Showing posts with label primary debates. Show all posts
Showing posts with label primary debates. Show all posts

Monday, June 5, 2023

The Rules Help Frontrunners in Both Parties, not just Trump

Invisible Primary: Visible -- Thoughts on the invisible primary and links to the goings on of the moment as 2024 approaches...

Elaine Kamarck had a really good piece up over at Brookings late last week. Breaking the nomination process timeline into three parts -- invisible primary, early contests and everything -- could perhaps use another layer, the opening of the winner-take-all window on March 15, but that is a small quibble. The hypothesis that someone will have to trip Trump up in one of the early states to take him down is a sound one as well. 

But FHQ breaks with Kamarck on an earlier section she penned...
"A few months ago, I helped create the now conventional wisdom which says that a large field of challengers will help Trump because the Republican winner-take-all or winner-take-most delegate selection rules are tailor made for a candidate who holds a solid base among primary voters and who can wrack up a series of plurality wins."
First of all, this is not exactly wrong. Winner-take-all rules certainly would not hurt a frontrunner with a built-in base of support like Trump seems to have. However, that is not the only layer of the rules that might help. There is another facet of the delegate selection process in both parties that could also help frontrunners in a similar position: the qualifying threshold. After all, candidates in both parties have to receive a minimum amount of support to gain any delegates in the first place. It is a standard 15 percent across all states, territories and jurisdictions in the Democratic process, and although it varies on the Republican side, the qualifying threshold can be no higher than 20 percent. In fact, more Republican state parties moved toward the 20 percent maximum qualifying threshold for the 2020 cycle. That remnant from the changes for the last cycle will potentially benefit the former president as well. 

But it is not just Trump who is helped by such rules. Frontrunners of all stripes can reap the benefits of a qualifying threshold. Here is an example. Say Trump wins 40 percent of the vote in the Minnesota primary on Super Tuesday next year. Ron DeSantis comes in a distant second at 20 percent, enough to qualify for delegates under the proportional rules Minnesota Republicans used in 2020. Trump in that scenario falls below 50 percent, so the winner-take-all trigger is not activated. Yet, only he and DeSantis qualify for delegates. Only their collective vote counts in calculating how many delegates each is allocated. Trump would not receive 40 percent of the delegates. The former president would claim two-thirds of them. DeSantis would take the remaining third. While that is not all of the delegates going to Trump, it would be a fairly healthy net delegate advantage coming out of the state. And if replicated across other states on a Super Tuesday with a number of primaries and caucuses, the delegate count could get lopsided quickly.

And this is not just a Republican phenomenon. This very thing happened to Joe Biden on Super Tuesday in 2020. Yes, some of his competition dropped out after South Carolina (and before Super Tuesday) and endorsed the former vice president, but they were still on the ballot, gobbling up votes and hovering well below the qualifying threshold. Who was above it? Biden, Bernie Sanders and a revolving cast of characters who nudged above 15 percent barrier across the slew of Super Tuesday states. The result was that Biden built a large enough lead in the delegate count to pressure others to cease campaign operations thereafter. 

Look, this is not all just delegate selection rules. As Seth Masket pointed out last week, winnowing matters a great deal in all of this. But the fact remains that it is not just winner-take-all rules that help just Trump. The delegate selection rules in both parties help frontrunners. Kamarck is not wrong, but her hypothesis is a bit too narrowly crafted. 

The Republican National Committee late last week also released the qualifying criteria for the first presidential debate this August in Milwaukee. Some candidates are already complaining. Others are too:
“It seems that the RNC is going out of its way to purposely narrow the field at one of the earliest times in the party’s history,” said a Republican consultant working for one of the presidential candidates who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly. “And rather than finding a way for as many conservative voices to be heard by Republicans throughout the country, they are attempting to make this a two-man race.”
The RNC was going to catch some flak on this decision regardless, but this is much more about one candidate -- a dominant former president as frontrunner -- than it is about squelching the others struggling to gain support. How much lower than topping one percent in the polls was the national party supposed to go? The donor threshold is lower at 40,000 than it was for Democrats in their first debate four years ago. And Democrats managed to have 20 qualifiers across two debates on consecutive nights. The difference is not those on the low end. This is about the someone at the top end of polling crowding others out of a debate in which he may not even participate. 

Invisible Primary quick hits:
  • In the endorsement primary, former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam threw his support behind South Carolina Senator Tim Scott.
  • Never Back Down, the super PAC aligned with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, started canvassing in New Hampshire, continuing to test the effectiveness of the practice outside of a traditional campaign.
  • Granite state Rep. James Spillane flipped his endorsement from Trump to DeSantis. [There has been some early churn in the endorsement primary between these two among state legislators. That may or may not be a story, but it signals that both sides are seemingly (and intensely) battling for the support of this subset of elected officials (especially in early states.]
  • And action (or inaction) over in Iowa may help explain why state legislators are so sought after: Republicans elected statewide are for the most part staying neutral for now. That is true in Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire. South Carolina is the exception. Trump has endorsements from the governor and senior senator.

On this date... 1972, Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty withdrew from the Democratic presidential nomination race on the eve of the California primary. 1984, in a series of five contests to end primary season, Colorado Senator Gary Hart won the delegate vote in California and primaries in New Mexico and South Dakota. Former Vice President Walter Mondale claimed victories in New Jersey and West Virginia. 2012, both former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama swept primaries in California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico and South Dakota. Obama also took the caucuses in North Dakota. 2016, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary in Puerto Rico. 2020, President Donald Trump won an online vote among Republican party leaders in Puerto Rico to take all of the delegates from the territory.


Sunday, May 21, 2023

Sunday Series: Biden, Incumbent Presidents and Setting the Rules of Renomination

This past week has been a week in which Iowa, New Hampshire and the 2024 presidential primary calendar have come back into clearer view. 

Iowa Republicans are reported to be simultaneously planning on January caucuses, but lamenting the uncertainty that Hawkeye state Democrats have thrust upon the overall scheduling process by insisting on a vote-by-mail presidential preference vote.

In New Hampshire, Democrats continue to 1) resist DNC calendar changes that would push the state out of the first primary position in 2024 and 2) refuse to consider alternatives to a "predicament ... of the president's own making."

And to compound matters, Biden surrogate and 2020 nomination kingmaker Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) recently "said the quiet part out loud," noting that the DNC calendar changes for 2024 were made with Biden "avoiding embarrassment" in Iowa and New Hampshire in mind.

Dems in disarray, right? What is the party doing?

Well, outside of the takes generator that is spitting out tales of Democratic own goals with respect to the national party and the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination process, there are a few big picture things going on that many are glossing over. Most of it is typical of incumbent parties defending the White House and some of it is new to 2024. 

