Sunday, August 18, 2013

How Can a National Party Manage or Control Presidential Primary Debates?

And Can the RNC Accomplish That Goal Through New Rules?

FHQ chose to lead with this manage/control dichotomy because I think former New Hampshire governor, John Sununu, was absolutely right in January when he told the winter conference of the National Association of Secretaries of State -- in a panel FHQ was on -- that national parties are often fighting the last battle when it comes to how they will govern future presidential nomination rules. He expanded on his point by adding that those same national parties -- or at least the internal struggles within them -- attempt to control a process that can only really be managed.

Problems in the process in one cycle are not necessarily problems the next time around. And new attempts at rules often have unintended consequences. A great case in point is the addition of superdelegates to the Democratic Party process for the 1984 cycle. The intention of adding superdelegates was to empower a group of party elites to serve as arbiters in any unresolved nomination contest. But that sort of scenario did not happen in 1984. It was not until 24 years later that the term superdelegate crossed any lips outside of Democratic circles.

Another such issue, but on the Republican side, was the addition of the proportionality requirement for 2012. Now, some will argue that the lack of winner-take-all contests prior to April 1, 2012 did help to slow the Republican nomination process down. That wasn't the case. Instead it was the distribution of contests across the entire calendar -- no contests throughout much of February after a January start point and only a small trickle of contests between Super Tuesday in early March and late April when there was a Mid-Atlantic/Northeast subregional primary.

But the point is that I think of those talking points every time a new set or portion of delegate selection rules comes along. A national party has to be deliberative and careful in laying out any new rules. And sadly, there is no test facility to where either Democrats, Republicans or both can head to try these things out. Unintended consequences only come around in the midst of a primary campaign. And then it is too late.

This is a lengthy way of FHQ saying that I agree with most who have responded to the RNC debates resolution -- the one ending any potential partnering relationships between the party and CNN and NBC for the purposes of presidential primary debates -- with skepticism.

No, the party really has no control over candidates or state parties when it comes to whether they agree in principle with any debates overtures they receive from either "rogue" media outlet. If a candidate or state party wants to debate and can agree with one of those networks on the parameters of a debate, then there will likely be a debate. Granted, this is all somewhat situational. If, by 2015, there is a clear or even marginal frontrunner in the race for the Republican nomination, then said candidate is perhaps less likely to go along with an increasing number of debates.1 That has the impact of potentially insulating an establishment candidate. However, the RNC and any establishment candidate/campaign may actually want more debates if that establishment candidate is not the frontrunner candidate. If a frontrunner is insulated and the establishment candidate -- if there is one emergent establishment candidate -- is behind, then that desire for fewer debates dissipates.

Again though, planning -- or attempting to control -- for those types of scenarios is very difficult this far in advance. That is the sort of trap that national parties can let themselves get dragged into in efforts to fix the past. No party can fix the past, but they can affect the future in ways they cannot expect.

That's why FHQ thought former RNC chair and current co-chair of the Commission on Presidential Debates, Frank Fahrenkopf, was dead on in his comments to Politico about regulating presidential primary debates.2 By expanding the certainty of what a bipartisan debates commission produces from the general election to the primary phase as well may open the door to an open discussion that produces a plan that eliminates the problems in the process that affect both parties. Coordinating -- even if only loosely -- the process across parties can generate a plan that may not overreach into the area of unintended consequences in the way that a one-party effort might.

The primary process has witnessed something similar over the last few cycles in terms of how the parties have collectively dealt with the issues of rogue states and frontloading of delegate selection events on the calendar. There is now a set of semi-coordinated rules and penalties in place across both parties to deal with both. That the parties are now -- even if only partly -- a united front it is better than two different mindsets on the problem.

