Monday, December 30, 2013

Another Take on the RNC's Efforts to Alter the Presidential Nomination Rules for 2016

S.V. Date has a nice synopsis up over at NPR today about what's different about the RNC work to reign in the 2016 presidential delegate selection rules relative to 2012. What is particularly worth reading is the discussion of the prospective penalties as compared to the penalties that were. The short version: In 2012, there was just one 50% penalty that could be levied once against states -- whether they violated the timing rule or the proportionality rule. In 2016 there will be a couple of sanctions; one for each type of violation.

The problem with the short version is that it glosses over a lot of the nuance.

The main issue with Date's account is that it hinges on a flawed understanding of the history of the rules the Republican National Committee has used in its delegate selection process. This flaw led to many missing out on the true essence of the proportionality rule the RNC added for the 2012 cycle. And it looks like it is going to carry over into 2016 in some cases.

Here's the line that stuck in FHQ's craw (emphasis mine):
"If this thinking sounds familiar, it should. The RNC tried to accomplish similar goals heading into 2012. The four early states were given the month of February. Other states could start holding contests on March 1 if they allocated delegates proportionally, and on April 1 if they awarded all the delegates to the top vote-getter. A state that violated either rule faced a 50-percent loss of delegates."
There was a proportionality requirement in 2012, but this makes it sound as if there was something of a winner-take-all requirement as well. There was not. The point of the April 1 threshold in 2012 was that states that chose to hold contests on or after that point on the calendar could allocate their delegates to candidates in any RNC-sanctioned method; not just winner-take-all. That was consistent with how the party had viewed delegate allocation at any point the calendar in years prior. The national party viewed that as a decision that was completely at the discretion of the states -- parties or governments.

In other words, the RNC provided no mandates -- no guidance -- to the states on the issue of delegate allocation. It was up to the states. That is just how it was for any state that held a delegate selection event on or after April 1, 2012. States were certainly allowed to allocate delegates in a winner-take-all fashion after that point on the calendar, but there was no rush by states with contests beyond that point to do so. The majority of states took the road of least resistance: they left their delegate allocation alone. The only newly added winner-take-all states to the back end of the 2012 calendar were the ones that moved beyond April 1 to protect the winner-take-all allocation they had utilized in the past (see Maryland and Wisconsin).

The point here is to point out this faulty view of the history of these rules. The Republican nomination process has never been a bastion of rampant winner-take-all rules. If anything was or has been rampant, it has been states having the freedom to choose their methods of allocation. There were curbs -- or attempts at curbs -- on that freedom for the first time on the Republican side in 2012. With a new super penalty added to the mix in 2016, there are hopes within the RNC that they have gotten things right this time.

As the party's general counsel, John Ryder, said, "I think this strikes a good balance."

FHQ will have more on this story later.

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Friday, December 20, 2013

Is South Carolina losing its early-primary luster?

Here we go again.

FHQ realizes that we are still roughly two years away from the presidential primary season kicking off in earnest and story ideas are limited. But come on. There's absolutely no need to keep rehashing these same stories over and over again. Remember four years ago when Iowa Republicans -- and the press folks who pushed the story -- were lamenting the fact that none of the (prospective) candidates were traipsing across the Hawkeye state wooing potential caucus-goers?

Well, now the dateline has changed. The worrywarts have moved south to the Palmetto state and the fortunes of the South Carolina primary in the context of the Republican nomination process. And it is all no more warranted in South Carolina than it was in Iowa four years ago.

The question, then: Is South Carolina losing its early-primary luster?


And the kicker here is that Ali Weinberg's piece at First Read says exactly why the answer is no. South Carolina Republicans haven't lost anything. In fact, unless the RNC fundamentally alters its primary rules between now and summer 2014, South Carolina will have gained leverage -- via the rules -- over the state's position in 2012. Not only does South Carolina have its position as one of the first four "carve-out" states to hold a nominating contest in 2016, but the state and the other three privileged states have up to a month before the next earliest contest in which to schedule their primaries or caucuses.

Does that guarantee "luster"?

