Thursday, March 2, 2023

What's the Baseline for 2024 Republican Rules Changes at the State Level?

The Washington Post reported last week that the Trump campaign has been doing its due diligence of late, attempting to get a jump start on an often hidden aspect of the invisible primary: the battle over delegates. Or in this case, the battle over the state-level rules that will define the ways in which candidates will receive delegates based on primary and caucus results across the country in 2024. 

While Trump running for a second term after losing a previous bid is unusual in the post-reform era, it is not out of the ordinary for a candidate and his or her campaign to flex its muscle early like this. After all, this is a candidate and a campaign that have done this before. And this is a campaign that may not be as dominant as it was four years ago, but is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was eight years ago. And tending the garden on the state level in an attempt to reap a harvest of delegates down the road is clear evidence of that. 

Moreover, that touches on a theme Jeff Greenfield highlighted late last year in a piece at Politico:
But if you really want to know whether Donald Trump is ascendant or in free fall, you might do better to focus on what might seem like a recipe for narcolepsy: the Republican Party’s delegate-selection process across the 50-plus states, territories and commonwealths. Over the next year and a half, there will be no better clue to the strength and weaknesses of Trump and his competitors. Why? Well, for one thing, the way that delegates are chosen by state primaries, conventions and caucuses are far more important than a dozen debates and tens of millions of campaign dollars. And how the GOP state parties decide how their convention delegates are selected may also tell you whether these state parties are out to hobble the former president — or put him on a glide path to another nomination.
Look, as a rules person, the expectation is that FHQ is going to agree with that assessment. I do. part. The rules are important, but they are just a piece of a larger matrix of variables -- polls, endorsements, fundraising, etc. -- that provide observers with a sense of the former president's strength during the 2024 invisible primary. And again, the early signs are that Trump is behind where he was in 2019 but ahead across the board on each of the above metrics compared to where he was in 2015. The Party Decides showed that endorsements matter. They demonstrate a measure of institutional support for a candidate. But if the bulk of elected officials and other elites within the Republican Party network waver in making 2024 endorsements of any candidate as they did during the 2016 cycle, then this rules tinkering in 2023 may serve as a proxy of that institutional support. 

But the thing about both the Washington Post article and Greenfield's opinion piece is that they lack context. The Post reports that the Trump campaign is attempting to make inroads and Greenfield speculates that Trump-aligned and Trump-opposed forces may make rules changes to aid their specific candidate or candidates. But from where are the states starting? What moves might they make? How common -- or uncommon -- is such tinkering on the state level in the first place? 

In other words, what is the baseline? 

The story of where states begin 2024 starts in 2019
To the extent there was any discussion in 2019 about efforts on the Republican side to craft rules for Trump's reelection, it mostly revolved around the canceling of a handful of primaries and caucuses. But that belies the bulk of what went on behind the scenes in the 2020 Republican invisible primary. Yes, the cancelations got spun as efforts to protect Trump against a challenge. However, Trump got from Bill Weld and Joe Walsh and March Sanford the sort of challenge that President Biden will get from Marianne Williamson in 2024: a token challenge. Trump's grip on the 2020 Republican nomination was never threatened, so the cancelations were less about protecting the nomination and more about protecting his dominance in winning the nomination. 

But the state-level contest cancelations were just the tip of the iceberg and that has implications for 2024.

The Trump team was unusually active in nudging state parties toward changes for 2020 that 1) made it easier for Trump to gobble up delegates as the nomination process moved through the calendar of contests and 2) made it much more difficult for multiple candidates to win delegates. Bear in mind that there were minimal changes to the 2020 rules at the national level and that trend has largely held as 2020 transitions into 2024. There have been national rules changes, but they were aimed at cleaning up small problems from the past or to accommodate a July convention. Or to add a debates committee back into the rules

However, in 2019, there were changes made in 30 states and territories (out of 56 total). And it was not just the cancelations of a primary in South Carolina or of a preference vote at caucuses in Alaska. Take the Massachusetts example WaPo provided:
For his 2020 reelection campaign, Trump advisers Justin Clark and Bill Stepien worked for more than a year to change party rules to ensure he would not face a challenger at the nominating convention. In Massachusetts, for example, the Trump campaign changed the delegate selection plan to winner-take-all based on the primary result to prevent moderate Gov. Bill Weld (R) from being able to seat potential allies at the convention.
Now, Michael Scherer, Josh Dawsey and Maeve Reston mischaracterized the nature of the change, but it is indicative of the moves made by Trump's reelection effort. Massachusetts Republicans retained their previous proportional manner of allocating delegates based on the results of the presidential primary in the Bay state, but upped the qualifying threshold from 5 percent in 2016 to 20 percent in 2020. That meant that for a candidate to have received any delegates, he or she would have needed to clear 20 percent of the vote statewide, the maximum qualifying threshold allowed under Republican National Committee (RNC) rules. 