Of course, there are two different mindsets on the debates "problem". The Democratic Party has not had the same sort of issues that the Republican Party appears to have had in 2012 and thus, does not see the need for a change. Yet, that is not that different from the differences between the parties on the above rogue/frontloading problem. After 2004, the Democratic Party wanted to nip frontloading in the bud. What it came up with was a rules-based plan to penalize not only states but candidates if states moved into non-compliant dates on the calendar and candidates campaigned in those states. Both would lose delegates.

Now, a Florida and Michigan mess later, it would not appear as if the plan worked. However, that had more to do with the fact that Democrats had attempted to go it alone rather than a flawed system. Without Republicans onboard, the plan was much less likely to succeed. Witness the provocative Florida maneuver in 2007. Florida Republicans, though they ultimately had some Democratic support in the state legislature, orchestrated the move of the Sunshine state presidential primary into January 2008.

After a second consecutive cycle that saw primary season kick off in Iowa on January 3, both parties are largely on the same page on this issue. Both national party apparatuses recognize the need for some informal coordination of rules and penalties for those would-be rogue states and candidates willing to flaunt the rules. The RNC, then, ultimately converged with the DNC on its thinking concerning doling out and enforcing penalties on rogue states; though the penalties were different across parties.

There is, though, a divergence between national parties on the thinking behind the debates issue. What the RNC sees as a problem, the DNC does not. Coordination is difficult under those circumstances. But, then again, it does not appear to FHQ that coordination is necessarily needed in this instance. It might help, but coordination is not necessary in the same way that it was on the timing and primary calendar issues above.3 [But truth be told the certainty of a united front between/across both parties on the issue of primary debates could be a good thing.]

Given that there is no convergence between the parties now, what can the RNC do to get what it wants in the realm of presidential primary debates. The resolution from the RNC summer meeting this week in Boston is one part. Theoretically, reducing the number of partnering media outlets could help to also reduce the number of debates. But that cannot be the only part or the RNC gets right back to where it started from: with uncertainty over whether candidates and state parties are actually going to toe the company line.

This is the exact reason that FHQ -- in reaction to the creation of a Rules subcommittee charged with reexamining the rules of the primary process -- mentioned that that subcommittee would be the forum in which the regulation of debates will be deliberated. They will be.

But the question remains: What can the RNC do to either manage or control this process?

There is one model out there that may provide those curious about where the party is going rules-wise with some guidance. FHQ should note that unlike some of the other rules discussions in this space -- namely the proportionality requirement and timing rules -- I have no "inside information" on the RNC's intentions. That said, there are only so many options available to the RNC and the party has a very fine needle indeed to thread to even approach getting this debates issue "right".

The truth of the matter is that the presidential nomination process involves a confluence of political interests: Those of the national party, those of the states (governments), those of the candidates and those of the state parties. [Oh, and hey, perhaps those of the voters as well.] What one group wants is not necessarily what another group desires. So, while the RNC may want to decrease the number of debates, there still exist very difficult-to-manage incentives for state parties and the candidates and their campaigns to resist that call. The answer for the national parties -- the model, it appears -- is to remove those incentives. How?

The process has seen this play out before, albeit in another area. Again, the Democratic Party devised in the wake of a second consecutive defeat to George W. Bush in 2004 a way to keep states and candidates in line in terms of the constant calendar jumping. The way that the party dealt with rogue states and candidates in the rules for 2008 was to strike at the interests of those entities. Go earlier than is required by the party rules? Lose half (then all, then half, then none of) your delegation. Campaign in a rogue state? Lose your delegates from that state at the convention.

Did Florida and Michigan defy those rules? You betcha. But the party meted out a penalty that was in effect until it was clear that 1) it would not have changed the outcome at the convention and 2) it was serving an injurious purpose to the party and its nominee by angering convention activists in two typically competitive states.

On the other end, did the penalty work on the candidates? Yes, it did. No one campaigned in Florida until after the primary -- when the rules allowed a resumption -- and no one campaigned in Michigan after it was clear in the late summer of 2007 that Michigan was, in fact, going rogue.

