Showing posts with label presidential primary reform. Show all posts
Showing posts with label presidential primary reform. Show all posts

Thursday, October 3, 2013

In which FHQ begs George Will to just once dig a little deeper into the presidential nomination process

Admittedly, FHQ has unreasonable expectations regarding reporting and commentary on the ad hoc system of rules that governs the presidential nomination process. But let's disregard that reality for a moment. George Will is apparently bored again because he has deigned it necessary to return to the fount that is the messy presidential primary system in one of his columns. This is not the first time Will has taken to that space to discuss the process, nor is it the first time that FHQ has taken exception to the commentary.

There is a certain amount of care that should be taken in describing not only the presidential nomination process, but the Republican Party's efforts to alter theirs for 2016. Without some thoroughness, one can quite easily misrepresent what is happening and what the outcome of reform is likely to be. If one is to use a megaphone at least have the courtesy to do it right. Having dispatched with that, a few rules of thumb for commenting on the quadrennial invisible primary rules-tweaking that goes on in both parties:

1. Look at the calendar. States have laws. Some of those laws relate to elections. In particular, some of those elections laws specify the dates on which presidential primaries -- funded by the state in most cases -- are to be held. Don't, for instance, say, "The four prima donnas — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — probably will have February to themselves because this entitlement, like all entitlements, is immortal." That is not true now, and if FHQ had to wager, will not be true in 2016. Why? Michigan and Arizona have laws on the books in their respective states that schedule presidential primaries for the last Tuesday in February. Those four prima donnas will react accordingly and push slightly earlier. Given the constraints of scheduling -- or more appropriately of spacing -- those four contests, the Michigan and Arizona primaries will likely extend the process into late January at the latest.

2. Look at the calendar, part two: June conventions have absolutely been talked about and somewhat seriously in Republican circles; even at RNC meetings. But a June convention is simply put a logistical nightmare of unintended consequences for the party. Period. This idea is dead on arrival because if, as Will says, "[t]he last delegates would [have to] be selected no later than mid-May", then a number of states will have to move their delegate selection events to comply. So what? States move their primaries and caucuses all the time. True, but the those states at the end of the calendar represent a who's who of states that have been stuck in place -- at the end of the calendar -- for much of the post-reform era. These are the states that have not been motivated as others have to push to ever earlier dates in the interest of garnering increased candidate attention or affecting the nomination process.

There is a structural explanation for this. Those states hold consolidated presidential and state/local primaries. To move up means either spending additional state money to fund a separate and earlier presidential primary election or moving everything else up which has implications for the primary elections that state legislators themselves have to contest. There are instances of states going the "move everything" route, but those are the exceptions rather than the rule.

A June convention in 2012 would have meant that a quarter to 30% of the available delegates would have come from contests after mid-May. What happens to those states? Are they penalized for not following the potential rules that call for a June convention? What if the state legislature or state government has divided partisan control or is controlled by Democrats unwilling to move the contests up? Do those factors make it more likely that state parties in those states opt for earlier caucuses for the purposes of selecting and allocating delegates to comply with the rules and not be penalized? Isn't such an outcome -- increased numbers of caucus states -- counter to the Growth and Opportunity Project Report the RNC put out last spring?

See, unintended consequences.

3. Make sure examples are up to date. Yes, Florida has been a rules breaker for two straight cycles now. No, Florida is not necessarily a bad example in the grand scheme of things. [People would remember that example over a number of others.] However, Florida is currently compliant with the existing Republican delegate selection rules. Given a change to state law this past spring, Florida will most likely have -- depending upon when national party penalties kick in on the calendar -- a March primary, thus avoiding the super penalty Will describes. And no, because of a contradiction in the RNC rules/penalties, neither Arizona nor Michigan would have their delegations reduced to nine delegates for late February primaries. North Carolina, on the other hand, might be a good example because of the move to anchor the primary there to the prima donna South Carolina primary. But saying the Tarheel state would be reduced from 55 delegates -- or the closer to 75 delegates the state will have in 2016 because of bonus delegates -- to nine is less eye-opening than going "from more than one hundred to nine."

