Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Unintended Consequences of Fighting the Last Battle

FHQ often talks about the unintended consequences of presidential primary rules changes at the national party level. We also frequently invoke the notion of those same national parties fighting the last battle in setting those rules. It is not often that we tie the two together. But this week, as the Republican National Committee gathers for its spring meeting in Scottsdale, there is a great example playing out of how fighting the last battle is yielding unintended consequences for the RNC as 2016 approaches.

The RNC rules on delegate selection have been set for nine months now, but the particulars of one rules change -- a new addition for the 2016 cycle -- remain somewhat unsettled. The new rule in question is the measure put in place to regulate the presidential primary debates process in the context of the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Those rules are an example of a classic reaction to a perceived problem from the previous cycle. Though the number of debates were down slightly in 2012 relative to 2008, they were not counter-programed by Democratic debates, leaving the Republican candidates in the spotlight attempting to in some ways out-conservative one another.

This was viewed by the RNC and some pundits as injurious to the party and its nominee, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, in the general election phase of the campaign.1 Perceived problems and a loss in November often lead to a perceived need for nominations rules changes and then actual rules changes in the years immediately following the loss. That was the case in 2013 when the RNC began moving toward rules that would limit the number of debates in the 2016 presidential nomination cycle.

But that was a set of changes tailor-made for 2012. 2016 is a different animal. Rules changes in 2013-14 have led to a need for more rules in 2015. Limiting the number of debates is one thing, but determining who can participate from among a crowded field of candidates and potential candidates is another altogether. FHQ mentioned in reaction to the debates proposal nearly two years ago that the RNC risked moving from managing a process (the debates) to trying to control it. Attempting to control a process with competing interests -- the national party's, the state parties', the candidates', the media outlets' -- is attempting to control an uncontrollable process. That is even more true when an initial wave of regulations on debates requires a second wave of rules to govern who can participate.

That is something the RNC is struggling with now. Where does the party draw the line on who can participate? What determines that line? Poll position (in a period of the process where name recognition is driving things)? Fundraising (with or without super PAC data)? Staffing and organization in early states?

Perhaps all the RNC has done is open Pandora's box. But keep in mind that just because this is unique to the Republican Party now does not mean that this is not something that  can affect Democrats too. That may not come in 2016, but could in the future. The problems (potentially) are the same across both parties. It may be useful to coordinate, evenly if only loosely, a set of best practices for primary debates regulation like the national parties did on the calendar rules these last two cycles.

1 Of course, despite all of that, the 2012 election still ended up about where one would expect given that an incumbent president was seeking reelection with both decent but not great approval ratings and a growing but not greatly economy.

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