Monday, January 27, 2014

With RNC Rules Revised, the Ball is Now in the Democrats' Court

Now that the Republican National Committee has seemingly settled on the rules that will govern the selection of delegates in the 2016 presidential nomination race, it is time for the Democratic National Committee to get to work.

The history of the rules give and take between the two national parties in the post-reform era is an interesting one, and this latest iteration is more active, perhaps, than things have been for more than a decade. After all, it was the Democratic Party that fundamentally reformed the manner in which it selected delegates and determined presidential nominations following the messy 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. But four years later, in 1972, only the Democrats had a competitive presidential nomination race. The changes brought about by the McGovern-Fraser Commission had little to no effect on the Republican process that renominated President Nixon. Four years later, however, the Republican Party was dragged into the ad hoc and still developing -- from the states' perspectives -- post-reform nomination process.1 The Republican Party was largely on the sidelines again as Democratic-controlled state governments in the South shifted up the dates of their delegate selection events in 1988 in concert as a means of exerting maximum influence over the Democratic nomination process.2

[Now, the 1988 dynamics were not the result of a concerted national party effort to entice southern states into earlier slots on the primary calendar, but it was a move within the existing Democratic Party rules that had a fairly significant impact on the Republican race that year. George H. W. Bush was able to use a sweep of the contests in the southern states to take a commanding lead in the race for the Republican nomination that year.]

It was the DNC or Democrats, then, that had proven more progressive in altering the rules by which not only their nominees were chosen, but the Republican nominees as well. But that relationship did not and has not stayed the same over time. The Republican Party, for instance, allowed states to hold February contests well before the Democrats followed suit, allowing similar activity in 2004. The 1996 and 2000 cycles saw Democratic state parties forced into a caucus/convention systems in lieu of too-early and non-compliant primary dates that Republicans were able to take advantage of (but Democratic states were not due to DNC delegate selection rules). Take notice of the number of contests that Republicans had between New Hampshire and Super Tuesday in 2000. The Gore-Bradley contest had a long layoff between those two endpoints.

The RNC also flirted with a more fundamental reshaping of the rules governing the delegate selection process in both 2000 and 2008. The Bush campaign quashed the Delaware Plan at the 2000 Republican National Convention. Then, the McCain campaign basically followed that same script in 2008, shooting down the Ohio Plan that the RNC had given the thumbs up to earlier in the year.

The unique thing about both the 2012 cycle and to some extent the 2016 cycle is that both the DNC and RNC are informally coordinating their processes. The national parties are not moving in lockstep, but they are at the very least communicating about a set of shared problems across their respective processes. This was clearer to see in 2012 when the two parties agreed on the basic structure of the primary calendar.3 And while those best laid plans were ultimately dashed by a handful of rogue states, the failure did point to a glaring deficiency in the Democratic and Republican rules: penalties. Just as 2008 had done to the Democrats, 2012 highlighted the fact that the RNC did not have an adequate penalty in place to deter states from moving into non-compliant points on the calendar.

With the rules it passed last week, the RNC addressed the penalty issue by solidifying a more severe penalty on states that might violate the party's rules on (primary/caucus) timing. The party also moved to shift the back end of the calendar as well to accommodate an earlier convention. Both moves affect the Democratic Party and what the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee may think about when it meets at the end of February to more officially begin hammering out the DNC delegate selection rules for 2016.

Both the DNC and RNC are on the same page where the front end of the calendar is concerned. The parties have voiced a preference for a process that begins with a limited number of small states kicking the process off in February and the remaining states falling somewhere after the first Tuesday in March.4 But the back end of the calendar is not in synch across parties given the changes the RNC just instituted. That may or may not matter to the Democratic Party. It is not entirely clear what the DNC reaction to an earlier Republican convention will be. If the party is enticed into having a similarly early convention, then the Democrats may also move to push late states a little earlier on the calendar. [But the Democrats may not want to do that.]

