RNC Continues to Tinker with 2016 Presidential Primary Process

In a country and state that seems to be more divided and partisan than ever, it is refreshing that there is one issue one which Iowa Republicans and Democrats can find agreement – our First-in-the-Nation status.  Iowa’s prominent role in the selection process of each party’s presidential nominee isn’t just something about which we agreed, it is actually something that we work on together to protect and preserve.

Even though Iowa’s First-in-the-Nation status appears to be secure for 2016, there are always threats and challenges that must be dealt with.  If you want to see an Iowa political operative get nervous, just print a headline like the one we saw yesterday from CNN.  “RNC to Overhaul 2016 Primary Process,” the headline said.  It also doesn’t help matters that the RNC committee making these recommendations doesn’t include anyone from Iowa or South Carolina.

The article details the work of a special subcommittee that was appointed this fall and tasked with the job of reforming the nominating process.  The good news is that the committee protects the carve-out for the four-early contests – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.  The committee is also addressing what has caused volatility in the nominating calendar in recent cycles – large states that move up the date of their contests, which forces the four early states to move the dates of their caucuses or primaries even earlier.

To prevent this from happening, the committee is proposing any state that attempts to hold its nominating contests before March 1 be penalized.  The penalty would significantly reduce the number of delegates the state is awarded at the national convention.  States that violate the RNC nomination calendar would be stripped of all their delegates except for nine.   If a smaller state violates the rules, the number of delegates would be reduced to one-third the size of their original delegate allotment.  In all cases, no state would have more than nine delegates should they choose to violate the RNC’s nomination calendar.

This all sounds well and good, but as we have seen in the past, punishing a large state isn’t always that easy to do.  Florida violated the RNC calendar by moving up its 2012 presidential primary, but it also violated the RNC rules by awarding its delegates in a winner take all fashion.  Florida lost half of its delegates for messing with the nomination calendar, but it wasn’t penalized for how it awarded its delegates.

The idea to increase the punishment from 50 percent of delegates to all but nine delegates adds more teeth to the punishment, but penalizing a state like Florida is not easy for the GOP to do.  First, the RNC, the eventual nominee, and other national committees need to raise a lot of money in Florida.  Second, Florida is a key battle ground state.  So, while the RNC has been willing to penalize Florida, it would never want to make this important state too upset, which means states like Florida will still continue to throw their weight around in order to get what they want.

The committee’s work on the calendar issues is time well spent, but the other topics the group is looking into raise some concerns.

One of the main objectives of the committee is to condense the time it takes to nominate a candidate.  The RNC doesn’t wants primary contests to officially begin until February, but it wants it all concluded by the end of May.  The hope is that the Republican National Convention can be moved up to June or July, which would allow the nominee more time to spend general election dollars.

The schedule is even more condensed when you realize that all delegates to the national convention must be submitted to the RNC 35 days in advance of the convention.  If the national convention is held in late June, all delegates must be selected by late May.  That may sound reasonable, but it means in Iowa precinct caucuses, county conventions, district conventions, and the State convention all must occur in less than 120 days.  That’s a lot of activity is a short period of time.

The committee also wants the RNC to have control over the presidential debates.  If there is something that should make activists nervous, it’s this.  Were there too many presidential debates in 2012?  Yes, but letting the RNC control the debate process isn’t necessary the solution Republicans should be looking for because all of the changes the committee is contemplating give more advantages to whomever is the national frontrunner.

Limiting the number of debates helps the frontrunner for the nomination by not having to have to deal with his or her challengers.  Compressing the primary calendar also helps the frontrunner because it makes fundraising more important than organizing.  A condensed nomination calendar will make it more difficult for lesser-known candidates to raise money between contests.

The RNC committee has also suggested penalizing a candidate who participates in an unsanctioned debate. The frontrunner in the race already has a major advantage as far as debates are concerned.  As we have seen over the past couple of election cycles, the frontrunner gets plenty of questions and time to make their case in the debates, while the challengers only get mere seconds to speak.   Another advantage the frontrunner has is that if they choose not to participate in a particular debate, there is a good probability that it will get cancelled.

This happened in Iowa in advance of the 2008 caucuses.  Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani refused to participate in a primetime Fox News Debate in partnership with the Republican Party of Iowa, but instead, they chose to participate in the Des Moines Register’s Debate.  The Fox News debate was cancelled due to a lack of participation.

The RNC subcommittee also wants to regulate what networks hold the debate and which members of their news teams moderate the debates.  This seems a little heavy handed and appears to be an awful lot of regulating for Republicans.  Perhaps the best way to regulate the debates is to put a cap on the number of debates a network can conduct over the entire span of the primary process.  The RNC could also limit the number of debates allowed in a particular state.

This may reduce the number of debates in states like Iowa and New Hampshire, but it would also eliminate two different news networks conducting debates in the same state within days of each other.  For instance, in the 10 days between the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries in 2012, both Fox News and CNN held major debates in the Palmetto State.  Fox News also had an additional televised candidate forum in South Carolina during that timeframe.

The final sprint towards the finish line in South Carolina was dictated by debates and TV appearances, not campaign events.  That’s unfair to the candidates who actually want to go out and campaign for votes, or maybe even bypass a state altogether to focus on a different contest.  These back-to-back debates may go away if networks know in advance that they are going to be limited in how many debates they are allowed to conduct.

When it comes to debates, the first place that the RNC should put its foot down is on debates that will not be nationally televised in their entirety.  The RNC could also cut down on the debates held by lesser-known entities like Bloomberg or Univision.  Major networks and cable news channels should be allowed to conduct these events because more people will likely watch them.  That doesn’t prevent candidates from utilizing other networks to reach voters, but if push comes to shove, the candidates should be debating on the networks or major cable news networks like Fox News or CNN.

Making the nomination process run better is an admirable goal, but the RNC would be wise to focus the problems that it can control, like calendar issues, and not involve itself with who is and is not allowed to moderate a debate.  Putting a cap on the number of debates an organization can organize would be helpful, but the RNC must not do things that give the frontrunner for the nomination any more advantages than they already have.

Presidential debates have becomes an important part of the nominating process in America, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Letting the candidates duke it out on stage against their Republican opponents is really what voters want and need to see.