The contrast between McCain’s speedy coronation in 2008 and Romney’s slow-motion advance in 2012 is striking. In 2008, Super Tuesday fell one month earlier, on Feb. 5. By that date, Republicans had held contests in 31 states—including the electoral behemoths of California, Florida, New York, and Texas. McCain had won 707 delegates in a single month, amassing 60 percent of the number he needed to clinch the nomination.
Two months into the 2012 nominating process, Romney has collected only 36 percent of the delegates needed for the nomination. Super Tuesday left him with only 415 delegates after contests in 21 states—10 fewer than in 2008, over a time period twice as long.
But far from bothering the rules’ architects, this is a source of pride to the sponsors of the Kansas City reform. “They think this has prolonged the process, and that’s exactly what they wanted to do,” said former Ohio GOP Chairman Robert Bennett. “State after state after state wanted it,” he told National Journal. Other state parties were willing—grudgingly—to accept the coveted early roles played by Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina, he said, but the idea was, “Let’s fix it so they can’t determine solely who the nominee is.”
That desire to guarantee bigger states significant roles later in the process was coupled with a distaste for the unseemly rush to the front that had candidates campaigning in Iowa during Christmas week in 2007. The RNC meeting decided to punish any state that jumped ahead of February, stripping them of half their convention delegates if they ignored the calendar. In addition, the rules required proportional allocation of delegates for any state that held a primary before April. When states such as Florida and Michigan nevertheless snubbed the RNC, they forced the four early states to shift into January. But in doing so, Arizona, Florida, and South Carolina all lost 50 percent of their delegates and clout.
These states then climbed through an unanticipated loophole, however. Having already been punished for ignoring the calendar, they faced no further penalty for ignoring the proportional requirement. So they did. And the combination of fewer states holding contests before March and several of them ignoring the proportional rule lessened its impact. Worse, the Kansas City reformers unwittingly left enormous leeway to the states to define exactly what proportional allocation meant. States such as Ohio and Georgia skirted the proportional rule by making their contests winner-take-all by congressional district. They allocated only a handful of delegates based on the statewide vote.
“It is the calendar and the dynamics of the race, and not the proportionality, that are at play,” said Josh Putnam, an expert on the presidential-nominating process who teaches at Davidson College in North Carolina.
By the dynamics of the race, Putnam means Romney’s weaknesses as a candidate. “Quite simply, if he had won South Carolina, we wouldn’t be doing anything right now except talking about Romney-Obama,” he said. “The RNC can’t control that kind of stuff—who wins or loses these things.” Putnam noted that three different candidates won the first three races. Even with the old calendar and the old rules, those mixed results would have prolonged the race.
Putnam credited the changed calendar with allowing Gingrich and Santorum to continue raising needed funds. In 2008, he recalled, Florida held its primary at the end of January, followed immediately by more than 20 states voting on the first Tuesday in February. After that, Putnam said, “there wasn’t a lot left to shoot for.” But this year, “when you have an even dispersion of contests, they continue to provide candidates with the argument that there is some light at the end of the tunnel, that if we can just make it to Alabama next week, then we’re good to go. Or Louisiana a couple of weeks down the road.”
Romney’s challenge, of course, is to get through these next few more months without any lasting damage to his public image—and without giving Republican voters any more reasons to ask themselves, “Oh, my God, what did we do?”
This article appears in the March 10, 2012, edition of National Journal.