes did not.

Regional primaries:
As FHQ mentioned via Twitter earlier in the day in reference to regional primaries: If moving primaries was easy, it would have been done by the parties long ago to combat frontloading. Yet, this site still exists and the issue of states flaunting the party rules are still around as well. It is an open question as to how effective a regional primary system would be compared to the current system. Every body involved -- national parties, state governments, candidates, state parties, etc. -- all basically know what they have in the current system. They would not with a fundamentally altered system. Overlay that on state-level partisan conflicts and financial costs of elections -- much less multiple elections within one state -- and all those knowns become unknowns.

Gaining compliance on this issue requires buy-in at the state-level and to get to that point, the RNC, to implement a regional primary plan, would have to have buy-in from the DNC. The Democratic Rules and Bylaws Committee has yet to meet to discuss 2016 rules, but it is not clear such a system is a direction in which the party wants to take its process. Without the DNC onboard, though, the RNC potentially would have a number of non-compliant states in a regional primary plan. And that creates even more uncertainty for those involved in the nomination process.

Carve-out states:
If 2008 and 2012 were not confirmation of this, then the rules coming out of Tampa and the Growth and Opportunity Project report should be: the parties (at least the RNC) has settled the carve-out question. Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina have protected status at the beginning of the calendar. Case mostly closed (depending on how other states position their own contests and the window of time left for the carve-outs).

Primaries > Caucuses/Conventions:
Primary elections have greater turnout. That we know. Whether bringing more people to the polls during primary season is more effective than grassroots activism through caucuses and conventions is up to a party to decide (at the peril of offending some within the party apparently). Both types of contests are and can be positive for a party by mobilizing voters in different ways. FHQ has no dog in this fight, but we do have a question in response to this recommendation: What is the penalty for any state that would violate a no-caucuses rule? Once new categories of states/rules are created, there have to also be attendant penalties associated with them. This is not an area to which the Republican Party has traditionally gravitated. Historically, the RNC has left these matters up to the states to decide. The only exception to that prior to 2012 was the issue of timing. In 2012, differentiating between states with differing delegation allocation formulas also created a new penalty; one that had to be refined for the current 2016 rules.

This one seems like a tough one to enforce; particularly in light of the window issues an earlier convention would create (more potential caucuses).

To reiterate something FHQ said above, delegate selection rules and the like are all party business. It is up to the party to determine how best to nominate candidates who would serve the party well in a general election. Some of the critiques in the report are likely warranted. FHQ will not pass judgment on those. However, the primary rules recommendations that were handed down from the Growth and Opportunity Project have some holes that will need to be addressed by the RNC Rules Committee when and if they take these measures up. Some things are easy to control; others are not. FHQ has heard tell that the delegate selection process can be managed, not controlled. I wonder if this report is attempting the latter or the former.

1 One huge point that many are glossing over is that the report contains recommendations for rules changes; not rules changes themselves. The RNC had just a few votes to spare on some of the more controversial changes made to the rules in Tampa that netted the 2012 Rules of the Republican Party (The rules that will govern the 2016 delegate selection process.). It is an open question as to how successful the party would or will be in pushing some of these other rules changes before the entire RNC. Some have argued that the RNC chairman has unrivaled power to muster supermajorities within the RNC on votes to change the rules. In the face of the passage of Rule 12 -- the rule granting the party the power to alter the rules between national conventions -- that may be true, but the margin for error is quite small given the margin of the vote in Tampa.

FHQ should mention that, though the Growth and Opportunity Project report may have the backing of Chairman Priebus, that is the only (and consequential) thing that separates it from the quadrennial commissions that have made recommendations for tweaking the delegate selection rules on the Democratic side -- most recently the Democratic Change Commission. Recommendations can be made, but the question always remains: Can they be passed by the party?

2 Here also is the full report from the Growth and Opportunity Project:

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