Coalition maintenance
The macro view of what the Democrats have done and are doing for the 2024 cycle is twofold. First, the Biden administration and the Democratic National Committee under it are doing what big tent parties tend to do. Namely, the party is tending to constituencies in an effort to maintain the winning coalition from 2020. And some of that, through a zero-sum lens, is the messy business of picking winners and losers, choosing which policies and other actions to prioritize. 

So, there has been a push to continue to appeal to black and brown voters who are the bedrock of the party's coalition. Voting rights and criminal justice reform met resistance in Congress, but the Biden administration advanced the cause of representation on the nation's highest court by seeing the nomination of Ketanji Brown-Jackson through to her installation, thus fulfilling a campaign promise. Along the same lines, the president pushed for a change in the early calendar lineup of states for the first time since the 2008 cycle. And importantly, the administration once again attempted to elevate the voices of black and brown voters in the nomination process by supplanting Iowa and New Hampshire with South Carolina in the lead-off spot. 

But beyond mere constituency concerns on that calendar decision, there were clear winners and losers. South Carolina won. Michigan won. Iowa and New Hampshire, on the other hand, both lost. Each lost, and in New Hampshire's case, Democrats there were resistant and have remained defiant. And while the national party decision was perhaps out of the ordinary, the reaction in the Granite state has not been. And while that reaction has added some drama (and the attention that comes along with it) to an incumbent presidential renomination process that is unlikely to offer much of it, it does once again point out just how difficult it is to alter institutions that have long since become normalized fixtures of the presidential election process. 

Again, if it was easy to change, then any number of component parts of the presidential nomination process -- including but not exclusively Iowa and New Hampshire -- would have been changed by now. Grumbling about Iowa, New Hampshire and their positions atop the presidential primary calendar is not new. It did not just start in 2020 when Iowa Democrats botched their caucuses. That grousing goes back years

However, the extent to which the subject has arisen between elections has ebbed and flowed, but it always comes up. In some years, like between 2004 and 2008, the party examined it closely. The result was that Nevada and South Carolina got added to the early window (and before the fallout from Florida and Michigan, Nevada's Democratic caucuses were to have been between Iowa and New Hampshire). In other cycles, such as between 2008 and 2012, Iowa and New Hampshire came up but the Rules and Bylaws Committee punted, saving the battle for another time.  

But to reiterate, it always comes up. And that pre-2012 example is instructive. That was the last cycle that a sitting Democratic president was seeking renomination. Theoretically, the stakes are lower in those times than they are or would be in a competitive nomination environment. It is then, or in the case of the 2024 cycle, now that a change in the early calendar would hypothetically be easiest. And it may, in fact, be easier than if this were a seriously contested cycle, but uprooting Iowa and New Hampshire is by no stretch of the imagination easy. If anything, Team Biden is bearing witness to just how not easy it is right now. 

So why take on the task of changing the calendar at all? 

Well, coalition maintenance is one answer. Creating a more representative early calendar lineup of states is and has been a long-time priority to some within the broader Democratic Party network. And just like changing the superdelegate rules for the 2020 cycle, it was not only a priority but there was sufficient support for the reform within the DNC. Yet, unlike the case of the superdelegate reform -- thorny as that was -- reforming the early calendar is not completely within the jurisdiction of the national party. Ultimately, credentialing and seating delegates from a state that has followed its state law and happens to be rogue relative to national party rules is within the DNC (or the convention's) purview, but bringing that to fruition and keeping Democrats from said rogue (and aggrieved) state out is a long process with a number of potential pressure points along the way that makes it politically difficult. 

It may be that Iowa and New Hampshire's time has simply come. But Iowa and, to a seemingly larger degree, New Hampshire will have something to say about that. 

Strategic considerations
Perhaps, then, the coalition maintenance hypothesis is not fully adequate to answer the "why take this task on now?" question. Maybe there are strategic concerns too. But even that explanation seems dubious. Before all of this, it was not exactly clear that Iowa and New Hampshire were going to make life, much less renomination, difficult for President Biden in 2024. No challengers of any great import were champing at the bit to throw their hats in the ring and attempt to dethrone a sitting Democratic president. Sure, California Governor Gavin Newsom and Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker were both doing some of the things that potential presidential aspirants do, but it is also difficult to tease out whether that was midterm campaign activity/surrogacy or something else (like laying the groundwork in case Biden did not run). It also is not clear that either governor shut the door on a run (and have subsequently joined Biden's reelection advisory board) because Team Biden made the calendar "harder" for challengers. The calendar change was merely another signal that the president intended to run and that in supporting the change, the DNC was behind him. All this despite the fact that the guessing game on whether Biden would run persisted well into 2023 after the initial DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee vote on the calendar. 

But take a step back for a moment. How common is it for sitting presidents and their parties to create favorable conditions for a renomination bid? The answer is that it is quite common. And it is probably better cast as reducing token resistance rather than some nefarious attempt to squelch democracy. 

In the past, all of this has mainly fallen into two categories: not holding primary debates and cancelling or downscaling contests (cancelling caucuses or shifting from primaries to caucuses). Both parties have done this. When was the last time an incumbent party sponsored a presidential primary debate? The RNC went so far as to eliminate the national party rule calling for a committee to sanction debates in 2020 only to bring it back for 2024. And yes, Republican state parties cancelled or downscaled a number of contests for the 2020 cycle, but those were not precedent-setting actions. Instead, it was par for the course. It is so commonplace that one almost has to skip incumbent years in gathering time-series data on presidential primaries (depending on the research question). In my own research on the movement of primaries and caucuses, it is next to useless to account for incumbent party years. State parties opting out of state-run primaries and primaries being cancelled because of only one candidate making the ballot make it nearly impossible. 

And how does the DNC look on both of those fronts for 2024? For starters, there are no plans for primary debates. But it is a funny thing on cancelled and downscaled contests. It is more difficult now than it has ever been to do either in a Democratic presidential nomination contest. Notice that Iowa Democrats are not talking about cancelling the caucuses like Republicans in the Hawkeye state did in 2020 to avoid any of the calendar messiness that has supposedly gripped the 2024 Democratic process. In fact, Iowa Democrats are going in the opposite direction. The party is planning on making the caucuses meaningless with respect to delegate allocation and adding a presidential preference vote(-by-mail) to allocate delegates. No states are planning on cancelling caucuses. There are none left now that Iowa and Nevada off the board. [Wyoming Democrats cannot decide if the party wants to call their process in 2024 a caucus or a party-run primary.] 


DNC encouragements added to Rule 2 for 2020 require state parties to provide for open and accessible contests. Parties have to demonstrate in their delegate selection plans that they are doing all they can to create the most open and accessible process possible. And state parties have heeded that guidance in practice in 2020 and in draft delegate selection plans for 2024. 