That is one matter the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee will have to consider. Another is the penalties point. There was a discrepancy between the DNC and RNC sanctions on rogue states in 2008 and 2012, but not one that amounted to much difference. Despite the fact that candidate delegate totals were directly penalized (if a Democratic candidate campaigned in a rogue state), that did not significantly affect the calculus on the state-level. This was complicated in 2008 by partisan control of state governments as well. Republican-controlled Florida, for example, moved into violation of the DNC rules (with Democratic state legislative votes). Even the Rules and Bylaws Committee move completely stripping Florida of all of its delegates did little other than point out how little control one national party has when a state government is controlled by the opposition party.

That does also highlight the problem of states (governments or parties) being able to exploit the differences across the two national parties. That is exactly why the RNC last week made an allowance for late states -- those that may have contests that fall in the window 45 days before the convention -- controlled by the Democrats. But if there is a significant amount of variation between the two parties' sanctions on rogue states, it does potentially provide the states with another point of exploitation.

Now that the super penalty is set in stone, the Democrats may consider following suit. In fact, FHQ has been told that such an item -- a more severe penalty -- will be on the table when the Rules and Bylaws Committee convenes to begin hashing out the Democratic delegate selection rules. That said, there may still remain an issue where enforcement is concerned. There is a philosophical difference about enforcement that exists across the parties. The RNC has taken a hardline approach, enforcing its penalties directly at the convention. Break the rules, lose the delegates. The DNC approach is less severe and may hamper even a more severe penalty if enacted.

Assume for a moment that the Rules and Bylaws Committee recommends to the DNC a penalty similar to the RNC super penalty. While the RNC would strip a state delegation down to twelve or fewer delegates (depending on the size of the state) at the convention, the DNC would not.5 The DNC views this as a penalty for the primary phase of the campaign. The party sees the damage as having been done if the penalty merely affects the delegate count in real time during primary season. The assumption is that by the end of the process, the party will have settled on and lined up behind one candidate and the delegate count is a non-issue at the convention and reducing delegations only serves to hurt those who are working hardest on the state level. In truth, history is on their side despite the quadrennial rush of brokered convention stories in the news. Still, such a view does potentially lend itself to festering conflict between two presidential aspirants. The type that would not necessarily bode well for the party overall.6 The delegate issue would not be closed until the convention if it is unsettled.

But again, the invisible primary phase the 2016 cycle is currently in and the primary season itself typically resolve those matters. Regardless, there are a couple of fairly significant matters the RNC has given the DNC to think about now that it has settled on its delegate selection rules. Such is and has been the give and take between the two national parties over the presidential nomination process over time.

Now it is the DNC's turn.

1 The short version of this is that the Democrats had for 1972 made the votes in state-level contests -- whether primaries or caucuses -- binding on the delegates who would attend the national convention. Rather than determinative decisions being made at the convention, the action shifted to the newly empowered delegate selection process. That initiated a period of learning for the candidates, states (state parties and/or state governments) and the national parties themselves.

2 Even 1988 was the product of several cycles of movement. Alabama, Florida and Georgia had concurrent primaries in early March 1980, and four years later in 1984, a handful of late primary states adopted a caucus/convention format and moved into various points in March (see Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and Oklahoma).

3 This is mostly due to the fact that the Democrats did not have a stake in the nomination season. The party was nominating a sitting president with no serious opposition.

4 FHQ will have more in clarification on this March point in a future post.

5 Now granted, the Republican nominee and his or her campaign has some say in this as well. That campaign will control the convention and the delegates ultimately seated, but the RNC has enforced those penalties at the convention the last two cycles. They got creative with it in 2008, allowing all the delegates to be seated but with half the voting privileges. In 2012, the affected delegations were reduced by half as called for by the rules.

6 Yes, this may be a complete dead end point if Hillary Clinton both decides to run for and coasts to the Democratic nomination. But bear with me on the point about the difference in philosophy.

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