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.
Bloomberg AFP/Getty
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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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