As a result of that rules change, the DNC and Team Biden did not have cancelling or downscaling contests as an option to potentially help streamline the process against token opposition. One avenue available as a streamlining opportunity, however, was the primary calendar order. And there, the options were limited. The status quo was an option. The path of least resistance in setting the rules was always to keep Iowa and New Hampshire as the lead-off contests (or shunt Iowa out of the early window because of 2020 and move New Hampshire up).

But does an incumbent president and/or the national party behind them want to leave to chance the start of a nomination process in two states where the president did not even win during the previous nomination cycle (even against token opposition in the coming cycle)? It certainly could all work out. But it could also be a situation like President Lyndon Johnson failing to meet expectations in New Hampshire in 1968 despite winning. And it is worth pointing out that Donald Trump still has not won the Iowa caucuses. He lost in 2016 and the caucuses were cancelled for 2020. Biden does not have the luxury, under DNC rules, of Iowa Democrats simply cancelling their caucuses next year. 

No, the alternative was to explore an alternative early calendar lineup, something the DNC Rules and Bylaws was already considering through a process that eliminated for 2024 guaranteed spots for traditional early states. It was a process open to any an all states that wanted to make a pitch. And the Biden administration took that opening -- the process of states applying for those early slots -- to swing for the fences.

They pushed a plan that placed South Carolina first, the first state the former vice president had won in 2020. But that was not exactly the driver behind the calendar decision. Shifting African American voices to an earlier position on the calendar was a priority but the options were limited in terms of states that the DNC could feasibly get into place. Look at the Georgia experience. Try as they might, Democrats nationally and in Georgia could not convince a Republican secretary of state to commit to the plan to add the Peach state to the mix. And the same would have been true for any other southern state with high levels of black and brown voters. Republican-controlled state governments stood in the way.

The exception?

South Carolina. Since the date-setting authority in the Palmetto state is in the hands of the state parties, the South Carolina primary could be moved into an even earlier position on the calendar with relative ease. 

This is not some grand conspiracy. The whole process has been one that, in part, has done what past incumbent presidents have done. However, due to rules changes on the Democrats side, the Biden team could not do exactly what past incumbents running for renomination have done. Instead, they took a calendar process already underway (and open) before the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee and used it to break a long standing precedent (Iowa and New Hampshire up front), fulfill a priority for many in (and out of) the party in the process (uprooting Iowa and New Hampshire) and potentially streamline a nomination race in which Biden was already the overwhelming favorite. 

...just like other incumbents in the post-reform era. 


Wednesday, May 10, 2023

The National Parties and the Sanctioning of Presidential Primary Debates

Invisible Primary: Visible -- Thoughts on the invisible primary and links to the goings on of the moment as 2024 approaches...

First, over at FHQ Plus...
  • Efforts are under way during the final week of the 2023 General Assembly to resurrect the presidential primary in Missouri for 2024. All the details at FHQ Plus.
If you haven't checked out FHQ Plus yet, then what are you waiting for? Subscribe below for free and consider a paid subscription to support FHQ's work and unlock the full site.

In Invisible Primary: Visible today...
It was not necessarily hidden yesterday, but the news that the Republican National Committee (RNC) was floating tentative debate criteria for the first presidential debate this coming August quickly got shunted to the side in the wake of civil trial decisions and upcoming New Hampshire town halls. But the basic outlines of a debate qualifications regime from the RNC offered a glimpse into the continually evolving role the national parties play and have played in sanctioning primary debates over the last several cycles. 

After all, it was not that long ago that debates had already started at this point in earlier cycles. Democrats debated during the first week in May in 2003. Republicans did the same in 2007 and also held a debate with a truncated group of candidates during the first week in May 2011. However, it was that cycle, the 2012 cycle, that served as the straw that broke the camel's back. In all, there were 20 Republican presidential primary debates that cycle, highlighted by two debates from New Hampshire on successive days in January 2012 before the primary in the Granite state. There were a lot of debates and both during and after the general election of 2012, the sense was that all of that exposure had not necessarily helped the party's cause. That sentiment was borne out in the party's Growth and Opportunity Project report -- the so-called Autopsy. It cited the need for national party oversight of the debates process; that state parties, competing with one another for candidate attention, were partnering with media outlets to schedule debates. In turn, that led to a proliferation of the forums.  

The result was that the RNC empaneled a standing committee devoted to the sanctioning of presidential primary debates for the 2016 cycle. And that committee cut down on the number of sanctioned debates, prohibited candidates from participating in any unsanctioned debates and further scrutinized media partners for those debates. But because so many candidates threw their hats in the ring in 2015, the standing committee that cycle also had to wrestle with the various formats to present all of those candidates. The size of the field demanded some qualifications but also balancing that against the need to at the very least appear inclusive to any and all candidates with demonstrated support in public opinion polls. The initial solution was to hold two debates, a main event for candidates with 3 percent or more support in polls and an undercard for those under that threshold. 

Fast forward to the 2020 cycle and it was the Democratic Party that was faced with similar issues. Like Republicans four years earlier, the Democratic National Committee (DNC)  had a wide open nomination race that attracted a slew of candidates. And like their Republican counterparts, the party was coming off a general election defeat in the previous and dealing with complaints about the debate process during the primaries that cycle. While the Democratic nomination race was open in 2016, there was a prohibitive favorite and the incentives to develop a structure similar to what the RNC had devised were not as apparent. However, seeking to avoid a repeat in 2020, the DNC adopted a debates qualifying strategy similar to but modified from the 2016 RNC process. 

The innovation the DNC added for the 2020 cycle was to tweak the qualifications. Not only did the party initially set a polling threshold that candidates had to hit (an average of at least one percent in DNC-approved surveys), but to further, or more clearly, demonstrate widespread support, candidates also had to have at least 65,000 individual donors across at least 20 states (minimum 200 donors from each). However, the supply of candidates, even at those thresholds, was still sufficiently large enough to force two debates. Yet, rather than an undercard and a main event series of debates on the same night, the DNC instead split the debates across two nights and randomly selected participants from the entire qualified pool. 

Just as was the case for Republicans in 2016, the Democratic Party in 2019-20 had to devise a system aimed at a moving target. In both cases, the parties felt compelled to set minimum qualifying standards for debates, but did not want to set them so high as to prevent candidates with some support (and some likelihood of catching on with the voting public in the future) from participating. For better or worse, everyone having a shot in the process is a notion that both parties have nurtured throughout the post-reform era. And that dovetails nicely with primary scheduling as well. Both parties like what the Growth and Opportunity Project report in 2013 called the "on-ramp" to the heart of primary season (basically a lead up to Super Tuesday). The idea of the little guy being able to compete in and do the sort of grassroots-building retail politics in small states that can potentially lead to primary wins (and maybe the nomination) is an ideal that is part of the fabric of the process in both parties. 

