RNC Chair: Iowa and New Hampshire Aren’t “Sacred Cows” After 2016

Reince Priebus suggests the GOP’s governing body could alter the nominating order for future presidential primaries.

Reince Priebus speaks to the media after the first Republican presidential debate.
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Tim Alberta
Sept. 29, 2015, 5 a.m.

Reince Priebus and the Republican National Committee have taken drastic steps to restructure the GOP’s presidential primary process, including cutting the number of debates, compressing the nominating schedule, and introducing harsh penalties for candidates and states that violate party rules.

But with the RNC this week finalizing its rules and regulations for next year’s primary, Priebus said in an interview that there is unfinished business he’d hoped to handle ahead of 2016 and expects the party to address before the next cycle: shaking up the early states on the primary calendar.

“It’s a hot topic. These early states are very used to fighting this out every four years. It’s just something I think we ought to look at as a party,” Priebus said. “If you look at my history, I’ve been very supportive of the early states as general counsel and as chairman. But I don’t think anyone should get too comfortable.”

Such statements are known to sound alarms in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states on the nominating schedule, where party leaders guard their special status with a righteous zeal. Iowans, in particular, feel perpetually targeted by national Republicans and worry that their leadoff status could be in jeopardy after 2016. Many party officials there feared the collapse of this year’s straw poll could foreshadow the demise of their caucuses.

If anything, the RNC offered protection to those early states this cycle like never before, approving severe penalties for any state that leapfrogged them on the calendar. But Priebus said every aspect of his party’s primary system will be reevaluated after this upcoming election, and said no special treatment will be given to the traditional early states.

“I don’t think there should ever be any sacred cows as to the primary process or the order,” he said.

Priebus raised the issue unsolicited when asked what, if anything, he’d failed to fix ahead of the 2016 primary season. The chairman said he understands the difficulty of displacing any of the four “carve-out” states at the front of the calendar—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada—but said the party would benefit from bringing new ideas and fresh blood into the process.

Discussions about changing the order have intensified inside the party, Priebus said, and he expects the issue to be “front and center” when the RNC’s rules committee meets at July’s national convention in Cleveland.

It’s too late to change the rules for 2016, and in fact, the RNC will release a finalized itinerary this week for next year’s primary contests. But party officials are continually debating the contours of a new system.

Priebus said the changes made to next year’s primary process are “just the beginning,” and said even though he won’t serve a fourth term as RNC chairman—meaning he won’t be in a position to implement a system after 2016—he’s got some ideas of what it could look like.

“One of the things I would have been interested in doing is sort of like a rotating primary process, where you would divide the country into five quadrants and have a primary about once every two weeks. And then you could have about a 10-week primary process,” Priebus said. “I’ve always been intrigued by that idea.”

Several other plans have been floated in recent years, Priebus said, including a “random lottery” that would assign each of the 50 states with a number 1 through 5 and result in five primary dates with 10 states voting on each.

Such proposals reflect, at least partially, the enmity some states feel toward Iowa and New Hampshire, which have hogged the front of the calendar for decades and enjoy an outsize role in choosing presidents because of it. Many Republicans also criticize those two states for their homogenous demographics, and argue the GOP will struggle to attract minority voters until the primary campaign runs through diverse areas.

“There are always people in our party with hang-ups about Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina, and there are people on the committee right now who don’t like the order of the primary states, and there are people who love it,” Priebus said. “There certainly is not unanimity of opinion, I can guarantee you that.”

While such disagreement over the early states has always loomed over the party in recent cycles, Priebus took extraordinary measures to neutralize the issue in 2016. The RNC, in January 2014, designated February as a carve-out month and announced fierce consequences for any state that held its contest before March 1. (States with more than 30 delegates to the national convention would be stripped down to nine, while states with fewer than 30 delegates would only send six.)

Priebus said any future push to reorder the primary calendar won’t be about singling out states, but rather making the national party more dynamic and competitive.

“It’s just the concept of whether or not the same old order and the same old system is the best system for how we choose nominees of our party,” he said.

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