Sunday, September 20, 2015

Rules Matter...

But correctly interpreting rules changes matters more.

Adam Nagourney and Jonathan Martin at the New York Times are the latest to venture down the path of tea leaf reading about the changes the Republican National Committee has made to its 2016 delegate selection rules and their impact. Their conclusions?

The rules changes to streamline the Republican presidential nomination process may backfire. More specifically, they add:
But as the sprawling class of 2016 Republican presidential candidates tumbled out of their chaotic second debate last week, it was increasingly clear that those rule changes — from limiting the number of debates to adjusting how delegates are allocated — had failed to bring to the nominating process the order and speed that party leaders had craved.
What follows in the article is more of the same.

...and it is wrong. It is wrong because Nagourney and Martin fall into the post hoc ergo propter hoc trap. Essentially, the conclusion is: the RNC made nomination rules changes, thus the "chaos" we are currently witnessing is direct result of those rules changes. And then they even talk to and aggregate quotes from folks like Richard Hohlt who not only subscribe to the chaos theory, but who feel the rules changes have led to "unintended consequences".

But here's the thing: For those rules to have either the desired effect that the national party wants or for there to have been unintended consequences, the rules actually have to be implemented. And a great many of those rules and their attendant effects have not kicked in yet. One cannot draw conclusions from something that has yet to occur. One can only speculate. And that is pretty much what we're getting from this article: speculation.

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Let's take a step back here for a moment and lay this out piece by piece. There are four main rules changes that Nagourney and Martin both directly discuss and indirectly hint at:
  1. limiting the number of debates
  2. increasing the penalties to keep states in line on the primary calendar
  3. compressing that calendar due to #2 and shifting up the date of the national convention
  4. tightening the proportionality rules for states with contests during the first half of March
Out of those four changes, only one has truly been implemented so far. That is the new debates-limiting rule. And it could be argued that even the effects of that one have not been felt yet. Debate season, after all, has not run its course yet. We are going on information from just two debates, long in duration though they may have been, at this point.

To have the desired effect that Nagourney and Martin describe -- to tamp down on the "chaos" and calm the nerves of jittery Republicans in the campaigns, the donor class or in the heartland -- the only solution would have been to eliminate primary debates altogether. But the RNC was never going to do that. Their objective was to limit the perceived damage. As we are witnessing on the Democratic side, even limiting debates can be a tricky business. The objective is the same though: limit, not eliminate the sort of jockeying that is a normal part of this invisible primary stage of a presidential nomination process. In other words, the national parties are attempting to manage the sorts of party divisions that always end up being emphasized in these events.

That is the only rules change that has had anything approaching a direct impact on the process so far, and the results are inconclusive. Of the other three changes cited above, the only other one to have even an indirect effect is the effort to compress the primary calendar on the front end: the increase in the severity of the penalty for holding a primary or caucus before March. Has that had an impact on the nomination race? The answer is not really. In any event, we will not know its impact until we actually get into campaign season. Could a newly compressed calendar backfire on the RNC? Sure, but it has not yet.

However, we have seen an indirect effect of this rule. It has kept states in line on the calendar. That is the desired impact of the change. The Florida and Michigan chaos of four and eight years ago -- you know, actual chaos, not the normal kind discussed above -- is not present during the 2016 cycle. That has affected candidate and campaign activity. Are there unintended consequences from that? We don't know. What we do know is that the campaigns have some confidence in what the primary calendar is going to look like in 2016. Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada will have February primaries and caucuses. Other states are falling in line in March and thereafter. Four and eight years ago, things were different. States like Florida were agents of uncertainty. Threatening a January primary date well into September 2011, for example, meant that the calendar was shrouded in mystery. The campaigns had a pretty good idea that the carve-out states would be first, but what came next and in what sequence was not set in stone until relatively late in the calendar year before the primaries started.

That affects candidate and campaign behavior. And in 2011, candidates tended to focus on the near sure things at the beginning of the calendar -- the carve-out states -- and not those that came after, the sequence of which was an unknown.

Again, this is the desired impact. The RNC has reined in rogue state activity. It wanted more certainty so that candidates and their campaigns could actually plan ahead; plan for states with early March 2016 contests. Is that evidence that the campaigns are planning for a long delegate fight. Maybe, but we don't know for sure yet. What looks like a long delegate fight more than four months before Iowa may not actually be a long, protracted delegate fight once the process gets to and through Iowa next February.

But let's give credit where credit is due: the RNC (and DNC, for that matter) has successfully curbed calendar chaos in 2015. That may be fighting the last war. That may yield unintended consequences, but hasn't really done so yet.

Whether the best intentions of that compressed calendar are upset by a huge (at this point un-winnowed) field of candidates remains to be seen. We'll have a better idea next year.

That goes for the final two rules included in this unintended consequences hypothesis that Nagourney and Martin advance as well. Look, we just have not felt the effects of either the recalibrated delegate allocation rules or the earlier convention (and thus backend-shortened primary calendar) yet. One cannot test the effects of supposed unintended consequences until the rules have actually been implemented. Those haven't been. In the void, we are left to speculate, and that is really what Nagourney and Martin are doing here. They are taking, as many others before them have, this large field of candidates and are projecting changes based on that, that at the same time have not happened yet.

Rules matter, folks, but the rules changes the RNC put in place for 2016 have not been fully realized yet. As a result, we really cannot fully determine at this point whether the desired impact has been felt.


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1 comment:

Jamie Saker said...

Nice and relevant analysis. One might go further as well, not only recognizing the logical fallacy that denies the claim made by Nagoumey and Martin, but providing the alternative causality that seems to suggest that both the post-2014 rule changing and the current Trumpocalypse are caused by the same root condition.

The progressive 0.1% wing of the Republican Party, horrified by the rise of an angry bourgeois ala "Tea Party," worked aggressively during the 2014 convention to subvert the power of the masses and implement new controls to eliminate any chance of the regular folks putting forth a serious challenge to the candidate anointed by the billionaires, the US Chamber of Commerce, etc. This same mentality that caused this reactionary rule changing has also given rise to the current Trump-implicated crisis. The elites, turning away as aggressively as possible from the 2014 mandate on amnesty, government reform and Obamacare repeal, have shoved middle class job-killing trade authority schemes (TPA/TPP/TISA) and propelled an anti-middle class agenda in a violent effort to show the voters who is in charge.

As any sober consultant could have advised them, the current backlash is what you get. The Russian peasants in their "1905 Revolution" believed the Czar was on their side and it was merely the corrupt consultants and advisers who were deceiving him. When the Czar declared his solidarity with the elites, ordering his palace guard to slaughter the masses who had appealed to him, he made his execution, the extermination of the Romanovs, and the rise of Second Revolution, all but a certainty.

More political schemes by the Republican party elites and their billionaire owner class will only accelerate their downfall. There may still be time to listen to the Tea Party masses, but quite likely, that opportunity passed this last winter. It's just a matter of how bad things will be when the Trumpenproletariat demands punishment for the elites who wrecked this country with their unrelenting greed.