Moreover, it is also something that is layered into the proposed RNC debate qualification rules for 2024 that are now making the rounds. Initially, those levels would be set quite low, just one percent support in polls and 40,000 unique donors. Left unanswered at this stage is whether the RNC, like the DNC in 2019-20, will approve the polls that determine qualification or if a candidate's donor base has to be dispersed across a set minimum of states. It also goes without saying that those barriers to debate entry are lower than what the DNC utilized just four years ago. 

And there is a reason for that. The field is different. In many ways the 2024 Republican field is akin to the 2016 Democratic field in that there is a clear frontrunner -- a former president, no less -- who has had some impact on the number of prospective candidates willing to enter. Now, clearly the field looks poised to grow in the coming weeks, so there will likely be supply for a robust debate, but perhaps not enough to require a second debate (on the same or subsequent night). Very simply, Trump is gobbling up too large a share of support (at this point) for the number of qualifying candidates to create a need for a second debate, undercard or otherwise.

But that is the moving target with which the national parties have to contend. They not only have to balance the need to be inclusive to candidates with some measure of support, but they also weigh thresholds that to create a robust debate without opening up the floodgates. Yet, this is a role the national parties have taken on in recent cycles when it took on the responsibility of sanctioning presidential primary debates in the first place. But first thing first, the RNC has to formalize the debate qualifications for 2024.

DeSantis quick hits: 
  • In the endorsement primary, DeSantis picked up another congressional endorsement from Rep. Bob Good (R-VA), someone Never Back Down (the DeSantis-aligned super PAC) founder Ken Cuccinelli called "one of the 'first five' that got us great rules in the House..." Good was in fact one of the McCarthy holdouts in the January speaker election. And as an aside, that group has been fairly active in the endorsement primary. Of the 20 who, on one speaker vote or another, opposed McCarthy, 11 have endorsed in the presidential race. Eight of those are behind Trump with two more counted as DeSantis supporters. Nikki Haley rolled out a Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) endorsement on launch day. 
  • Never Back Down also won the support of former Trump adviser, Steve Cortes. Together, the staff primary and endorsement primary continue to offer evidence of an erosion of Trump support, but only to a point. As always, the former president in 2023 is behind the pace he set as an incumbent in 2019 but well ahead of where he was in 2015. 
  • In a signal of what may soon be coming in terms of a presidential run, the Florida governor also on Tuesday decoupled from Friends of DeSantis. It is a move that is likely a precursor to freeing up the money in the committee for use in a presidential bid. 

Viewed through one lens, it is curious that Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) would call on President Biden to break the DNC rules for 2024 and file to be on the New Hampshire primary ballot even if, as expected, the state goes rogue and holds a primary too early next year. If Khanna is behind the president, as he suggests he is, then why not call on New Hampshire Democrats to come up with an alternative to selecting delegates through a rogue primary? However, viewed through a 2028 lens, the reason may become more apparent. Khanna is not wrong that the Biden-driven calendar rules changes may hurt the president in New Hampshire in the general election, but the question is whether the damage has already been done or if it will take the president not being on the ballot (in a largely uncompetitive race) to fully push enough New Hampshire supporters away. FHQ is dubious. Clearly, Khanna is betting that New Hampshire will be there (early) in 2028, and that is no sure thing

On this date... 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis both handily won the Nebraska and West Virginia primaries. 2016, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders won the West Virginia primary. Trump also won in Nebraska. [Democrats in the Cornhusker state had caucused earlier in the year. Delegates were allocated based on that contest despite there being a beauty contest primary in Nebraska.]


Friday, January 27, 2023

The RNC Presidential Primary Debates Committee is Back for 2024

Lost in all the recent talk of the Republican National Committee (RNC) reaching out to a diversity of networks during the planning stages for presidential debates to come later this year was the fact that behind it all is a national party committee. 

The on-again-off-again presidential primary debates committee is back on again for the 2024 cycle. First written into RNC rules in 2014 for the 2016 cycle as the Standing Committee on Presidential Primary Debates, the rule and the committee were scrapped for 2020. And both moves made sense at the times those decisions were made. With a wide open and competitive nomination race to replace a term-limited (Democratic) president on the horizon, it was sensible and shrewd for the RNC in 2014 to devise formal rules to dictate the direction of its primary debates, an increasingly visible if not important component of the invisible primary, for the 2016 cycle. But with an incumbent president seeking renomination in 2020, the standing committee became less necessary with only token opposition lining up to contest President Trump's grip on the nomination.
Yet, with the conditions of 2024 more likely to resemble those of 2016 than 2020, the necessity of a debates committee became apparent once again. There were not many changes to the rules adopted by the 2020 Republican National Committee before Rule 12 cut off the ability to amend them before last September. There were some. And one of them was to bring back the presidential primary debates committee for 2024. 

...with some important differences from the previous iteration

Here is a look at both rules side by side (from the Rules of the Republican Party):

[originally Rule 10(h), but later reordered as Rule 10(a)(10) for 2020 before being eliminated]
There shall be a Standing Committee on Presidential Primary Debates, which shall be composed of thirteen (13) members of the Republican National Committee, five (5) of whom shall be appointed by the Chairman of the Republican National Committee, and each of the four (4) regions shall elect two (2) members, one man and one woman, at its regional caucus at the RNC Summer Meeting in each even-numbered year in which no Presidential election is held. The chairman of the Republican National Committee shall appoint the chairman of the Standing Committee on Presidential Primary Debates from among the members thereof. The Standing Committee on Presidential Primary Debates shall have the authority to sanction debates on behalf of the Republican National Committee based on input from presidential campaigns and criteria which may include but are not limited to considerations of timing, frequency, format, media outlet, and the best interests of the Republican Party. Each debate sanctioned by the Standing Committee on Presidential Primary Debates shall be known as a “Sanctioned Debate.” Any presidential candidate who participates in any debate that is not a Sanctioned Debate shall not be eligible to participate in any further Sanctioned Debates.
[the new Rule 10(a)(11)]
If appointed pursuant to subsection (c) of this Rule, the Temporary Committee on Presidential Debates shall have the authority to sanction debates on behalf of the Republican National Committee based on input from presidential campaigns and criteria which may include but are not limited to considerations of timing, frequency, format, media outlet, candidate qualifications, and the best interest of the Republican Party. Each debate sanctioned by the Temporary Committee on Presidential Debates shall be known as a “Sanctioned Debate.” All presidential primary candidates shall also agree in writing to appear in only sanctioned Primary and General Election debates. Any presidential primary candidate who does not agree in writing or who participates in any debate that is not a Sanctioned Debate shall not be eligible to participate in any further Sanctioned Debates. 
[emphasis FHQ's]
[1] The subsection (c) clause that now begins the rule refers to the RNC chair's power to form committees. That is a significant substitution because it rids the national party of the need to constantly tweak the rules every cycle dependent upon whether an incumbent Republican president is seeking reelection. If the chair has the discretion to create committees, then there is no need to continually craft and re-craft rules to deal with what will inevitably be a recurring issue. To wit...