[It should be noted that the process of deriving and instituting these rules was partially dependent on the the campaigns -- and their surrogates within the DNC -- and the usual band of carve-out state representatives being onboard. The early states were and the would-be campaigns were as well. That was the glue that kept the rule together.]

Is this a roadmap for the RNC regulating presidential primary debates?

Yeah, I think it is one potential course of action. And on the positive side of the ledger, it is not even really something that requires buy-in from the DNC. By and large, there are not a huge number of coordinated primary debates across the parties. I can think of one coordinated, double debate that happened in New Hampshire on the eve of the primary in the Granite state in 2008. But those are the exception rather than rule. Unlike regulating the movement of primary contests -- something that involves getting past bipartisan interests within states -- this debates issue is something that can potentially be handled in-house.

The drawbacks take this conversation back to something FHQ said early on in this post. To make rules like this work, a national party almost has to get it right the first time. If the penalty isn't right (see 50% penalty for violating the RNC timing rules in 2012), then the move could backfire. There is no testing ground for this other than an actual nomination race.

So how does the RNC provide disincentive for state parties and candidates on partnering with or participating in a supposed superfluous debate (...whether on CNN, MSNBC or otherwise)? The obvious answer is by taking away delegates as the DNC did for timing violations and campaigning in 2008.

But how much? Debates are not like primaries. A primary or caucuses in a state are one-off events. They are held and over in one fell swoop. Debates are not like that. There are, for instance, multiple debates in, say, Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina during the ramp up to the actual delegate selection events in those states. Does a national party go straight for the jugular and penalize everything or a sizable amount of delegates for one rogue activity? Alternatively, does the party attempt to mete out a penalty based on the number of violations? Complicating matters, does the RNC also devise a separate penalty for partnering with unsanctioned networks? Before this notion is dismissed out of hand, recall that the RNC had no answer in 2012 for a state that violated the proportionality requirement and the timing rules. There was only one 50% delegate hit a state could receive. Once one rule was violated, the RNC had no further stick to use against multiple violations.

FHQ does not have the answers to these questions. But they are important questions that the RNC Rules subcommittee on primary rules will likely consider if they are serious about regulating these presidential primary phase debates.  If regulation is the end goal, then attacking the existing incentive structure is the only path for the party to take.

...but does that veer off into fighting the last fight or fall under the category of an evolutionary management of the system?

We'll see.

1 And yeah, there was a bit of savvy to the RNC resolution. It served two purposes. First, the move played to the base of the party by going after a familiar whipping boy: the liberal media. But as many have pointed out, it also has the byproduct -- by reducing the number of outlets for debates -- of helping to reduce the number of actual debates that take place in the lead up to and during primary season in 2015 and 2016.

2 Those comments:
Former RNC Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf encouraged Priebus after the election to set early parameters for the number of debates and coordinate with Democrats, who will face similar pressures for tons of debates — especially if Clinton decides not to run.
“My friends at the networks make a carnival atmosphere out of it all,” Fahrenkopf said. “You’ve got to this situation where a candidate was afraid not to participate in a debate, even if they didn’t want to.”

Fahrenkopf, who is co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, points to the certainty in a general election context of always hosting three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate.

“It gives the candidates cover from the standpoint of not being compelled to do every single debate because they’ll offend some interests,” he said. “I don’t know whether the right number is 10 or 12 or 8. That’s not for me. But they ought to say there will be [X] sanctioned debates. Then a candidate can say when the Lion’s Club in some small town … calls, ‘We’ve already agreed to the two sanctioned debates in New Hampshire.’”
3 That said, one could certainly see a future where there is some convergence between the parties on the presidential primary debates issue. Regardless of whether any speculative new rules work for the Republican Party in 2016, the Democrats could -- as the Republicans ultimately did on the calendar issues -- come to the same conclusion. Debates are too numerous and detrimental to the nomination process and/or the success of the party's nominee in the general election. That may not happen in 2016 or even 2020, but one could envision a time when the Democrats' are pushed in that direction.

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