4. Be clear about the rules. Will's paragraph on delegate allocation in early Republican contests is a mess of "is" and "should be". In 2012 there was a requirement that all Republican contests prior to April 1 had to proportionally allocate at least some of the state's delegates. That is technically not true now because of the switch of one word in the Republican rules. The "shall" of 2012 is now a "may" in 2016. What that means is that there is now a suggestion that states proportionally allocated their delegates if its contest is prior to April 1, but no mandate like 2012. It also means that there is a penalty later in the rules associated with a violation of a mandate that does not exist.

And as a footnote, it should be said that rules changes require 50% support in the RNC Rules Committee and 75% support of the full RNC. That latter threshold almost requires near unanimity in the Rules Committee to pass. Food for thought on that may/shall question (among other potential rules changes).

5. What is the other party doing? If one writes a column or anything really about the presidential nomination process on one side of the political spectrum and doesn't ask about what the other party is doing then one is doing it wrong. What the Democratic Party is doing -- actually has yet to do -- with its rules absolutely has an impact on what the Republicans are likely to get out of any reform efforts. The RNC can enact any rules change it wants, but some of those changes will be more easily enforced if the DNC is along for the ride as well. Look no further than the changes the Democrats made to their rules for the 2008 cycle for an example. The DNC added a 50% penalty for violating the timing rule and penalized candidates who campaigned in would-be rogue states as well (similar to what the RNC is proposing for debates sanctions). Further, the DNC had a failsafe option that allowed the Rules and Bylaws Committee the discretion to levy additional penalties against rogue states. That did not stop Republicans (with Democratic help of varying degrees) in Florida or Michigan from scheduling primaries that were not compliant with the DNC rules. It takes (a united) two to police these things; something the national parties are cognizant of and talking about. ...together.

Yet, there is no mention of the Democratic process in any of Will's comments.

FHQ will steer clear of the debates issue as there are still no concrete rules on the matter. Still, that particular endeavor on the part of Chairman Priebus and the RNC is a tough nut to crack.

Are there reform efforts underway in the Republican Party with respect to their 2016 delegate selection rules? Yes, there are. Is it reform or merely the tweaking of rules that the system gets every four years to address the problems of the previous cycle? That is in the eye of the beholder and will almost certainly depend on what the RNC is able to pass between now and next summer. Does this subject deserve more attention? Well, FHQ is biased on that one. Of course it does.

But does it deserve a better discussion than what George Will haphazardly put together for his readers today? Yeah, it does.

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Sunday, September 15, 2013

Candidates who participate in unsanctioned debates should be penalized 30 percent of their delegates

That's Reince Priebus from Kansas City discussing the 2016 Republican presidential nomination process before the Midwest Republican Leadership Conference.

Here's the full context from David Lieb with the AP:
Priebus defended plans to shorten the primary season by imposing "a death penalty" for any state that jumps ahead of the national party's calendar, cutting their delegates to the national convention to "next to zero." He proposed to hold no more than eight GOP primary debates, with the party picking the host partners and moderators. Candidates who participate in unsanctioned debates should be penalized 30 percent of their delegates, Priebus said.
Now, FHQ will try not go too deep on this. After all, this just an idea that is floating around out there.1 The "death/super penalty" is on the books, but earlier conventions and presidential primary debates sanctions among other things are not. These are all matters that will be discussed, tweaked or completely changed by the RNC's new Rules subcommittee.

On some level, this is a long way for me to say, "Hey. Look at that 'should' in 'should be penalized' in Priebus' comment about primary debates." Despite the presence of some uncertainty as to the final version of the RNC rules for 2016, the 30% figure does continue to leave us with some questions about any proposed penalties and how they are meted out. And truth be told, those questions are the same basic questions FHQ posed several weeks ago during and in the aftermath of the RNC summer meeting in Boston. But now we have something concrete from the chairman of the national party in the way of sanctions.