[2] In addition, the committee in future versions will be temporary (if formed under the chair's discretion at all) and not a standing committee as it was in its previous iteration during the 2016 cycle. There is no need for a standing committee, but there is some regular and recurring need for a committee to deal with this subject.

[3] The next difference between the 2016 and 2024 versions of the rule is notable. The list of criteria the committee will consider before finalizing rules governing the presidential primary debates process has been enhanced to include candidate qualifications. While a polling threshold was used in 2016 to differentiate between those candidates who qualified for the main event debate and those relegated to the secondary debate, that was something that was not a formal part of the rule for the 2016 cycle. The standing committee (and the RNC itself) at the time filled in that detail. However, by formally adding candidate qualifications to the calculus, the RNC process comes more in line with how the Democratic National Committee (DNC) handled things under competitive conditions for the 2020 cycle. Granted, what constitutes "candidate qualifications" remains undefined as of now (and will remain so in the rules), but the temporary committee will no doubt again fill in that detail.

[4] Another facet of the 2024 rule that is new also borrows from the 2020 DNC process. Only, the Republican rule for 2024 takes it a step further. Republican candidates, by rule, will have to sign a pledge to participate in only debates "sanctioned" by the committee. Like the 2020 DNC process, that applies to presidential primary debates. Unlike the Democrats four years ago -- or Republicans eight years ago, for that matter -- that pledge will also apply to the eventual nominee and his or her participation in general election debates. Following the RNC's 2022 split with the Commission on Presidential Debates, there is some question as to whether the party will, absent some negotiation, participate in general election presidential debates. The temporary committee now has the power to sanction (or not) those debates. And candidates who sign the aforementioned pledge will presumably have to abide by that in the fall of 2024. Of course, the eventual nominee will likely have some significant say in whether he or she participates in those debates in the same way that a presumptive nominee has a say in his or her convention. 

[5] Finally, there is a whole section on selection of the committee in the 2016 version of the debates committee rule that has been stricken from the 2024 version. Ultimately, the chair has discretion over the creation of the committee, but under the current rule, there are no clear parameters concerning the size and selection of the membership of the temporary committee. In 2016, the RNC chair had five selections of thirteen with the remaining eight given to the four regions into which the RNC divides states and territories. Now, not only does the chair have the power to form the committee, but also has the ability to select its entire membership. This likely means little for the remainder of the 2024 cycle. The committee has already been chosen and has begun acting, reaching out to media outlets and considering borrowing DNC-type thresholds. Of course, there could be a new RNC chair after the 2023 RNC winter meeting, but it is unlikely that a new chair would disband the current panel and re-form it with the new chair's stamp. It would be unlikely but not impossible since the rule is silent on any transition to a new chair. 

Thursday, February 14, 2019

#InvisiblePrimary: Visible -- The DNC Debate Qualification Rules Are In

Thoughts on the invisible primary and links to the movements during the day that was...

The Democratic National Committee on Thursday filled in the remaining details about its upcoming initial round of presidential primary debates. Thus far, the party had announced the scheduling of the debates for the rest of 2019 and into 2020, but had remained largely mum on how candidates could qualify for entry other than to generally say entry would happen through polling and "grassroots fundraising".

That changed with today's announcement from the party.

For the most part, the DNC followed its rubric from 2016 with respect to the polling metric. Candidates can still qualify for a spot in the debate by registering at least one percent in at least three polls of which the party approves.

But in another innovation for the 2020 cycle, the DNC also added another marker candidates can hit to gain entry to the first debate(s). Modeled after the federal matching funds system in some ways, the DNC will also allow candidates who demonstrate a fundraising base of 65,000 donors spread across at least 20 states (with a minimum of 200 donors per state) into the debates as well.

That is a new spin on the matching funds system. The focus there has always been on the amount of money raised; at least $100,000 or $5000 in each of at least 20 states. But for debates entry, the metric is slightly different. The DNC is requiring some demonstration of grassroots support via fundraising, and is thus more focused on the breadth of the network of donors rather than the depth of that fundraising (the warchest accrued).

Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, for example, have all touted the fact that they raised money from all 50 states in the immediate wake of their announcements. Each is also above one percent in most polls that have been conducted to this point in the race. And that does raise a question  about where the bar is set for debates entry and whether there might be too many candidates to qualify.

The DNC answered that too.

Neither of the two randomly drawn debate fields for the first and second debate rounds in June and July will have any more than ten candidates on the stage at once. And if too many candidates qualify, the party will accept candidates who have met both qualification standards and use polling to differentiate further if necessary.

Left unanswered by the DNC is whether the qualifications standards will increase after July. The threshold announced will only apply to the first debates. But will the bar be raised when debates resume in September and incrementally go up thereafter? The debates will likely see the 20 slots filled in June and may serve at least some winnowing role as 2019 progresses. But if the threshold to qualify for debates progresses as well, then that winnowing role may be enhanced.

On DNC Debate Requirements and Candidate Strategy

What Will a "Grassroots Fundraising" Threshold for Entry to Democratic Primary Debates Look Like?

Elsewhere in the invisible primary...

1. Warren names a campaign manager. #StaffPrimary

2. Bill Weld is going to have something to announce at Politics and Eggs.

3. Although many have been sitting on the sidelines as the race comes a bit more into focus, big Democratic donors have been hearing from Biden. #MoneyPrimary

4. Swalwell appears to finally be on the verge of jumping in.

5. Gillibrand has made some hires, including someone recently on Sherrod Brown's reelection campaign in 2018. #StaffPrimary

6. Martha Coakley is raising money for Harris. As signals go, this is a former Massachusetts attorney general helping someone other than the Massachusetts senator in the race. #MoneyPrimary #EndorsementPrimary?

7. Klobuchar had some success raking in some money after her snowy announcement. The Minnesota senator raised $1 million in the two days after and with all 50 states represented. #MoneyPrimary

Has FHQ missed something you feel should be included? Drop us a line or a comment and we'll make room for it.

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Thursday, January 17, 2019

#InvisiblePrimary: Visible -- What Will a "Grassroots Fundraising" Threshold for Entry to Democratic Primary Debates Look Like?

