Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Rules Tweak Alters How Republican Delegates Will Be Bound in 2024

Veterans of the primary wars will recall how Florida and Michigan jumped the queue and held unsanctioned presidential primaries outside of the national party rules during the 2008 cycle. Following that incursion into the early window, both national parties sought to change their respective rules in an attempt to rein in would-be rogue states in future cycles. 

But it didn't take. ...not immediately, anyway.

Despite an informal agreement between the national parties to dial back the beginning of primary season for 2012, it happened again. Florida and Michigan once more held contests before Super Tuesday and were joined by Arizona as well. The start point for all of the states except the earliest four was moved back a month from the first Tuesday in February to the first Tuesday in March, but the penalties -- especially on the Republican side -- remained the same in 2012 as they were in 2008.

It was not until the 2016 cycle when the Republican National Committee (RNC) bifurcated its penalty structure, creating a super penalty for timing violations and a separate 50 percent penalty for those states that broke the allocation rules, that the previously rogue states were finally kept in check.

That offers a cautionary tale for national parties crafting rules to elicit corrective behavior from actors on the state level. Often it can take more than one round -- one cycle -- to get right. 

And so it is in another problem area in the Republican delegate selection process. After all, it was not just Arizona, Florida and Michigan that caused the RNC headaches during the 2012 cycle. There were also a series of states that held non-binding preference votes at precinct caucuses, most of them early in the sequence, that sent roughly 15 percent of the total number of Republican delegates at stake to the 2012 convention in Tampa. But the early timing of most of those "beauty contests" was rather minor. The problem was that preference votes were taken, but had no bearing on the ultimate delegate allocation and selection. 

There could, for example, be a battle between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum about who won the 2012 Iowa caucuses on the night of the contest, but that had little influence on a delegate selection process that saw Ron Paul out-organize both in subsequent rounds of the caucus-convention process and take more (Paul-aligned but technically unbound) delegates to the convention. 

Two problems emerged from that 2012 experience for Republicans. The first was that states could skirt the timing rules by holding events -- caucuses or conventions -- early. States could gain candidate and media attention and potentially influence the sequential nomination process with nothing, or comparatively little, on the line. That was not against the rules, but it was counter to the spirit of the rules. 

Second, it left any delegates that came out of such processes on the state level technically unbound heading into the national convention; free agents of a sort. This left the door open to a factional candidate possibly outflanking a frontrunner, or even a presumptive nominee, in the delegate selection process and gobbling up, again, technically unbound, delegate slots to the national convention. Done properly, such a candidate could have his or her name placed in nomination and have aligned delegates in positions to fight for rules changes and/or platform additions. 

Ron Paul test drove this tactic in 2008, honed it in 2012 and left lingering whether it would be of consequence for his son in a wide open 2016 Republican nomination race. That, too, may not have been against the rules, but it was still, perhaps, counter to the spirit of the rules.

Of course, one of the controversial rules changes that came out of the rules fights at the 2012 Republican National Convention was one adding new language directly dealing with binding and allocation. It was an attempt at closing the unbound delegate selection event loophole; one intended to solve both problems above. And just as was the case in the transition from 2008 to 2012, when the calendar start point was dialed back, it worked to push most states in line. Notably, Iowa, for example switched from a non-binding caucus in 2012 to one that proportionally allocated delegates based on the statewide results to the precinct caucuses in 2016.

But just like Arizona, Florida and Michigan and those timing rules of 2012, there were some states that once again sought to circumvent the new national party rules on binding for 2016 and stick with their more traditional unbound formulas. It was a smaller pool of potential delegates -- down to just under 5 percent total in 2016 from 15 percent in 2012 -- but it was still a pool of delegates allocated and selected in a manner that did not completely square with the intent of the rules changes. 

The RNC did more or less navigate through this issue during 2016. The party interpreted the rules to include any pledges that delegate candidates made to presidential candidates when filing to run in states like Colorado and Wyoming. Only North Dakota's Republican process among the states ultimately avoided making any real changes and maintained a fully unbound delegation. None had preference votes for presidential candidates, but some delegates were bound due to those pledges (Colorado and Wyoming) while others were not (North Dakota).