I suppose that depends on how you want to define luster. If you define it -- as both the First Read and State items do -- as somehow hinging on this illusory notion of "picking presidents" then, yeah, perhaps South Carolina has lost one claim that has been able to trumpet in the context of Republican nominations since 1980. But come on. That's not luster.

The truth of the matter is that South Carolina will have either the third or fourth position in the Republican primary calendar in 2016, and with that comes something. FHQ won't call it luster. But it does offer South Carolina just what it has since 1980: a privileged position to have among the first cracks at importantly winnowing the field of candidates.

That's what these early contests do. Can they "pick presidents"? Sometimes. Do they always? Nope.  That really often depends on the idiosyncratic dynamics of a given nomination race and how it meanders through the sequence of delegate selection events.

As a postscript, FHQ does want to once again highlight something that looks to be, well, cumbersome to overcome for some during the 2016 cycle. Everyone keeps raising the specter of Florida. In this South Carolina discussion, it is that candidates would rather spend time in Florida than South Carolina. Of course, this is rooted in the activity -- the experience with -- the Sunshine state in the formation of the primary calendar these last two cycles.

But it really does look as if many -- at least the ones that are writing about these issues so early -- are ignoring reality. The assumption is that South Carolina will happen and then ten days later, the next contest will be in Florida. That was absolutely the case in 2008 and 2012.

It is not the case for 2016 as of now. And even if Florida was somehow immediately after South Carolina, the Florida primary would not be the only game in town that week.


Well, the way the primary election law is structured in Florida, the primary there falls on the earliest unpenalized date. If Republicans in Florida stick with a true winner-take-all allocation of delegates (and the RNC fixes the may/shall issue for the proportionality requirement1), then the Sunshine state primary will fall on the third Tuesday in March; well after where South Carolina will end up on the calendar.

Again, FHQ says "as of now" because the law can certainly be changed. But that just doesn't seem likely for now.

So, if you are into worrying about poor little ol' South Carolina and its primary, worry about Michigan and Arizona. They are more problematic to where the Palmetto primary will land.

…and it isn't clear that South Carolina really gives two shakes about either. Republicans there are only worried about being first in the South.

1 It looks like that is going to be the case.

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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Fool Me Once, Shame on Me. Fool Me Twice...

Look, FHQ gets it: Florida has created a lifetime's worth of uncertainty for the presidential primary calendar (and the nomination process itself to some extent) over the last two cycles. But the reactions to the latest on the efforts by the Republican National Committee to tinker with the party's nomination process/rules ignore the current reality where Florida and 2016 intersect.

Perhaps, it is deserved. FHQ isn't here to defend Florida, but as of right now, the Sunshine state is not in a position to continue to be a "serial scofflaw", as Jason Linkins describes the state, much less have it assumed that Florida will once again throw a monkeywrench into the best laid plans of the parties and/or the infringe on the turf of the carve-out states, as Craig Robinson does.

The reality is that this super penalty is nothing new. The so-called Bennett rule -- named after former Ohio Republican chairman, Bob Bennett, who devised it -- has been codified in the RNC rules since Tampa. The only thing new based on the reporting that Peter Hamby at CNN did was to shed light on the mathematical problem that FHQ mentioned months ago. Basically, if a state has a small enough (pre-penalty) delegation, it could receive a lesser penalty than the 50% reduction that was on the books in 2012. Again, this was a very limited number of states. But there was some potential for the rules to be exploited; not keeping with the original intent of the rule (which was to provide some certainty to the front end of the calendar).

But that is the small states; not Florida.

The point is, political actors in Florida -- those in the state legislature, governor's mansion and the Republican Party of Florida -- saw those changes. After all, the infighting that produced those rules changes, including the Bennett rule, happened in their backyard; in Tampa. What was the reaction in Florida once the Bennett rule was added? Well, the state legislature very quickly moved to push the Florida primary back on the 2016 and future primary calendars during its 2013 session.