First of all, this statement makes clear that the RNC is considering a plan similar to the DNC rules that attempt to rein in rogue states on the primary calendar. The DNC instituted a plan for the 2008 cycle that would not only hit those states in violation of the rules, but also penalize candidates who campaigned in those states. Given Chairman Priebus' comments, the RNC may look to go in a similar direction though seemingly directed more at the candidates than the states/state parties.

The new question that emerges is, "30% of which delegates?"
Is this 30% of the overall delegates a candidate has/will have?  
Is it 30% of the delegates won from a state that holds a rogue debate? 
Why are states/state parties not penalized for holding unsanctioned debates?
The first two subquestions are direct alternatives to each other. Either the RNC under this plan would penalize 30% of all of a candidate's delegates from all states or just rogue debates states. The latter seems more "fair" but if the objective is keep the candidates away from presidential primary debates that are conducted minus the national party's blessing, then that former may prove more effective. If you are Newt Gingrich, for example, then losing about 8 of 23 delegates after having participated in a hypothetically rogue South Carolina debate is probably better than losing 41 delegates from your eventual 135 delegate total.2 Candidates, depending on the race and their relative positioning among each other can probably shrug off the loss at the state level, but would find it much more difficult to do the same if the penalty affected the overall total.

Extending this, what would happen in the case of multiple violations?3 If the penalty is assessed on the state total and not the overall delegate total, the multiple violations problem is somewhat minimized but not completely eliminated. Under that rule/sanction, candidates would be penalized for participating in hypothetical rogue debates in Iowa and New Hampshire, for example. They would lose 30% of their delegates in each state. Under the alternative "penalize the overall total" there is nothing left for the party to use once the penalty is handed down. A candidate could rationalize continued participation in rogue debates by saying either, "I've already been penalized, what's to stop me from taking part in this next unsanctioned debate?" or "There's no way the RNC is actually going to stick to this penalty. I'll go ahead and attend this next debate."

Of course, the same sort of rationale exists for the candidates under the state-level sanction as well if there are multiple rogue debates in one state. They can't be penalized twice.

All of this makes the final subquestion above all the more interesting. Why not penalize the states/state parties as well? To some extent, the penalize the candidates strategy is sound, albeit with some backwards logic. By penalizing the candidates, the candidates are bound to stay away from rogue debates and thus state parties will not hold them. That could happen, but if you are the RNC, why leave it to chance? Even if the frontrunner is an establishment-type candidate, it will be hard for such a candidate to stay away from all of these debates should others participate.


I keep thinking of the 1980 general election presidential debates, particularly that Reagan/Anderson debate. They took aim at Carter instead of each other for nearly the entire time. Carter had no equivalent way to respond. If states/state parties are not checked in some way, what is to prevent them from allowing a similar forum for any and all also-rans through viable alternative candidates from participating and raking the aforementioned frontrunner through the coals for an hour to an hour and a half. Actually, those candidates would have incentive to do so -- attack -- in order to negate the deficit created by the 30% delegate penalty. The objective is to reduce the number of delegates for a frontrunner by making that candidate less palatable to voters. And again, without a debate stage, it is most difficult for a non-participating candidate to respond in kind. How does a national party disincentivize this outcome without penalizing the states/state parties as well.

Overall, this is a tough calculus for the campaigns to undertake. It isn't as if what we're talking about here are real delegates allocated after a given state votes. Rather, the issue to attempting to ascertain the impact of all of these movements on a virtual delegate count in the months leading up to the Iowa caucuses.

This can go any number of ways in practice. The cautionary tale of the unintended consequences nested in seemingly innovative or simple rules changes in the post-reform era is or should be ever present for the national parties. That said, there are two paths that FHQ sees as more likely than some of the others:

