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.
OUT OF ORDER
Another factor working against Romney, is the order of the calendar. Every time he wins a major contest—as he did in New Hampshire, Florida, and Michigan—he gets tripped up by a state with unfriendly demographics and political leanings. Super Tuesday featured a number of states favorable to a northeastern Mormon with a moderate record on social issues, but it also included a bunch of heavily evangelical, Southern states beyond his reach—depriving him of a clean sweep and mashing up the cable-news narrative.
Next up are three more conservative bastions: Kansas on March 10, and Alabama and Mississippi on March 13. With Gingrich and Santorum still in the race, Romney may have to go without a victory from Super Tuesday on March 6 to Illinois on March 20—an eternity in political terms, when he is trying to persuade skeptics of his inevitability.
Romney has also confronted a historic change never contemplated at the time of the Kansas City meeting: the Citizens United ruling. When the Supreme Court cleared the way for unlimited campaign contributions to groups now known as super PACs, it created a lifeline for underdogs who can’t keep pace with a front-runner’s fundraising. In previous elections, Gingrich and Santorum would have been starved of funds and forced to the sidelines by now. But as long as each of them boasts at least one wealthy benefactor who can write multimillion-dollar checks to friendly super PACs, hopes—and negative ads—remain alive.
The pro-Romney super PAC eviscerated Gingrich before the Iowa caucuses, carpet bombed him in Florida, and savaged Santorum in Michigan and Ohio. With far less money, the pro-Gingrich and pro-Santorum super PACs have fought back. The onslaught of attack ads from super PACs that are purportedly outside the candidates’ purview appears to have contributed to negative feelings toward them and the GOP—and has possibly depressed turnouts. The Bipartisan Policy Center and the Center for the Study of the American Electorate report Republican turnout of 11.5 percent in 13 primaries so far, compared with 13.2 percent in those same states in 2008 and 12.2 percent in 2000.
The RNC has been pushing back against the argument that a protracted primary is dampening grassroots interest in the election and benefiting President Obama’s chances of winning a second term. In a recent memo circulated to reporters, spokesman Sean Spicer pointed to Gallup polling showing that Republicans are more enthusiastic than Democrats, 53 percent to 45 percent, about voting this year. “In a few more months, the primary will seem like a distant memory,” Spicer wrote. “Ultimately, one of the four current candidates will be the Republican nominee. Our party will then unite 100 percent around him.”
Still, the polling has to be worrisome to the party. The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows favorable views of Romney tumbled from 31 percent to 28 percent since January, while negative views of him rose from 36 percent to 39 percent. Among independents—the crucial swing-voting bloc in a general election—the numbers are even more troubling. Romney’s image is worse than almost all the other recent candidates of either party who went on to win the nomination, with the exception of Clinton in 1992.
Compared to Romney’s favorable/unfavorable rating of 28 percent/39 percent, Obama’s was 51 percent/28 percent at this point in the 2008 campaign. The ABC News/Washington Post poll found an even bigger rise in Romney’s unfavorable rating, from 34 percent in early January to 45 percent this month.
These numbers defy the notion that running the primary gauntlet will make Romney a better candidate. “That’s like saying a .278 hitter would be a much better hitter if the pitcher kept throwing at his knees,” said veteran GOP strategist Rich Galen. “That’s just nonsense. Romney is as good a candidate as he’s going to be. He’s been doing this for five and half years. He’s never going to be a great candidate. But he’s going to be solid candidate. This doesn’t make him any better.”
And even if the new rules make sense, critics question the timing. “This was the worst year to change the rules, when you’re taking on an incumbent president,” said Al Cardenas, a former chairman of the Florida Republican Party. “Why would we want to drag it out this year and prolong the process when we’re running against a well-entrenched incumbent with significant resources?” Cardenas, who is now chairman of the American Conservative Union, added, “On paper, it sounds plausible—be fair to all the states; it’s not fair for just a few states to pick the president. The arguments make sense in terms of the internal politics of the RNC. But when you juxtapose it against the reality of running against an incumbent president, it doesn’t work in our favor.”
THE LONG SLOG
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 Magazine.