Unlike the 2008 and 2012 cycles, there is actually some certainty -- right now -- as to when the Florida presidential primary will be held. If the Republican Party of Florida tweaks its allocation rules, the primary will be on the first Tuesday in March. If the state party opts to continue with its tradition winner-take-all allocation, then it will be on the third Tuesday in March, the point on the calendar when it is apparently proposed that the proportionality requirement should expire. The 2016 Florida primary date hinges on the point on the calendar where the Florida delegation will not be penalized; the earliest unpenalized date. That, as FHQ noted, is dependent upon what combination of rules the Republican Party of Florida opts to utilize.

[And one other thing that FHQ would like to push back on is Robinson's description of the penalties that Florida faced in 2012. Yes, Florida broke both the timing and allocation rules. But the RNC only had one 50% penalty it could levy. The RNC rules did not provide for a double penalty scenario. That has been changed for 2016. There is the Bennett rule (9 delegate plus automatic delegates) penalty and a separate 50% penalty for states that do not comply with the provisions in the proportionality requirement. This rule was put in place in reaction to both Florida and Arizona in 2012. Both technically were double violators.]

There was ample motivation for Florida to have reacted this way; to provide certainty instead of uncertainty in this process for once. Some have argued that it was the rules change or more precisely the new, more draconian penalty. Others contend that Marco Rubio and his allies in the state advocated for the move with a potential Rubio run for the nomination in mind. This is likely not an either/or thing. Those two factors and a desire to play nice in 2016 because of them is as good an explanation as any for the move.

Could this change? Absolutely. The Florida legislature may change its mind in 2015 and reverse course, but such a change would have to make it through the governor to be enacted. No matter how the gubernatorial election goes in Florida in 2014, the sort of provocative primary movement that Florida made in 2008 and 2012 is not likely going to pass muster.

The Sunshine state is definitely part of the reason why the rules/penalties changes were made, but at this point -- in late 2013 -- it doesn't look like Florida is going to be the troublemaker it has recently been in the presidential nomination process.

No, at this point, FHQ would suggest looking at Michigan and Arizona.1 Both contests are currently positioned on the last Tuesday in February; a clear violation of the intended RNC rules. [It is unclear how either state will fare under the Democratic Party rules. The party has yet to officially begin its rules-making process, but past rules put both Arizona and Michigan on the wrong side of the penalty threshold.]

Again, maybe Florida deserves it simply for 2008 and 2012, but FHQ does not think Florida will be the one causing the trouble -- should any occur -- in 2016.

1 The recent change in North Carolina also means the Tar Heel state is vulnerable to the super penalty. However, FHQ has been told that will be taken care of. Recall that the provision anchoring the North Carolina primary to the South Carolina primary was added late to an omnibus elections bill. The addition was so last minute, that it was largely glossed over because of the importance placed on passing the whole elections bill. Those with reservations, then, didn't want to rock the boat and delay or derail the efforts to make changes (voter ID requirement, changes to early voting process) that the Republican majority in the North Carolina General Assembly wanted to push through before the legislature adjourned for the year.

It should also be noted that there is a direct line of communication between the RNC and the North Carolina General Assembly. State Representative David Lewis (R-53rd) is the national committeeman from the state and additionally is the chairman of the North Carolina House Elections Committee. [The other wrinkle here is that the amendment to the elections bill that changed the North Carolina primary date was added in the state Senate at the last minute.] FHQ is told by folks in the know here in North Carolina and in the RNC that this will be changed at some point next year. We shall see.

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Closer Look at What the RNC Subcommittee on 2016 Delegate Selection Rules Has Been Up To

Back in September -- actually on the eve of the government shutdown -- FHQ took part in what has become a fairly regular series of meetings with party rules officials (and a handful of academics) from both national parties that the National Presidential Caucus has organized for several years running now. It is always a fascinating experience of which I'm thankful to be a part. I say that because these meetings offer 1) a rare opportunity to see folks from the Democratic and Republican parties constructively discuss remedies to some of the rules-based problems that are common to both parties and 2) a limited -- The parties folks play it close-to-the-vest. -- glimpse into some of the changes that are being considered for 2016.