  1. Backfire. The rules change instituting a candidate penalty backfires. Either an establishment-type candidate is frontrunner and is baited into participating in rogue debates as a defense mechanism or a candidate other than an establishment-type is the frontrunner, is able to stay away from any rogue debates, and begins primary season against a group of candidates who, on the offensive, were forced to participate in unsanctioned debates and are at a delegate deficit before any delegates are actually allocated. 
  2. A redefined invisible primary. Let's call this one the "Only winning move is not to play" strategy. No, I'm not talking about not playing in any rogue debates; I'm talking about not playing at all. If the calculus of all of this is so rigorous, why not skip it? Delay jumping into the race as much as possible. If you are a frontrunner (or potential frontrunner), establishment-type candidate and incentives exist in the altered rules for your adversaries to attack and attack and attack you in rogue and sanctioned debates, why not remove the target? Don't run or delay running until the last minute. [Think of the possibility for white knight stories!!!] This option seems like a magic bullet for the RNC, but one that looks good in theory, but not necessarily in practice. Yes, there may be an emergent and perverse pressure among the viable candidates to hold out as long as possible, but 1) It is hard to invisibly/unnoticed put in place the infrastructure necessary to run for a presidential nomination; 2) Given that reality, states/state parties may still have incentive to host rogue debates; and 3) Additionally, the press involved in those hypothetical debates would be potentially likely to ask participants about the policy positions of looming candidacies whether they have an presidential nomination exploratory committee or not. 

Some form of backfire seems most likely. However, the bottom line here is that tinkering with rules in this particular area borders on being a fool's errand. It crossed the line from managing the presidential nomination process to attempting to control it. National parties that have crossed that line in the post-reform era have been the parties that have faced unintended consequences -- often bad ones -- when the rules go from paper to practice.

1 Granted, the idea is one that is coming from someone -- the RNC chairman -- with some power over the process, but still, it's just an idea; not a rule.

2 This exercise utilizes Gingrich's delegate figures from 2012 in South Carolina and overall.

3 Recall, that the multiple violations problem was an issue for the RNC in 2012. There was no contingency in place for states that violated both the timing rules and the proportionality requirement. There was only one 50% penalty that could be levied whether one or both rules were broken by states. Florida, for instance, did not face two 50% penalties for holding a non-compliant January primary and allocating its delegates in a winner-take-all fashion.

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Monday, April 30, 2012

Question Time: Big [Early] States & Future Primary Calendars

Via the comments:
Is there a movement afoot in either party to move one of the big swing states (OH PN, ect.[sic]) either to inside the "carve out" category or close to it? If not (as I suspect) why do you think that is? I mean there would be a lot of benefits to the party not just for the nomination but also the general election.
The simplest answer is "I don't know."

However, that is mainly because I'm iffy about the word "movement". Is there any movement? No, but there are factions/people within the decision-making bodies in both the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee that have voiced or seemed supportive of such ideas (albeit more for selfish, state-specific reasons rather than for reasons of general election electoral benefits). Beyond that, though, I don't know. But I do have a few educated/informed impressions.

The DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee mostly punted -- and rightly so with an incumbent seeking re-election1 -- on rules changes in 2010. The overwhelming sentiment that prevailed in the Washington meeting that FHQ attended was that no one on the committee wanted to rock the boat. There was, as I'm sure there inevitably is at these things, some brief discussion of the early states: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. I say that there are inevitably discussions along these lines, but I left with the feeling that this was among the least contentious, shallowest dives into the question of early states in quite a while. Some members harped on the idea of reshuffling the deck at the front of the calendar, but that went nowhere. What did move the needle ever so slightly among the group or at least enough among them was a process similar to what guided the commission that tweaked the Democratic delegate selection rules prior to 2008. This was the group that essentially held auditions for states that wanted to move into the, what the Democrats call, pre-window period. This was the point at which Nevada and South Carolina were added to the mix. The Rules and Bylaws Committee left it at that in 2010; open the early calendar up to a couple of additional states from among a group that applies.

If I had to guess now, I would say that Florida and Michigan have a leg up on the competition. Now, that's counterintuitive, right? It was after all four short years ago that Florida and Michigan threatened to rip the Democratic Party apart over how both states' delegates would be counted. But the simple truth of the matter is that both are already there. That is almost more important than the "Hey, those two states could be swing states in the general election" argument. This is a big deal: being able to move the primary or caucus. Florida will likely be there regardless. It does not seem likely that the Florida legislature will change hands -- moving from Republican control to Democratic -- any time within the 2012-15 window which means that about two-thirds of the date-setting process will rest with the Republicans.2 Unless the RNC comes up with a penalty that actually deters rogue states from scheduling primaries out of compliance with the national party delegate selection rules, Florida is very likely to go early again. Republican actors in the state are very serious -- it seems -- to make Florida the fifth contest at the latest on the calendar. Is there any sense in potentially re-fighting 2008/Florida again? I wouldn't think so. The Michigan primary is already scheduled, according to state law, for the fourth Tuesday in February.  Again, why fight it?

