Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Could Open Primaries Actually Help the GOP in 2012?

Conservative talk radio host, Hugh Hewitt, had RNC chair, Michael Steele, on his show yesterday and they got into a discussion about the 2012 primaries and the potential for idle Democrats to turn the tables and employ Operation Chaos in the Republican presidential nomination process. Hewitt sees this as a real problem for the GOP in 2012, but I'm not so sure. [In fact, I don't know that these complaints aren't a complete contradiction. But I'll get back to that in a moment.]

First of all, which states even have open primaries or caucuses? In 2008, there were 17 states with an open primary rule on the books and another six states that were semi-open (allowing only Republicans and independents to vote). In the latter category I'm including states like Ohio where the enforcement of the rules that call for voters to vote in the same party's primary as they voted last time are lax.

Well that's about half the country, right? Perhaps Hewitt has a point. Maybe, but we also have to consider when a primary or caucus is being held. Unless the GOP in 2012 is divided in a way similar to the way Democrats were in 2008 (and that's certainly possible), then Super Tuesday is likely to decide who the Republican presidential nominee will be. If, then, a state falls after that point, being opened or closed won't really matter. All that really does is remove Idaho's open primary and the semi-open primary in North Carolina from the equation. I could also strike off Mississippi, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas and Vermont, but since the most likely outcome of the reform efforts underway in both parties (see posts related to the Democratic Change Commission and the Republican Temporary Delegate Selection Committee for more.) is that the February activity from 2008 gets moved to March in 2012, then those states will be part of a massive group of contests.

That said, what would Democrats need to know to be able to make some noise on the Republican side in 2012? If Democrats with nothing better to do, decided to cross-over and vote in open (or semi-open) primaries, the first bit of information they would need is the identity of the frontrunner. It would also be helpful if said frontrunner was also the Republican candidate seen as the best possible candidate to run against President Obama. Those are the conditions where Democrats-turned-Republican primary voters would have the maximum impact. In essence, they would know who to vote against; just as Republicans cross-overs had the choice of Clinton or Obama in 2008.

The more likely scenario is that there is a nominal frontrunner, making the strategic end of things more difficult for would-be cross-over "Republicans." In other words, the earlier in the process it is, the more likely it would be to have an uncertain outcome. Uncertain outcomes make strategic voting, especially en masse, that much more difficult. Faced with that situation Democrats would either vote for the worst possible candidate, but simultaneously run the risk of having no impact or vote for someone who had a chance of winning the primary contest in question but does the worst against Obama head-to-head.

In the case of the former, envision a scenario where Democrats were idle in 2008 and opted to vote for someone like Duncan Hunter in the New Hampshire primary. I can't see a situation where Democrats outnumbered Republicans in a cross-over vote. The best/worst case scenario (depending upon which side of the aisle you're on) would see Democrats make up approximately 20% of the primary electorate. [Too high? Too low? Sound off in the comments section.]. Even if all those Democrats voted for Hunter, that wouldn't really make much difference. If that figure is layered in with the 2008 New Hampshire primary results, Hunter would have placed third and had no impact. Democrats would have been better served staying home and voting in their own uncontested primary (uncontested in the sense that we are assuming Democrats are crossing over because their nomination battle is either decided or uncontested).*

The alternative would have that faction of Democrats choosing from among the possible winners of the Republican contest, and preferably one who would not do well against their nominee. Let's assume again that Obama was already the Democratic nominee by the time New Hampshire's primary rolled around and that a pick the worst candidate strategy had been eliminated as a possibility for Democrats crossing over. Who do the Democrats vote for? The odd men out among the list of viable candidates at that point were Mike Huckabee and Fred Thompson. McCain, Romney and Giuliani could have attacked Obama from the middle better than either Thompson or Huckabee.**

If that's the case, though, wouldn't either of those two have been palatable to the Hewitt crowd; at least more so than, say, McCain? There appears to be a disconnect between choosing "one of our own" and choosing someone who is electable among this group of Republicans. It is an age-old question, but one that seems unanswered in this case. If the answer is, "we want one of our own" (a social conservative), then holding open primaries really doesn't seem to make that much difference. Democrats would actually help Republicans reach that goal; they'd be better off in the general election for their efforts. If hijacking of the nomination by Democrats is a real concern, then, it isn't because they'd select someone like McCain, but because they'd help select someone who social conservatives like, but couldn't get elected.

[Such a coalition isn't unheard of. African Americans and Republicans across the South have worked together on redistricting plans following the last couple of Censuses. The result was that African Americans got an increased number of majority-minority districts and Republicans got more districts of their own. In the process, Democrats lost representation in Congress which, on its face, was perhaps somewhat counter to the interests of the overwhelmingly Democratic African Americans.]

Just for an open discussion/thought experiment, let's discuss how the 2008 Republican nomination would have played out if Obama ran uncontested and Democratic primary voters behaved rationally, as described above: selecting someone who could win, yet fared the poorest against Obama. Here's the 2008 primary calendar and here are the actual results of the primaries to reference. The comments section awaits.

*For Democrats to vote in the New Hampshire primary, though, they have to register as Republicans ahead of time; not on election day. Plus, another factor here is that if the Democratic race was uncontested, all the independents would flock to the Republican contest. That would advantage McCain.
**The Real Clear Politics averages for all the candidates are only marginally different in hypothetical match-ups against Obama in 2008. Huckabee did worst, but essentially trailed by the same margin as both Giuliani and Romney. McCain did best and Thompson proved difficult to locate.

Recent Posts:
Did Democratic Superdelegates Write Their Own Epitaph?

State of the Race: New Jersey (6/30/09)

The Best Inside Account of the First Democratic Change Commission Meeting


george kennan said...

The only way a potential Operation Chaos works is basically a close race between a strong and a weak general election candidate. The reality is it's just not so obvious who that is. I assumed McCain was the strongest general candidate since he'd historically appealed to independents. As it turned out, he was way easier to tie to Bush than Romney would have been and his age was a real weakness against Obama. Conversely, many Republicans probably feared John Edwards as a nominee way more than Obama even though in hindsight, Obama won easily and Edwards was probably the one Democrat who would have lost the general election. (You could say he wouldn't have been so stupid to visit his mistress during the campaign if he were the nominee, but all bets are off with the judgment he showed.) So Operation Chaos is an unreliable tactic. Logically, if it's Palin and Romney in a close race, the Dems salivate over Palin as the nominee. But what if she ends up a vastly improved candidate four years later and with populist appeal that Romney lacks? What if her as the first female presidential nominee is a far bigger pull on women than being a female VP nominee? This stuff is hard to call. Besides, if the Democrats are wishing for a screwed up Republican Party, they should leave the job to the folks who have been doing a stellar job of it themselves. Like Iran, the stupidity of the GOP leadership is best not meddled with. The Republicans will create Operation Chaos themselves.

Jack said...

There's another consideration, which is that in trying to produce the worst nominee possible, you might produce a president who's even worse than you'd get otherwise. I hoped John McCain would win the nomination because he struck me as the least bad of the Republicans. He's the original maverick, after all! Similarly, if I were voting in a Republican primary in 2012, I would not vote for Palin. While she might be a weaker general election candidate than, say, Romney, the idea of a Palin presidency is so repulsive to me that it's not worth risking it.