Republicans are weighing a change to the party’s presidential primary rules amid fears this year’s prolonged nomination process is hurting the GOP’s chances of retaking the White House.
The problems with the current system were discussed at length at both the most recent Republican National Committee meeting and at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference last month. Top RNC committeemen plan to reconsider the rules at the next RNC meeting, slotted for late spring in Phoenix.
“I think it comes up at almost every major Republican meeting across the country,” said one senior Republican, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “Everyone’s talking about how we can do this better, how can we fix it. I think it’s going to be a big discussion.”
The RNC adopted a new rules system a little more than a year ago in order to try to control the mad scramble for early primary dates that had occurred in years past, partly because of the view that John McCain locked up the nomination too quickly and that a longer process would have helped the GOP find a stronger candidate.
The new system created a rigid calendar and strong penalties for states that moved their contest's date up, including the loss of half a state’s delegates and a proportional rather than winner-take-all system for states that voted before April.
The two goals were to keep the primary season out of the holidays and to prolong the system so lesser known candidates would have more of a chance.
Florida’s decision to break the new rules and vote early anyway set off a calendar scramble that pushed Iowa’s caucuses to Jan. 3. Many Republicans are now worried that the second goal has worked too well, and that the long primary is hurting the candidates.
One prominent critic of the current system is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R). “These RNC rules that turned to proportional awarding of delegates, this was the dumbest idea anybody ever had,” he said on Fox News on Thursday. “You're running against an incumbent president who will not have a primary, so your idea is make ours longer so we can beat each other up longer?”
Some Republicans worry the extended primary is draining their candidates’ coffers, leaving them at a financial disadvantage against Obama.
“People do have concerns this has gone on longer than they would like and cost more money than they would like and created more thunder and lightning than they would like. That is a result of people going before the time allotted in the rules," said John Ryder, an RNC committeeman from Tennessee who came up with the idea to assign delegates proportionally. "And had the states complied with the rules the calendar would have been more compressed, orderly and less costly."
Ryder blamed Florida for jumping the gun. He argued that that the eventual nominee will be much more battle-tested and ready to take on Obama, but he worried that the level of negativity the campaigns had engaged in could hurt the eventual nominee.
“A lot of [the ad money] is going to exposing the flaws in the other guy’s policies,” he said. “It’s a trade-off. They have to raise and spend more money than they would have in a shorter primary but they get the privilege of being in the public eye.”
Ryder predicted that the RNC would seek to strengthen the current rules.
“I think the key change is going to be to try to find a way to encourage states not to jump line the way Florida did this time," he said. "I don’t know whether that’ll be an increase in penalties or some other device that can affect their decision process."
RNC spokesperson Sean Spicer said it was too early to say whether this year's primary process would have any effect on the general election.
“I’m sure there were a lot of New York Giants fans that were concerned when they started the season two and three, but not many were concerned after they won the Super Bowl,” he said. “We’re very early in the process and have a ways to go.”
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Most observers still predict that the primary will be all but over by late April and say that would give the nominee plenty of time to raise money and prepare for the general election.
But they all said that if the primary dragged into the summer, it could hurt the eventual nominee and that a brokered convention would be a disaster for the party. Thus far, none of the Republican candidates are even close to hitting the 1,144 delegates needed to lock in the nomination. At the current rate of distribution, the earliest a candidate could have the necessary delegates is late April.
Adding to the pressure are threats from Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich to stay in the race until the GOP convention in Tampa.
“It’d be horrible to go into a brokered convention heading into Labor Day weekend,” said Saul Anuzis, an RNC committeeman from Michigan who backs Mitt Romney.
Anuzis was the only one of the 15-member board to vote against proportionality.
“When you’re challenging the incumbent, you wanted to get the nomination process done as quickly as possible so they can begin pulling the party together and raise money,” he said.
Anuzis said he didn’t fight hard against the rule when it passed a year ago but said he thought the system would be scrapped for next election.
“What we’ve seen is unless the rules are extremely draconian you’re going to have a hard time imposing national rules,” he said. “There are some people that believe we should eliminate all the timing rules and just let the nominating process work its way out. It’s very hard to try to control the states from the national perspective, we cause more grief than good sometimes. I’d be all for a laissez faire system.”