Monday, March 23, 2015

On 'Has the Republican Presidential Nominating System Changed Since 2008?'

Seth Masket, I thought, had an entirely reasonable reaction to Jim Rutenberg's New York Times Magazine piece on Ben Carson.

In a nutshell, Rutenberg argued that the emergence of the Tea Party in combination with the rise of social media, Citizen United's impact on campaign fundraising and changes in delegate selection rules have disrupted the normal rhythms of the Republican presidential nomination process since 2008. But as Seth points out, if we test that hypothesis on the one election cycle in the dataset since 2008, the evidence is not all that convincing.

It isn't. Despite all of that, well, noise between 2008 and 2012, Mitt Romney, the former governor and previous presidential aspirant, still emerged as the Republican presidential nominee in 2012. The signals that political scientists look at -- roughly poll position, fundraising, endorsements and to some lesser extent staff hires -- all basically pointed in the same direction heading into primary season in 2012.

But the rules part of this story does still stick out to me. Seth nailed the macro part of this, but FHQ feels compelled to add some of the micro side as well.

FHQ talked with Jim Rutenberg about the rules changes for his story, and he approached us from a particular angle: the rules changes for 2016, not 2012 (at least initially). He raised the concerns that some in the grassroots/Paul faction of the party raised at the Tampa convention in August 2012. Mainly, that the establishment within the Republican National Committee was attempting to cut off the spigot on them, eliminating the proportionality window installed for the 2012 cycle, prohibiting future non-binding caucuses and raising the bar on the number of states won/delegations controlled required to place a candidate's name on the nomination ballot.1

In other words, the Paul folks saw loopholes in the rules they able to successfully exploit in 2012 being closed and did not really like it.

If we look at those three rules changes specifically, though, their origins are a mixed bag. The proportionality requirement added by the (former RNC chair) Michael Steele-led Temporary Delegate Selection Committee added the change as a means of slowing the nomination process down some to build the sort of energy, enthusiasm and grassroots support that the drawn out Democratic nomination race had produced in 2008. Unintended consequence alert: That is kind of what the RNC got, just not in the way intended. The energy, enthusiasm and grassroots support were there, but instead of buoying the party, it threatened to tear it apart to some degree.

The non-binding caucuses have been a tradition in the Republican process, another factor left up to the discretion of the states. It was something that Christian conservatives aligned with Pat Robertson's  candidacy in 1988 were able to work to their advantage in 1988 to some extent. But that effort was not carried through to the level that the Paul folks were able to push things in 2012.

Finally, the Rule 40 changes -- increasing the number of states a candidate must control at the convention from five to eight -- added insult to injury for the Paul/liberty contingent at the convention. It had been an afterthought of a rule before -- at least as far as convention proceedings go -- but was the final piece to the puzzle of preventing 2012 shenanigans in future Republican nomination races.

All three were the openings that Ron Paul supporters saw in 2012 and the RNC sought to curtail for the future. But only the proportionality requirement was something created for the 2012 cycle. And that is where Rutenberg's picture of rules changes for 2012 is lacking. It misses the nuance, the part where the rules changes did not really undermine the 2012 Republican nomination process. There were rules changes for 2012, but they did not have the intended effect.

Actually, it was probably a failure to change the baseline 2008 rules that in some ways doomed the 2012 process. In retrospect, not upping the penalties on rules breakers really came back to haunt the RNC. It allowed Florida, Arizona, Michigan and the trio of non-binding, early February states to elongate the primary calendar. That had the effect of stretching out the nomination race in ways beyond what was intended in the new proportionality requirement.2 The primaries and caucuses were so scatter across the 2012 primary calendar that Mitt Romney did not reach the requisite number of delegates to clinch the nomination until the Texas primary at the end of May. And that was nearly two months after everyone but Ron Paul had either withdrawn from the race or suspended their campaign.

The rules changes for 2012, then, did not really undermine the Republican nomination process three years ago. Rather, the rules were exploited, or in a less negative connotation, exercised in a if not new way, then in a manner that they had not in quite a while. That had an impact on the course of the Republican nomination race.

...but not its ultimate outcome.

Seth is absolutely right about that. The rules, however, did shape the way that Romney became the nominee. That, in turn, created the perceived need for rules changes for 2016 to manage the Ben Carson problem or the Rand Paul problem or the Ted Cruz problem or whomever outside of the establishment comes along. Those candidates will not have those former avenues to exploit in 2016.

Has the Republican nominating system changed since 2008?

In a macro sense, no. But the rules have changed and had some impact.

But, then, the rules tend to change every cycle...

1 The careful reader will note that the proportionality requirement is a part of the 2016 Republican delegate selection rules. That was a product of the may/shall switch in Tampa that was edited by the Republican Rules Committee and approved by the full RNC in 2014. Its return was in a truncated form: a two week window at the beginning of March with a tighter definition of proportionality.

2 If one looks at the state party responses to the addition of the proportionality requirement, the changes are very subtle. That is a function of a couple of factors. First, state parties tend to choose the path of least resistance. If the parties cannot continue with the delegate allocation rules they have used in past, then they usually opt for the smallest change possible. Second, the RNC gave the states significant latitude in achieving proportionality. The definition provided a number of avenues for states to meet the requirement. Together, those made for very small changes to 2012 allocation plans as compared to 2008.

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