Thoughts on the invisible primary and links to the movements during the day that was...

Just prior to the holidays the Democratic National Committee released a schedule for upcoming presidential primary debates. The party at that time even included a contingency plan for the very real possibility that a slew of candidates have entered the race, forcing the party to have double-bill debates. Rather than follow the Republican big fish/little fish format from 2016, the DNC will instead randomize the selection of participants in each part of a two-tiered debate kickoff.

Outside of those provisions, however, the DNC remained relatively silent on the specifics of an important aspect of the process: how does one qualify? What measures will be utilized to separate participating presidential candidates from those who, well, do not measure up?

It was not that the announcement was without specifics, but they lacked definition. There were two main measures laid out and it was stated that the bar for entry would be kept low for the first debate (and likely rise over time).

Polling was listed as one component, but one that is not without drawbacks given a large field of candidates and the lack of, at this point in time anyway, a clear (and clearly separated) frontrunner. Any resulting polling-based threshold can end up rather arbitrary in such a scenario. What is to say that there is a true difference in sentiment for and between candidates sitting at or just above five percent in polls and those just below that level in the hypothetical situation where the cutoff is set at five percent? Well, not that much in many cases.

It is partly for that reason that the DNC has signaled that it will lean on other metrics as well to determine who gets in and who is left out of the initial two part debates. The other component is some demonstration of "grassroots fundraising". Outside of personal funds and money from PACs, super PACs and/or other groups, how much can/should a campaign pull in and how widespread should those donations be (in terms of from where they are coming)?

That remains an open question before the DNC at this point. But it is not coming into that discussion blindly. This same basic concept has been used elsewhere in the presidential nomination process.

Although it is more than a little outdated, other than for campaigns desperate for a cash infusion to stay alive, the federal matching funds system that in a bygone era helped fund presidential nomination campaigns sets a few markers that may serve as a baseline for the DNC as it continues its deliberations about debates qualifications.

The matching funds system continues to set a minimum of $100,000 raised across at least 20 states (at least $5000 in each) as the threshold for access to federal funding. No, serious candidates do not ultimately end up opting into that system anymore. They can far out-raise not only the threshold but their share and the match combined.

But that reality is beside the point in this setting. Candidates are not attempting to qualify for funding. Instead, they are attempting to do what the matching funds system was originally set up to accomplish: force the candidates and their campaigns to demonstrate wide enough support. Polling and widespread fundraising can build a more robust picture of that support than any one metric alone can.

Yet, that does leave one question unsettled; one with which the DNC will have to wrestle before it finalizes the rules likely in March. If the matching funds system is a starting point, then is the threshold it sets too low, too high, or just right for debate entry? And does the party use any of the information out there about the fundraising being done by candidates officially in or exploring a run up to that point? It is hard to imagine that data not making its way into and potentially influencing those discussions. And that may impact those who are already in versus those who are not at that point.

That may be problematic for a party coming off a cycle when accusations that it played favorites in 2016 continue to bubble up, not to mention the pressure it may continue to put on candidates to expedite announcement decisions.

Related: On DNC Debate Requirements and Candidate Strategy

Elsewhere in the invisible primary...

1. Gillibrand officially joins the fray.

2. Pete Buttigieg gets a lengthy profile in WaPo.

3. Sanders continues to staff up.

4. Expectations are already being set for Warren in New Hampshire.

5. Brown now has carve-out state trips planned, but any official announcement will have to wait.

6. Once openly talked about as potential presidential candidates in 2020, Stacy Abrams and Andrew Gillum are now being discussed as sought after endorsements and signal-givers for those candidates who have or will throw their hats in the ring.

7. Add Seth Moulton to the list of folks heading to New Hampshire.

8. Booker's travels take him to Louisiana, a state with a primary the weekend just after Super Tuesday.

9. Klobuchar's potential bid gets a thumbs up from her family.

10. Nate Silver has a coalition-building theory about the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.

11. Kevin Collins responds with an alternative hypothesis centered on invisible primary resource acquisition.

12. A component of those resources is the team campaigns, nascent or otherwise, put together. There is only so much seasoned staff to go around in a large field, and potential staff are biding their time.

Has FHQ missed something you feel should be included? Drop us a line or a comment and we'll make room for it.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

#InvisiblePrimary: Visible -- On DNC Debate Requirements and Candidate Strategy

Thoughts on the invisible primary and links to the movements during the day that was...

Recently, the Democratic National Committee announced a series of basically monthly primary debates that will start in June 2019 and run into primary season in 2020.

Although the qualifications for participation were left undetermined for the time being, the announcement was not without some important rules-related revelations. Most inventive among them was the plan to deal with an expected slew of candidates, a number likely to extend beyond what one debate stage could accommodate. Rather than repeat the Republican undercard/main event debate method from 2016, the DNC demonstrated it had learned some lessons and opted instead to randomize the participants across a doubleheader in each of at least the first two planned debates.

And the announcement has prompted another attempt at examining the importance primary debates on the candidates' fortunes.

But as news of the DNC debates considerations emerged over the course of fall 2018, FHQ returned to a constant drumbeat: No matter what decisions the party makes with respect to debates rules, there will be winnowing implications for candidates, potential candidates and candidates who opt to pass on officially running.

Mostly that is in reaction to the possible qualifications thresholds. But it is not clear that the DNC decision to not finalize those plans at this point in time is not also having some impact on [potential] candidate decision making.

All there is now from the DNC is a rough idea of what may be included in the qualifications, but not the specifics of the thresholds. We know polling. We know some measure of "grassroots fundraising". But we do not know the level of either. Nor do we know the balance between the two. Does polling count for more? Fundraising? Are they evenly counted?

Those are a lot of questions to answer if one is a candidate trying to find one's way in an overly crowded field. Now look, facing uncertainty is nothing new to presidential nomination politics, but this particular bit of uncertainty may be enough to freeze some candidates and to do so consequentially.

Let me explain.

Some candidates -- mostly the big names -- are planning early 2019 announcements. Warren is exploring already. Harris is supposed to be moving quickly. Biden is expected to make a decision by the end of January. The list goes on.

However, other candidates are planning later announcements. It was Jay Inslee's "by April" line on his decision-making calculus that prompted this line of thought.1 The question is why? Why would someone watch other candidates -- bigger names, more likely frontrunner-types -- emerge/announce and begin/continue laying the groundwork of a run while another candidate, seemingly further down the food chain, bides his or her time?

Part of the answer could be built on the idea that most 2016 candidates waited until slightly later into 2015 before officially throwing their hats in the ring. It also could be a decision spurred by a desire, like states on the primary calendar, to carve out a spot where a smaller scale candidate can draw some attention. None of that is implausible.

