Tuesday, September 29, 2015

So the RNC is Floating the Idea of a New Presidential Primary Order?

Tim Alberta has an interesting item up at the National Journal today. In it, Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, indicates that he and others in the party are open to a discussion about "wheth­er or not the same old or­der and the same old sys­tem is the best sys­tem for how we choose nom­in­ees of our party".

In a broad sense, this is nothing new. The national parties do this every four years. Both the DNC and RNC revisit the rules of the just completed cycle and tend to revise them when and where they see the need to correct the perceived problems of the past. In other words, the national parties usually fight the last war.

But what Priebus is suggesting is a more thorough examination of the process before 2020. One that, the end goal of which, may be to introduce a fundamentally different system. He raises the type of rotating regional primary system that bears some resemblance to the one the National Association of Secretaries of State have pushed for years.1 Priebus also brought up the kind of lottery system (to determine primary and caucus order on the calendar) that is seen in system proposals like the American Plan.

Before everyone jumps on the bandwagon of change or, worse yet, folks in Iowa and New Hampshire start to freak out because they aren't "sacred cows" anymore, let's take a step back and look at the institutional impediments that will very likely stand in the way of such sweeping changes.

The first and largest impediment is that the RNC can change all it wants, but a changed system is really never going take hold unless there is similar buy-in from the DNC. When the national parties coordinate these types of changes, even if only in an informal way, they tend to institutionalize both more quickly and in a more lasting way. There is some evidence to suggest that when they don't offer a united front against the states -- both state parties and state governments -- the states can use that inter-party division over the rules of the game against the national parties and to their (the states') own advantage.

Take, for example, the roguery of the last couple of cycles. Actors in both Florida and Michigan called the national parties' bluff in 2007 and moved their respective primaries into positions on the calendar that broke with the guidance in the national party delegate selection rules. Other than a 50% penalty that those states and others were willing to take in order to have an early influence on the nomination race, the RNC looked the other way. The DNC, on the other hand, exercised the party rule that gave its Rules and Bylaws Committee the discretion to increase the severity of their own 50% penalty.

The rules were similar in both parties, but the penalties were different. Some Republican-controlled states used that mismatched rules regime across the two national parties to their advantage and wreaked some level of havoc with the presidential primary calendar in 2008.

The reaction for 2012 was that both parties agreed to a later start date -- not January -- but the Republican Party did not increase its 50% penalty to enforce that start point. The result was a repeat of the 2008 calendar chaos. If states were willing to take the 50% hit in 2008, then they were just as willing to take it again in 2012. The RNC learned that lesson after 2012 and synced the severity of their penalty -- the new super penalty -- with the potential severity of the DNC penalty. That has yield a much calmer primary calendar formation for the 2016 cycle.

Lesson learned.

That said, there are lessons to be gleaned from that process that might also inform us about how likely we are to see a significant change to the way that the Republican Party nominates its presidential candidates in the future. If the RNC makes those changes and the DNC does not also make a similar move, then Democratic-controlled states are going to be differently motivated than Republican-controlled states. If Democratic-controlled states don't play along, then those states get left out of the lottery or regional sequence.

Now, the obvious counter to that is that the RNC could just penalize those states into submission. They were willing to do that to keep states in line on the calendar for 2016, right? That move is less effective if the Democratic Party is pulling the strings at the state level. They are not dissuaded by penalties that will not affect them or their candidate. Instead, a new system without DNC buy-in might lead to Republican state parties in Democratic states abandoning non-compliant primary elections for compliant caucuses that they control (and for which the state parties pick up the tab).

That brings in a whole host of issues related to participation that may bring unintended consequences into the process that the RNC does not want.

The other factor that works against fundamental system change ties into that notion of unintended consequences. No one likes that Iowa and New Hampshire always go first other than folks in Iowa and New Hampshire. But from the national party perspective, sometimes you go with the devil you do know versus the devil you don't know. Neither national party may like that Iowa and New Hampshire go first, but they do like that they have a pretty good idea after over 40 years of repeated experimentation how Iowa and New Hampshire (and now Nevada and South Carolina) will go. The parties don't have certainty there, but there is less uncertainty with Iowa and New Hampshire at the front of the line than if they were to substitute North Dakota and Vermont in their place, for instance (or really any other combination of the other 48 states).

It is that uncertainty that often forces the national parties back the status quo, or if not the status quo then using it as a baseline from which to tweak the rules. There is a reason that the DNC added Nevada and South Carolina to the mix in 2008. Replacing Iowa and New Hampshire proved too difficult, so they opted to add a couple of states that brought in some regional and racial diversity to the beginning of the calendar.

Would a rotating regional primary system help produce a better Republican presidential nominee? Would the American plan? Perhaps, but the only way to find out is to test them out. And the parties cannot do that in a lab. They cannot determine in advance that there will not be unintended negative consequences beforehand. That test only happens in real time during primary season, and the impact is uncertain.

Existing institutions are hard to uproot when the alternative does not offer sure fire sure thing results. That is why the national parties continue to collectively -- internally -- come back to the status quo. They tend to be unable to collectively agree on a substitute that offers any more certainty than the current system. That is why there are only ever incremental changes to the delegate selection rules.

It is a popular question these days in the context of the 2016 presidential race, so FHQ will pose it here in this discussion as well: Maybe 2020 will be different. What if the rules making for 2020 is different?

Well, everything above speaks against the type of fundamental, sweeping change that Chairman Priebus describes. However, there is precedence here. The Democratic Party after 1968 tore the house of cards down and rebuilt a new system around primary and caucus results impacting delegate allocation and thus the membership of the national convention that nominates a presidential candidate. They made that change unilaterally.2 Republicans only joined in later when state laws in Democratic-controlled states had some influence on the Republican presidential process in 1976.  The RNC, more or less, got forced into the new system. It was too convenient and too politically costly not to be a part of the new system.3

After 40 years, the RNC may be able to return the favor, leading the charge in changing the nomination system. It is not inconceivable. But it is still likely dependent on Democratic Party buy-in. If the DNC or Democrats generally perceive that the system the RNC institutes or wants to institute benefits the Republicans, then the DNC might be drawn in to changing as well.

There is a pretty good parallel for this in 2016. The RNC codified presidential primary debates limitations in their rules for the 2016 cycle. While the DNC did not craft specific rules for their own debates, they did follow suit in limiting the overall number of debates. Both national parties shared the view that the limits carried with them some utility to the overall nomination process.

That may or may not happen with the overall delegate selection rules for 2020. To bring about big changes the national parties have agree on something more than just getting rid of Iowa and New Hampshire. But just that sort of incremental change may be something the parties can collectively bring about. That is in line with what we know about the how the institutions of this process tend to operate.

1 NASS did recently drop its recommendation of the rotating regional primary system, but not because it no longer supported it. Rather, the system had failed to gain traction and the recommendation was not having any perceived impact.

2 And it helped that most of the state legislatures in the country were also controlled by the Democratic Party. Those states had incentive to play along with the changes. It should be noted that Republicans hold a similar level of advantage in state capitals across the country now. That may be to the national party's advantage in implementing a new system.

3 The newly powerful and proliferating primaries provided a cheaper, state-run and state-fund mechanism for producing results that could be used for delegate allocation. It was also potentially foolish for the Republican Party to sit on the sidelines and watch Democrats invite more people into the nomination process (higher turnout in primaries than in caucuses), thus engaging them for later during the general election.

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