However, the 2016 Republican nomination process offered one other wrinkle to this rules saga as it played out. The process pointed out that, while a candidate could be allocated delegate slots and have those slots bound to them and their potential nomination, those delegates -- the people who filled the allocated slots -- may not actually be aligned with that particular candidate. One could see Trump-allocated delegates who were actually aligned with Ted Cruz, for instance. In turn, that raised the specter that if there were enough Trump-bound, but Cruz (or whomever)-aligned delegates at the convention, then mischief could occur. Changes could be made to the rules package on which the convention would eventually vote that could swing the nomination away from the plurality (vote) winner/majority (delegates) winner from primary season, Trump. 

And, indeed, this was a topic of conversation after Donald Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee after the Indiana primary in early May 2016 when all of his main competitors withdrew from the race. A contentious pre-convention meeting of the (convention) Rules Committee seemingly put the matter to rest, ending the talk of releasing 2016 delegates aligned with other candidates and clearing the path for Trump to be nominated in Cleveland.

Yet, that merely resolved the binding issue for 2016. And a rules tweak on the matter for 2020 was less than necessary with an incumbent president seeking renomination/reelection. The party simply carried over its 2016 rules to the 2020 cycle. But for Republican rules makers looking ahead to 2024, further clarifying the rule could close the loophole exploited by states and candidates from 2008-2016.

The same rules that governed both the 2016 and 2020 processes emerged from the 2020 convention in Charlotte. But under its Rule 12 powers, the RNC adopted a series of amendments to the 2024 rules in April 2022. It brought back the debates committee and adjusted the end of the primary calendar. And it also augmented its rules on binding 2024 delegates. 

Here is the language of Rule 16(a)(1) that came out of the Tampa convention in 2012 and was used in 2016, carried over to 2020 and came out of the Charlotte convention in 2020:
Any statewide presidential preference vote that permits a choice among candidates for the Republican nomination for President of the United States in a primary, caucuses, or a state convention must be used to allocate and bind the state’s delegation to the national convention in either a proportional or winner-take-all manner, except for delegates and alternate delegates who appear on a ballot in a statewide election and are elected directly by primary voters.
And here is how the RNC tweaked it in April 2022 [changes marked in bold italics]: 
Any statewide presidential preference vote that permits a choice among candidates for the Republican nomination for President of the United States in a primary, caucuses, or a state convention must be used to allocate and bind the state’s delegation to the national convention in either a proportional or winner-take-all manner for at least one round of balloting, except for delegates and alternate delegates who appear on a ballot in a statewide election and are elected directly by primary voters or delegates bound to a candidate that withdraws from the presidential race. States wishing to unbind delegates pursuant to this rule must specify the criteria for doing so in the filing submitted to the Republican National Committee in accordance with paragraph (f)(1) of this rule
Much of the language is the same, but it importantly requires state parties to bind delegates for at least one round of balloting at the national convention. And it has been since the 1950s that a convention has gone beyond one roll call ballot. The rule further buttresses that mandate by requiring states to specify the process by which delegates would become unbound. In other words, the delegate selection plans state parties must submit to the RNC under Rule 16(f)(1) must lay out at what point -- after how many roll call ballots -- delegates become free agents (in the off-hand chance it goes beyond that point). 

And honestly, most state parties were already doing this. Look at the third column from the right in the chart here. Most states have been doing this, but the change above forces the handful of laggards in line. Those changes tighten up the rules and leave a lot less room to maneuver toward the types of mischief that have occurred in recent cycles. 

Caucus states can still go the North Dakota route in 2024, but it would be difficult to justify in light of the above rules and the fact that most states had a statewide preference vote and/or had delegate candidates pledge to particular presidential candidates in the immediately preceding cycles, competitive or otherwise.

And yes, the national convention remains the highest authority in these matters. A convention could adopt rules counter to the intent of the above, but would only do so after primary season has played out in all 56 states and territories under those rules. That is easy to say, even easier to consider, but hard to pull off in real time after voters have voted and indicated a winner (even if by plurality).

Is that binding loophole completely closed now? No, but it is a much tighter one after these changes than it was. Rules matter. 

...even after seemingly small changes.

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