Yet, let's game out a debate rules scenario here. If you are, say, Eric Swalwell, then you are probably seeking an advantageous announcement time some time in the first half of the year in order to maximize the splashiness of the event. Part of that splashiness -- the timing of it anyway -- is very likely intended to influence the polling part of the debates qualifications equation. And the later the decision falls, the closer it is to the first debate. Such a delay helps that part of getting into the debates, but potentially hurt the grassroots fundraising part of it that will be more likely to rely on an extended period of fundraising (often helped along by an earlier announcement).

And that does not count a situation where a candidate banks on one part of the two-pronged qualifications to find out the other is weighted more.

In the end, the DNC is already on record that the initial thresholds for participation will be quite low. But the specifics of those debate rules matter. A delay until likely March for those specifics matters. Bigger candidates can more easily gloss over those things, while they remain consequential hurdles to longer shot candidates. In other words, those rules can affect decision-making within those campaigns more than others. They create more uncertainty.


What Will a "Grassroots Fundraising" Threshold for Entry to Democratic Primary Debates Look Like?

Elsewhere in the invisible primary...

1. From Seth Market, what we know about 2020 and what we don't from the lessons of 2016. This one's going to be worth flagging now and returning to later as the invisible primary progresses.

2. This seems destined to be a line of demarcation in some way, shape, or form in the Democratic nomination process. Some candidates will approach Wall Street. Others will not.

3. O'Rourke is going to hit the "pop-in" circuit in the coming weeks. You say pop-in, I say listening tour. ...or could anyway.

4. More on Warren's trip to Iowa over the backdrop of what some potential Democratic caucusgoers in the Hawkeye state are looking for heading into 2020.

5. Five state legislatures came online for the 2019 session on January 7. There is not a lot of primary movement promise there.

6. Delaney has hired more staff in Iowa.

7. After a bunch of trips to Iowa, Swalwell is now heading to the Palmetto state.

8. McAuliffe saying his 2020 decision-making calculus is unaffected by Biden's moves and McAuliffe actually being unaffected by Biden are two different things. More importantly, expect a decision from the former Virginia governor in the first quarter of 2019.

9. And now it's time for something completely different: How about those Clemson Tigers!

Has FHQ missed something you feel should be included? Drop us a line or a comment and we'll make room for it.

1 Of course, Inslee looks to be fairly well organized despite the plan to possibly announce later.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Protecting the President? RNC Eliminates Primary Debates Committee

Just four years after it created the committee to sanction presidential primary debates, the Republican National Committee this past week at its 2018 spring meeting voted to strike the rule from its rulebook.

There are a couple of points that FHQ would raise both in reaction to the rules change and the coverage it has garnered.

On the rules change itself, some context is in order. Often FHQ talks of the national parties fighting the last battle when it comes to fashioning their delegate selection rules for a coming presidential nomination cycle. Indeed, the modus operandi of the national parties has tended to be "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," which is necessarily backward looking. The national parties look back to the most recent evidence they have on how well or how poorly the system is working and attempt to make corrections to address any shortcomings for future cycles.

The Democrats' efforts in assembling their rules for the 2020 cycle are littered with examples of this. But it should also be said that the very creation of Rule 10(a)(10) -- the 2014 rule then known as Rule 10(h) that created the Standing Committee on Presidential Primary debates -- also fits this mold.   Coming off a 2012 cycle that saw 20 debates, the Republican National Committee was intent on reining in not only the number of primary debates but also in creating some oversight for state party/media partnerships for those debates. The solution was the creation of a national party entity to sanction official Republican Party debates.

Again, that action fits the pattern. Fixing a perceived 2012 problem for the 2016 cycle.

However, the vote at the 2018 RNC spring meeting to eliminate the debates committee broke with that pattern. Rather than fixing a problem from 2016, the RNC is seeking instead to proactively plan for the 2020 renomination of an incumbent Republican president. And the rationale is simple enough:  Why have a debates-sanctioning committee when the party is lined up behind the current occupant of the White House?

At least that is part of the rationale. Another is that this has been widely viewed as an effort by the Republican National Committee to protect President Trump from would-be 2020 Republican challengers. This, too, is something a break from the norm. The predominant pattern for nomination rules creation in the post-reform era has been for parties out of the White House to attempt to tinker their way back in; to put together a process that ideally will produce a candidate well-equipped to defeat the incumbent president.

That leaves the party in the White House to, more often than not, rest on their laurels when it comes to its nomination rules. The motivation -- the urgency -- just does not exist in the same way that it does for the out-party. First, presidents, in a position over their national parties, tend to like the process that nominated them in the first place. But the typical inactivity or minimal activity from in-parties is also a function of the fact that incumbent presidents do not often see challenges to their renomination.

And when those challenges have materialized, there has not been much evidence of the parties maneuvering to protect their presidents at the rules-making stage of the cycle. Republicans at the 1988 Republican National Convention, for example, were not planning ahead for a future that included a 1992 Pat Buchanan challenge to the presidential candidate they were nominating. The party's concern then was more about lining up behind Vice President Bush. Bear in mind that at that point in time Republicans set their rules for the subsequent cycle at the preceding convention. There was no rules-making infrastructure in place then to amend the Republican rules of the nomination process outside the convention.

Nor do we see much evidence of the Democratic National Committee moving to protect President Carter ahead of the 1980 cycle. That is the only other time in the post-reform era where a sitting president had either persistent chatter about a challenge to his nomination or an actual challenge.

Now, there were rules changes that the Democratic Party made for the 1980 cycle, but the motivation behind those rules changes was not exactly to protect the president from a prospective Kennedy challenge. This was the cycle where the DNC formally added a threshold for candidates to qualify for delegates. Four years early, in 1976, the party had allowed states to add a qualifying threshold of up to 15 percent of the vote in a primary or caucus. Candidates who received less than 15 percent of the vote in those states (and the congressional districts therein) that set thresholds did not qualify for delegates. For 1980, the party made this a requirement. States were mandated to have some threshold, but had some latitude in setting it. Primary states could establish a threshold up to 25 percent, and caucus states could set a threshold as low as 15 percent, but no higher than 20 percent.

On the surface, that looks like an attempt to protect President Carter. Yet, a threshold that low functionally only rewards an incumbent by warding off a minor challenge; nuisance challenges. Such a threshold potentially becomes beneficial to an incumbent in the case of multiple challengers as well. The more candidates who run increases the likelihood of candidates not qualifying for delegates. In the case of one major challenger, the threshold becomes a non-issue. One strong candidate is likely to meet that threshold anyway.