Furthermore, the state Republican Party in Massachusetts added a winner-take-all threshold in 2020. If a candidate cleared 50 percent of the vote statewide -- a level that a largely unopposed incumbent president should easily clear under most circumstances -- then that candidate would win all of the delegates from Massachusetts. That is not winner-take-all. Functionally, it is in a cycle with a popular incumbent. But in reality, it is the same proportional plan Massachusetts Republicans have used for years with the knobs turned toward "protect the incumbent's dominance." And those two thresholds are the keys. The qualifying threshold was set to its maximum and the winner-take-all threshold was set to its minimum (50 percent under RNC rules). 

And the moves in Massachusetts were indicative of the changes other state Republican parties made for 2020. Of the 26 states in 2020 that could have a qualifying threshold -- those with some form of proportional rules -- 18 of them set it to the maximum 20 percent. Just ten states of the 31 that could have a qualifying threshold had the maximum in 2016. The 20 percent maximum was by far the modal qualifying threshold for states in the 2020 cycle. 

Of course, that was just one type of tinkering that took place. Among his speculative allocation changes for 2024, Greenfield describes another:
By contrast, suppose New York Republicans are firmly in Trump’s corner. Trump might be confident he can win a significant portion of voters — but not a majority. So in a state like New York, his campaign might press to drop the 50 percent threshold and fight for a winner-take-all by plurality standard.
Well, New York Republicans already did that. The legislation that the New York State Assembly passed in 2019, codifying the delegate selection process for both state parties for 2020, shifted the Republican delegate allocation method back to winner-take-all in the Empire state for the first time since 2008. New York was not alone in adopting truly winner-take-all rules -- rules where a plurality winner statewide wins all of the delegates at stake -- for the 2020 cycle. There is a prohibition on truly winner-take-all allocation in the Republican process for states with contests before March 15, but of those states with contests after that point in 2016, just nine were truly winner-take-all. Collectively, those nine states accounted for 391 total delegates (or nearly 16 percent of the total number of delegates at stake in the process). 

The number of truly winner-take-all contests in 2020 ballooned to 19 states, more than double the number of that type of contests from four years prior. And those states represented 764 delegates, almost 30 percent of the total 2550 delegates at stake in 2020.

Finally, there were other moves that were also beneficial to an incumbent president seeking to portray a certain dominance in the nomination process. The number of states that pooled their delegates, combining the separate pools of at-large and congressional district delegates, increased from 25 in 2016 to 37 in 2020. The above shift toward truly winner-take-all methods explains a lot but not all of that. The subset of states that pooled their delegates and had a winner-take-all trigger -- as was the case in the Massachusetts example above -- doubled from six in 2016 to 12 in 2020. Those contests became functionally winner-take-all no matter where they were on the calendar, whether in the winner-take-all window or before it in the prohibited zone. That is a subtle change, but a meaningful one. 

And in total, all of that can be neatly filed into one category: incumbent defense, or this case, incumbent domination. Trump got that, and in the process, set the baseline from which any changes will be made for 2024. 

How common is rules tinkering on the state level in the Republican process anyway?
That depends.

Rarely does a cycle go by where some state party does not make some change, however small, to its delegate selection and allocation process. Although, often it is less about delegate allocation and more about positioning contests on the primary calendar. And that is a change that is initiated not by the state party but in the state government, the state legislature to be more precise. That entails quite a bit more wrangling on a playing field that potentially involves partisan division if not partisan roadblocks.

And some of those same obstacles seep into the delegate allocation process as well. At least that is the case in states where state law defines delegate allocation stemming from a state-run presidential primary. The 10 percent qualifying threshold New Hampshire Republicans use, for example, is one defined in state law. 

But on the whole, most of that is set by state parties. And more often than not, state parties are loath to change delegate allocation rules. They are averse to straying from traditional methods because it is difficult to game out the impact those possible changes will have a year or so into the future when conditions may be completely different. It is one thing to project what a shift toward winner-take-most or winner-take-all rules will have in a cycle when an incumbent president is running for renomination as Trump was in 2020. Those rules are intended to and often do help incumbents. But in a competitive cycle with some measure of uncertainty, that is a more difficult call. 

As Greenfield noted, Ohio Republicans shifted toward a truly winner-take-all plan in 2016 with Governor John Kasich (R) in mind. And Kasich did win the primary in the Buckeye state six months later. The change panned out. But with a favorite son involved, there was perhaps a bit more certainty among state party decision makers in how the move would play out once primary season went live. The less a sure thing it is, the more likely it will be that the status quo delegate allocation method will persist into the next cycle. 

That is an important point. If decision makers in state parties across the country cannot see a clear advantage to an allocation change one way or the other, then it is more likely that the 2020 baseline method survives into 2024. That theoretically helps Trump. ...if he is the frontrunner. But if Trump is not the frontrunner once primary season kicks off, then any shift away from the 2020 baseline -- a baseline with the knobs turned toward incumbent defense (or frontrunner defense) -- may end up helping a candidate other than the one intended. 