The one wildcard to keep an eye on Arizona. The Arizona primary is already scheduled for the same date as the Michigan primary and the law there adds the flexibility for the governor to shift the date up to an earlier date. That is a problem for the, in this case, Democrats (...but the Republicans too). There will have to be some new sanctions in place to dissuade Arizona from additional moves.3 What works against Arizona is that "the West" is already represented by Nevada. Florida fills the "big state" role. Michigan is the "blue collar" or "labor" or "midwestern" state. Arizona has no such similar role. But it can argue that it might be electorally important to the party in the general election in the future.

On the Republican side, there was little discussion of overturning the early calendar apple cart in the Scottsdale RNC meeting recently. Additionally, there was no talk -- at least that I heard -- of putting together a commission to re-examine the RNC delegate selection rules outside of the convention as was the case with the Temporary Delegate Selection Committee (2009-10). This was the first, and perhaps only, foray the party has or will make into the midstream delegate rules changing arena in the post-reform era.

But the RNC is faced with a similar quandary to what the Democrats will encounter: How to keep states in line, or more to the point from breaking in line? That is the key question for both parties. The RNC, I think, realizes that the same three states -- Arizona, Florida and Michigan -- present it with a certain immovable object problem; one that cannot be remedied without some form of actual deterrent.4 What that penalty is, though, is unknown as of now, but I'm sure will be discussed in the months leading up to the Tampa convention.

Will there be additions to the carve out states in 2016? I think that is a safe bet at this time? Will those additions make sense in terms of why they were added? Sure. States will be added mostly because the alternative of not adding them is counterproductive to the parties. Are the states best positioned to take advantage of those new carve out spots potentially important in a general election for both parties? Coincidentally enough, yes, but only coincidentally enough. If the parties wanted to actually confront such a coordination problem (putting together with states and state parties a primary calendar that paid electoral dividends in November) on their own, they would be hard-pressed to muster the willingness much less the ability to actually pull that off.

Uphill sledding...

I should take a moment to mention that I will be taking part in a workshop at the Harvard Institute of Politics in May that will bring together folks from the Rules Committees in both major parties in addition to folks from the National Association of Secretaries of State and National Conference of State Legislatures. Selfishly, I hope to get a better picture on what is happening in both parties concerning the rules for 2016, but I also hope a productive dialog is started/continued on the nomination process and the limit to which it can in reality be reformed given all the competing interests.

1 Folks have been persuasive in arguing that if a party is going to make changes, the best time -- or the time with the least number of potential conflicts within a party -- is when the stakes are low. You know, when a reasonably popular incumbent is seeking re-election; an incumbent who has a party rallying behind him like Obama had in 2010 and has now.

2 State law now gives the speaker of the Florida House, the president of the Florida Senate and the governor three selections each to the committee that sets the date. If Governor Scott is not re-elected in 2014, Democrats will be able to muster four selections to the committee. No one member-naming authority can name more than two members of his or her own party to the committee. The speaker and the president would have to name two Democrats and the presumed Democratic governor would name two additional Democrats. But that is just four out of nine slots; not enough for Democrats to gain control of the process.

3 Of course, it should be noted that the Democratic Party has for the last two cycles now had a sanction on the books that penalizes not only the states for going to early, but any candidates who campaign in violating states as well. States move up for attention and if that attention is affected by candidates/media not showing up, then there is little utility in moving forward. ...or at least that will be the test in 2016 should the Democrats stand pat with their current penalties regime.

4 The same is true of some of these non-binding caucus states that have been able to skirt Republican rules most noticeably in 2012 (...but the issue was around in 2008 too). That is a different story or one for a different time anyway.

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