Those events are bookmarked in FHQ's head for days like today as well; a day when news of the progress of one of the parties' rules-making comes to light. Peter Hamby has a great rundown of the situation on the Republican side as of now, about nine months before the rules for 2016 cycle will be set in stone. There's fodder in there for several posts, but let's have a more thorough look at some of the things being considered by the RNC. [Quotations below are from Hamby.]
1) "The first four early-voting states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada -- would continue to hold their contests in February."
This is certainly what both the RNC and DNC would like. However, other states will have a say in whether or not the carve-out states actually hold their contests in February (More on this in a moment.). One thing that should be noted is that I'm sure the Republicans that Hamby spoke with said February. And that is what the party wants. Yet, that is not what the current RNC rules say. The rules that came out of the Tampa convention last year and currently govern the 2016 process give Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina a window of a month before the next earliest contest in which to schedule their primaries or caucuses (Rule 16.c.1). Now, that language is obviously apt to change -- That is what the subcommittee is up to, after all. -- but FHQ is of a mind that it will not. Ideally, those four contest occur in February, but things may push into the latter half of January.
2) "To prevent other states from jumping the order and compelling the first four to move their dates even earlier as they did in 2012, any state that attempts to hold its nominating contest before March 1 would have their number of delegates to the convention slashed to just nine people or, in the case of smaller states, one-third of their delegation -- whichever number is smaller."
If you have read FHQ closely since the conventions last year, you will note a couple of either potentially subtle or subtle changes to this particular penalty. The most obvious is the addition of a super penalty for smaller states that break the timing rule. Now, it isn't the super penalty did not apply to smaller states before. It did. Rather, the reason for the change is that the fewer delegates a state had the less the "strip them of all but nine delegates" penalty mattered. As FHQ has pointed out, there was a very small number of small states that could move their contests around and receive a penalty smaller than 50%. The RNC proposal described by Hamby closes that loophole; slicing those smaller loophole states' delegations by two-thirds if they violate the timing rule.

The less obvious matter has to do with that March 1 cutoff. Again, as FHQ has detailed, there is a window of time between the last Tuesday of February and the first Tuesday in March in which the timing rules laid out in Rule 16 are not consistent with the penalties described in Rule 17 for violating those timing rules. Rule 16 currently sets the threshold for a state having violated the timing rules at the first Tuesday in March (not March 1). But the penalty from Rule 17 is only assessed if a state holds its contest before the final Tuesday in February. One would imagine that this discrepancy would be fixed at some point -- FHQ has been told by a number of Republican rules officials that it would be addressed. -- but the above only indicates intention, not the actual rules change.

One other minor point on this one: There is a lack of consistency across a couple of other rules here that FHQ will address in a later post, but it should be noted that delegations will technically be stripped down to 12 delegates instead of nine once the three national party (automatic) delegates are added to the total. Those folks -- the state party chair, the national committeeman and the national committeewoman -- will be a part of the delegation.
3) "Any state holding a primary or caucus during the first two weeks of March must award its delegates proportionally, rather than winner-take-all."
Relative to the 2012 rules, this proposal condenses the proportionality window to just two weeks. Last year, that window encompassed any non-carve-out state with a contest prior to April 1. For all practical purposes, then, the proportionality window stretched all the way from the Florida primary on January 29 to April 1 in 2012.1 This really is a minor shift. As the Growth and Opportunity Project Report aptly noted earlier this year, the method by which states allocate delegates does not have a very clear impact on the nomination process. Stated differently, the impact the delegate allocation rules have is dependent upon the dynamics of a given nomination race. Recall, it was the dispersion of the calendar of events that made Mitt Romney's march to 1144 so slow in 2012 and not the proportionality requirement.2

