Defeat seemed imminent when John H. Sununu took the microphone almost two years ago in Kansas City to urge his fellow Republicans to reform the way the party picked its presidential nominees. Looking out at the squabbling members of the Republican National Committee, many of them decked out in bright red “Fire Pelosi” hats, the former New Hampshire governor warned that if they defeated the measure, they would wake up the next year and say, “Oh, my God, what did we do?”
Swayed by his passionate appeal, the party leaders gathered that August day in 2010 voted 103-41, barely exceeding the two-thirds needed to approve the most far-reaching primary change ever considered by the RNC.
Sununu was prescient, but not in the way he had thought. Nineteen months after that vote aimed at slowing down the nominating process, many Republicans woke up this week to behold a muddled, post-Super Tuesday battle for the 2012 nomination that appears to have no end in sight, and some may have asked, “Oh, my God, what did we do?’ ”
Mitt Romney’s failure to quickly secure the prize begins with him and his flaws as a candidate, shortcomings so persistent that each narrow win or defeat seems only to amplify them. He has no one to blame but himself for flip-flops on issues and tone-deaf remarks that exacerbate the gulf between him and his party’s blue-collar conservatives. But he can’t do anything about being a Mormon from Massachusetts, both hard sells in Southern and evangelical strongholds. He can’t be held responsible for the super PACs that have kept alive candidates who in any other year would have faded for lack of funds. And, above all, he didn’t create the new rules that have turned the nomination process into an agonizing crawl.
The simple answer to Sununu’s question is that the RNC accomplished exactly what it set out to do in 2010. Grappling with state parties’ decadelong rush to the beginning of the primary calendar that had left voters bewildered, candidates exhausted, and most states ignored, the RNC stretched out the process for accumulating delegates. The party tweaked the delegate-allocation rules and reduced the number of early primaries.
Under the new rules, a strong candidate could still create momentum by winning the leadoff contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina and sustain it long enough to claim the nomination relatively early in the newly drawn-out calendar. But the 2012 field doesn’t have that candidate. Three different contenders won those three contests, throwing a wrench into the new system.
Supporters of the plan say that a longer vetting process will produce, in the end, a sturdier nominee. “Bang, we picked John McCain. It was a bad selection process and a bad result in 2008,” said David Norcross, the former RNC Rules Committee chairman who helped draft the presidential-primary reforms. “We thought the changes would result in a much better process and that the eventual nominee would be stronger for having been through the competition in a variety of states and locations.”
That may turn out to be true. Norcross and other defenders of the current system point to the epic 2008 Democratic battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton that produced a winning general-election candidate. It’s worth remembering that, early on, the feeling was much like now. As the race dragged on through the spring, worries grew that Clinton was doing significant damage to Obama and his prospects in the general election by staying in and winning states.
For the moment, the rules seem to be conspiring against the likely nominee, Romney, by dragging out an increasingly nasty battle against much weaker rivals. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, one of Romney’s most prominent supporters and a potential future presidential candidate, told Fox News last month that the rule passed in Kansas City “was the dumbest idea anybody ever had.” Polls suggest that the slugfest with Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul is tarnishing Romney and the GOP brand.
“The way the primary played out was helpful to Obama in 2008 because he started out as an underdog and then he kept on winning and winning,” said Michael DuHaime, who ran Rudy Giuliani’s campaign that year before he lost to McCain. “For a candidate like Romney, who started out as the front-runner, the expectations are much different. It means people question his ability to overcome a field that is perceived as not as strong as it’s been in previous years.”
Thus, a competitive primary season has not enhanced the public’s view of Romney as it ultimately did for Obama in 2008, George W. Bush in 2000, and Bill Clinton in 1992. Rather than getting credit for clawing his way to a narrow comeback in Ohio, for instance, Romney gets grief for failing to decisively crush Santorum there, notch a surprise victory in Tennessee, and drive his rivals out of the race.
This article appears in the March 10, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.