1980 was also the cycle that saw the innovation of the "window rule" in the Democratic nomination process. The intent was geared more toward keeping frontloading at bay and the calendar formation orderly by setting a second Tuesday in March through the second Tuesday in June "window" for states to conduct their primaries and caucuses. While the goal was focused more on state-level actions and protecting exempt Iowa and New Hampshire, a secondary motivation behind the window rule was to tamp down on the resources a prolonged process required the candidates and the party at all levels to expend. This rules change did not clearly benefit Carter in 1980.

Finally, 1980 was also the cycle that witnessed the DNC banning the use of loophole primaries, where delegates are included on the primary ballot and directly elected (as opposed to being selected through caucus/convention processes with candidate input). That cycle stands out as the only exception during the early part of the post-reform era (the first 20 years) when the loophole primary process was permitted. Although insider candidates tend to be the beneficiaries in such systems, their usage at the state level in the early post-reform era was not widespread. It would not have affected things much more than at the margins. Both Carter and Kennedy could lay claim to being insiders in 1980 anyway and went on to basically split those contests.

While the sum total of all of these 1980 cycle Democratic rules moves gives the impression of helping Carter in retrospect, in reality the maneuvering was consistent with those of a party in search of the "ideal" rules in or out of the White House. And during the early post-reform era, the Democrats were out more than they were in.

Given that context, the focus can shift back to the present and the Republican rules for 2020. FHQ's reaction to the news that the RNC intended to drop the debates committee was less about that than it was to the idea that change was intended to protect the president. In fairness to those reporting on the 2018 spring meeting, there were members of the RNC would provided "protection" as at least part of the rationale for the move.  Randy Evans, the Republican National Committeeman from Georgia, came right out and said, "Obviously this is intended to dissuade a primary challenge to the president."

FHQ will not dispute that. The move certainly continues to send a clear signal that the Republican National Committee remains in lockstep with the president. Reminders of the clarity of that point emerge every time during the Trump era that the RNC has gathered for one of its seasonal meetings.  But whether eliminating this committee protects the president is predicated almost entirely on the premise that President Trump would participate in any hypothetical primary debates. As with many things concerning this president, there is a great deal of uncertainty around that idea. We do not know whether Trump would opt into such a debate. In fact, there is a pretty good argument to be made that he would sit out any such event, not allowing the platform to any would-be challengers.

If one falls on the Trump would not participate in primary debates anyway side of things, then eliminating this primary debates committee does not really accomplish all that much. If anything, it protects the Republican National Committee. It saves this standing committee from the obligation of NOT sanctioning any debates in the event of a challenge to the president.

Imagine a time in 2019 after Republicans have hypothetically lost control of one or both houses of Congress, the Russia investigation has persisted (and Democratic oversight of the administration in that area and others has intensified), and a challenger to Trump's renomination -- let's call him John Kasich -- has emerged. Now imagine that this debates committee still exists, but the president has no interest in debating his hypothetical challenger. That committee is, by rule, supposed to sanction debates with input from the various campaigns. If one campaign wants to debate and another does not, then what is the committee -- the RNC -- to do?

A party in such a position might be inclined to side with the incumbent president in that case and not sanction any debates. But it would have to turn a blind eye to the other campaign(s) and any following/resistance (to the president) both within the RNC and among rank-and-file Republicans to do that. That would be handing to that group the type of structural grievance that Bernie Sanders and his supporters used against the DNC throughout the 2016 process and into the 2020 cycle for that matter.

Instead of going down that road, the RNC opted to get out of the debate-sanctioning business altogether for the time being.1 Again, that move continues to send a signal that the national party is behind the president, but the elimination of the debates committee is protecting the RNC more than it is the president. It eliminates a potential problem down the road before it materializes. And yes, in fairness, that may never have materialized anyway. But the RNC has that covered now regardless.

1 One alternative option the party could have pursued was a minor edit to Rule 10(a)(10). The standing Committee on Presidential Primary Debates could have been left in place but would only be activated in years in which there is no incumbent Republican in the White House (seeking renomination) or little or no competition for the nomination. Of course, those are tricky concepts to define that may end up slippery slopes back to the same sorts of problems the RNC would have in 2020 if the committee had survived. Eliminating the committee with the option of bringing something like it back at the discretion of the RNC chair should conditions change is the cleanest option.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The Unintended Consequences of Fighting the Last Battle

FHQ often talks about the unintended consequences of presidential primary rules changes at the national party level. We also frequently invoke the notion of those same national parties fighting the last battle in setting those rules. It is not often that we tie the two together. But this week, as the Republican National Committee gathers for its spring meeting in Scottsdale, there is a great example playing out of how fighting the last battle is yielding unintended consequences for the RNC as 2016 approaches.

The RNC rules on delegate selection have been set for nine months now, but the particulars of one rules change -- a new addition for the 2016 cycle -- remain somewhat unsettled. The new rule in question is the measure put in place to regulate the presidential primary debates process in the context of the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Those rules are an example of a classic reaction to a perceived problem from the previous cycle. Though the number of debates were down slightly in 2012 relative to 2008, they were not counter-programed by Democratic debates, leaving the Republican candidates in the spotlight attempting to in some ways out-conservative one another.

This was viewed by the RNC and some pundits as injurious to the party and its nominee, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, in the general election phase of the campaign.1 Perceived problems and a loss in November often lead to a perceived need for nominations rules changes and then actual rules changes in the years immediately following the loss. That was the case in 2013 when the RNC began moving toward rules that would limit the number of debates in the 2016 presidential nomination cycle.

But that was a set of changes tailor-made for 2012. 2016 is a different animal. Rules changes in 2013-14 have led to a need for more rules in 2015. Limiting the number of debates is one thing, but determining who can participate from among a crowded field of candidates and potential candidates is another altogether. FHQ mentioned in reaction to the debates proposal nearly two years ago that the RNC risked moving from managing a process (the debates) to trying to control it. Attempting to control a process with competing interests -- the national party's, the state parties', the candidates', the media outlets' -- is attempting to control an uncontrollable process. That is even more true when an initial wave of regulations on debates requires a second wave of rules to govern who can participate.

That is something the RNC is struggling with now. Where does the party draw the line on who can participate? What determines that line? Poll position (in a period of the process where name recognition is driving things)? Fundraising (with or without super PAC data)? Staffing and organization in early states?

Perhaps all the RNC has done is open Pandora's box. But keep in mind that just because this is unique to the Republican Party now does not mean that this is not something that  can affect Democrats too. That may not come in 2016, but could in the future. The problems (potentially) are the same across both parties. It may be useful to coordinate, evenly if only loosely, a set of best practices for primary debates regulation like the national parties did on the calendar rules these last two cycles.

1 Of course, despite all of that, the 2012 election still ended up about where one would expect given that an incumbent president was seeking reelection with both decent but not great approval ratings and a growing but not greatly economy.

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