Another factor adding to this uncertainty is how decision makers view a change playing with rank and file members of the party. If elected officials or other elites in the party are wary of endorsing one Republican candidate or another, then they may also be less willing to make an allocation change for fear that it would be viewed as helping or hurting Trump. In other words, it looks like they are putting their thumb on the scale one way or the other. That is the sort of view that augurs against change. And again, the status quo likely helps Trump (if current conditions persist). 

Basically, the bottom line is this. Allocation changes are tough. They are tough to make because there is uncertainty in the impact those changes will have. It is much easier to see the potential impact of moving a primary to an early date for example. It could help a favorite son or daughter candidate. But an earlier primary or caucus definitely better insures that the state influences the course of the nomination race. If a contest falls too late -- after a presumptive nominee has emerged and clinched the nomination -- then that contest has literally no impact. Some impact, no matter how small, is better than literally zero impact. The same is true with respect to the decision to conduct a primary election or caucuses. There are definite turnout effects that come with holding a primary rather than caucuses. And greater participation in primaries typically means a more diverse -- less ideologically homogenous or extreme -- electorate.

Things are less clear with allocation rules changes. 

Look at the last four cycles -- 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2020. In particular, take note of the doughnut graphic in the corner of each map charting the distribution of delegates by allocation type. Those are four different cycles run under different conditions and with different rules. But look at the combined share of the distribution that the hybrid and proportional with winner-take-all trigger states comprise.1 Despite the differing conditions and despite the differing rules, somewhere between 51-53 percent of the total number of delegates were allocated in one of those two hybrid fashions. The states changed some at the margins, but the percentage of delegates allocated in that manner remained virtually unchanged. 

And the only reason for the spike in proportional states in 2012 was the RNC's institution of the (truly) winner-take-all ban for the first time that cycle. States overreacted in response and were more proportional than necessary under the 2012 rules. But states parties adapted over time, learning the nuances of the winner-take-all ban and moving over the 2016 and 2020 cycles toward methods that conditionally triggered a winner-take-all allocation.

What changes might state parties make for 2024?
The above exploration of the minefield that state party decision makers wade into when considering allocation rules changes is a cautionary tale. It suggests that, while there may be some changes, there are reasons to think that they will be minimal. And the Washington Post story buttresses that view. If Team Trump is having powwows with state party officials and sending envoys out to them, then that is most likely to preserve what they have in place. As of right now, the 2020 baseline rules help Trump. That could change but such a shift may not occur until after a decision on the rules has already been made (before October 1). 

But just as in the legislative process, uncertainty breeds conflict. Conflict leads to indecisiveness. And indecisiveness yields to the status quo. The same is true in rules changes. Actors, therefore, are going to be more inclined to move toward certainty; changes that yield more certain impacts. Trump opponents are reportedly playing catch up on these matters and may not hit the ground running either effectively and/or quickly enough to make a dent in allocation rules changes. 

But if Trump and Trump allies are looking to shore up their defenses, it may not be in the realm of delegate allocation rules. Instead, they may train their sights on the primary versus caucus decision. And there are some unique opportunities on that front. For the most part, state parties may balk at transitioning out of a state-run primary for a party-run contest of some type. The latter is funded out of state party coffers and that money may be better spent elsewhere. 

Still, some states may be conflicted. Take Michigan. The WaPo story notes how the Michigan Republican Party is stuck between a rock and a hard place. And they really are. Democrats in control of state government moved the primary to a spot on the primary calendar that is sanctioned under new DNC rules but is noncompliant under RNC rules. One logical alternative is for Michigan Republicans to schedule caucuses at a compliant point on the calendar. That is a potentially messy route. But it could be done. And that smaller, more extreme electorate is likely to tip more toward Trump than to his opponents. 

Likewise, there is no indication that any of the states at the end of the calendar are making any moves, not even the Republican-controlled states. And all of those June contests are noncompliant under RNC rules on timing. One alternative may be for the state parties to opt out of the late and noncompliant primaries in those states and conduct earlier caucuses. Similarly, the Trump campaign is reportedly not enamored with the possible shift to a later primary in Idaho. Seeing a pattern here? Shift to an earlier caucus. And Maryland is likely to change the date of its primary because it conflicts with Passover in 2024. If Democrats in control of state government move the contest too early (before March 15), then Old Line state Republicans would be unable to keep the winner-take-all allocation method the party adopted for 2020. And if winner-take-all allocation is that important to the party, then they, too, could opt to hold caucuses in a spot on the calendar that preserves it. 

And that offers a kind of double whammy. A switch to a caucus and a preservation of (or move to) winner-take-all rules in those states. Admittedly, those are paths with a lots of twists and turns. But they are all examples of states that because of one conflict or another may be forced into those decisions. There is still some path dependency there, but the likely impacts are more certain for decision makers. 

But to be able to look ahead, one needs a baseline. And as the 2024 invisible primary kicks into high gear and changes are considered in the coming months, this baseline is going to be important. 

1 In the 2008 and 2012 graphics, the hybrid and proportional with winner-take-all trigger states are rolled into one big category of states that were not truly winner-take-all nor truly proportional. 

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