The Perils of a Speedy 2016 GOP Primary

By moving the contests up in the calendar, the party could hurt its most promising candidates.

Ninety-six-year-old World War II veteran Eugene Morgan (L) of West Memphis, Arkansas, listens to U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (D-MN) (2nd R) as Rep. John Carter (R-TX) (R) looks on during Morgans visit to the World War II Memorial October 2, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
Jan. 23, 2014, 4 p.m.

The Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee is hold­ing its an­nu­al winter meet­ing this week, where it’s mov­ing for­ward with long-dis­cussed plans to com­press the 2016 pres­id­en­tial primary cal­en­dar, crack down on an un­ruly de­bate sched­ule, and pro­tect the first-in-the-na­tion status of the four tra­di­tion­al early states. Party lead­ers viewed last elec­tion’s nev­er-end­ing nom­in­at­ing pro­cess as akin to a dys­func­tion­al real­ity TV show, where the spot­light shone bright­est on the party’s least-cred­ible can­did­ates and em­powered their polit­ic­al crit­ics.

But sev­er­al GOP strategists fear that the party is more fo­cused on root­ing out any­thing that might have con­trib­uted to its 2012 de­feat than on cul­tiv­at­ing its field of 2016 pro­spects. The new crop of hope­fuls is filled with re­form-minded gov­ernors and tea-party lead­ers — but many of the most prom­ising con­tenders aren’t yet house­hold names.

“Any­time you talk about lim­it­ing ac­cess and [de­bate] op­por­tun­it­ies, it helps the front-run­ner. It really makes me nervous,” said former Iowa Re­pub­lic­an Party Polit­ic­al Dir­ect­or Craig Robin­son, who is now ed­it­or in chief of the Iowa Re­pub­lic­an web­site. “There’s not much time to com­pete once you fig­ure out who’s real or not. You don’t want to space it out so if you don’t win Iowa or New Hamp­shire, you don’t have a chance.”

In 2012, the es­tab­lish­ment-favored, biggest-budget can­did­ate was Mitt Rom­ney, whom party of­fi­cials viewed as the most elect­able in a weak field. The lengthy nom­in­a­tion pro­cess al­lowed un­der­fun­ded long shots to stall Rom­ney’s path to the nom­in­a­tion and forced him to tack to the right in the gen­er­al elec­tion, hurt­ing his elect­ab­il­ity.

But in 2016, the op­pos­ite could be true. With New Jer­sey Gov. Chris Christie look­ing less for­mid­able in the wake of Bridgeg­ate, there might not even be an es­tab­lish­ment fa­vor­ite this time around. The best-fun­ded can­did­ates with the most loy­al fol­low­ings could turn out to be grass­roots fa­vor­ites such as Sens. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, who boast strong name iden­ti­fic­a­tion, close ties to the base, and deep small-donor fun­drais­ing net­works — but whose out­spoken con­ser­vat­ism could hurt them in a gen­er­al elec­tion. The party’s more-elect­able can­did­ates could wind up be­ing those like Wis­con­sin’s Scott Walk­er, a con­ser­vat­ive Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor in a blue state who, at the mo­ment, isn’t very well-known na­tion­ally.

“I think that there is a tend­ency to al­ways look at the last loss and make changes based on that. There is a tend­ency to not look at all pres­id­en­tial races over re­cent his­tory but to look at the last one that burned you,” said Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., who served as Karl Rove’s deputy in the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion. “Some­times that brings a good res­ult, some­times it doesn’t.”

Party lead­ers view the cal­en­dar re­forms as long over­due and aimed at pro­tect­ing the prerog­at­ives of the tra­di­tion­al early states without al­low­ing the nom­in­a­tion pro­cess to drag on in­def­in­itely. The party is ex­pec­ted to sched­ule its na­tion­al con­ven­tion as early as late June, which would mean states would need to sub­mit their del­eg­ate slates 35 days earli­er — by May. That would sig­ni­fic­antly shorten the nom­in­at­ing pro­cess, from the nearly six months of primar­ies and caucuses in 2012 to a three-month sprint in 2016.

The RNC would block off Feb­ru­ary for New Hamp­shire, Iowa, South Car­o­lina, and Nevada, the four tra­di­tion­al early states. That would likely make March a long-dis­tance scramble fo­cused on big-mar­ket states such as Flor­ida and Texas — a sched­ule that would fa­vor the best fun­ded and most or­gan­ized of the re­main­ing can­did­ates. The new rules would harshly pen­al­ize states that vi­ol­ated them, strip­ping of­fend­ers of all but nine or two-thirds of their del­eg­ates — whichever was more pun­it­ive. States could not have win­ner-take-all con­tests if they held them be­fore March 15.

“Get­ting a bet­ter cal­en­dar gets more people and more states in­volved,” said RNC Com­mu­nic­a­tions Dir­ect­or Sean Spicer. “This sys­tem as pro­posed will get more of our grass­roots sup­port­ers and act­iv­ists en­gaged in the pro­cess.” He ad­ded that many states that held late primar­ies were ir­rel­ev­ant to the pro­cess un­der the old cal­en­dar but would be more em­powered un­der a com­pressed primary sched­ule.

The com­mit­tee’s oth­er pri­or­ity at the meet­ings is to fig­ure out how to lim­it the num­ber of de­bates and more tightly reg­u­late how mod­er­at­ors are chosen. They’re hop­ing to in­volve con­ser­vat­ive me­dia out­lets and talk-show ra­dio hosts in the pro­cess, and to pre­vent out­spoken lib­er­als like MS­N­BC’s Chris Mat­thews from mod­er­at­ing. Spicer said the goal was to have enough de­bates for every­one to have a shot at get­ting his or her mes­sage out — es­tim­at­ing that eight to 14 would be an ideal range, down from the 20 held in the 2012 cycle.

“Mitt Rom­ney de­bated Her­man Cain more of­ten than he de­bated Barack Obama. The na­tion­al elect­or­ate is more in­ter­ested in the de­bates between those who ac­tu­ally might be pres­id­ent than in the Amer­ic­an Idol-esque de­bate-a-thon we en­dured in ‘12,” said one­time New Hamp­shire At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Tom Rath, a former Re­pub­lic­an Party na­tion­al com­mit­tee­man.

But while most Re­pub­lic­ans agree that the pro­cess got out of con­trol in 2012, some worry that the party could take things too far in the oth­er dir­ec­tion — lim­it­ing the amount of free me­dia ex­pos­ure the na­tion­ally tele­vised de­bates can provide to com­pel­ling up-and-com­ing can­did­ates.

“It’s the law of un­in­ten­ded con­sequences. You don’t want to show­case Michele Bach­mann, Newt Gin­grich, and Her­man Cain,” said one seni­or GOP op­er­at­ive. “You should want to show­case Scott Walk­er, Bobby Jin­dal, and Marco Ru­bio.”

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