The change may be minor in terms of the actual allocation of delegates in 2016, but it does give states an extra two weeks in March in which to schedule their delegate selection events without penalty. This is a small carrot of sorts from the RNC to the states. After Super Tuesday Lite on March 6, 2012, there really were not a lot of contests until April. There was a southern swing during the second week, followed by trips to Illinois and Louisiana to close out the month. In other words, the thinking here on the part of the RNC subcommittee is that that is a spot early enough (but not too early) on the calendar to warrant a few more contests. As footnote two indicates below, Texas will already be much earlier in 2016. Those last two weeks could prove advantageous to states with traditional winner-take-all rules but which have also been later on the calendar in the past. This is speculative, but the talk among some California Republicans during 2011 when the Golden state primary was being moved from February to June was that Democrats controlling the state would just move it back in 2016 (when their party had a competitive nomination race). California Republicans have typically utilized a winner-take-all by congressional district allocation plan. If (and this is a big IF) Democratic legislators in the state actually do move the primary back up into March as they did for the 1996 cycle, Republicans in the state could continue that practice and not be penalized.

And that small extra two week window is absolutely being used by the national party as a means of enticing later states to move up. But they are also using a stick.
4) "The Republican National Convention will be held either in late June or early July, though ideally on a date before the July 4 holiday."
"Moving the convention to June would have the effect of ending the primary campaign in May because of RNC rules that require state party organizations to submit their delegate lists to the national party at least 35 days before the convention." 
"States with primaries scheduled for June 2016, including California, New Jersey and New Mexico, would essentially be holding nothing more than beauty contests. Party organizations in those states would instead submit their delegate lists to the RNC ahead of time, before any primary vote takes place, Republicans said."
The stick -- and you will have to bear with me here while I fully lay this out -- is that with an earlier convention, those late states would be meaningless beauty contest events. Well, that is the description used, but FHQ doubts very seriously that that is the case.


Read through those three paragraphs from Hamby again. Now, let's dissect that and reassemble it sequentially.
A) The RNC wants/sets a late June convention date.
B) However, the national party requires delegates to be submitted from the states 35 days in advance. This is a very real logistical issue.
C) Late states -- especially late May and June primary and caucuses/convention states -- are then in a bind as to how to select delegates.
[This is an issue that FHQ has raised before. How does a party motivate late states to stomach the expenditure necessary to shift up the dates of their contests, typically contests that are held concurrently with the nominations for down ballot races? The answer is not very easily. But...]
D) Late states are forced to submit delegates ahead of time -- ahead of their contests -- to the RNC to stay within RNC rules.  
There are two things here that require careful explication.
1) Let's take the beauty contest angle first. Did you catch the omission? Those late contests are not beauty contests. They aren't anything like the Missouri Republican primary in 2012, when voters went to the polls to cast a meaningless ballot. Well, they aren't so far as FHQ sees it, anyway. What's missing is the binding of delegates. That is the primary purpose of any primary election is the binding of delegates. In most cases, primary states still have some form or fashion of a caucuses/conventions system for actually selecting the delegates who will go to the convention. But the results of the primary bind the delegates.

There is nothing in Hamby's synopsis about the binding of delegates. A state could theoretically, then, select and submit delegates to the RNC ahead of a primary contest, the results of which would later actually bind the delegates to particular candidates (see, for instance, Romney-bound delegates who were Ron Paul supporters in 2012 -- The new RNC rules that came out of Tampa have made any mischief from those types of delegates impossible.).

Got that? Now here's one other wrinkle that brings things full circle. The new RNC rules also require the binding of delegates based on the results of the earliest statewide contest. This eliminated the beauty contest loophole that early caucuses states have used in the past to avoid the timing penalty (see Colorado and Minnesota in 2012). Those first step, precinct caucuses are the results used to bind delegates to particular candidates now. If state parties in late states use a caucuses/convention system as usual to select delegates, the precinct level results -- results in an election before the primary -- could supersede the primary results as the statewide results.


In reality, all this really does is put the onus on the states to be very clear about what their processes -- selecting and binding -- entail. Keep in mind also that Hamby's description of this via his sources in the RNC is that it is the state party that is submitting the list of delegates; not necessarily with any input from a caucuses/convention process. When a dispute between Paul and establishment delegates in Nevada led to the cancelation of the Nevada Republican State convention in 2008, the state central committee ultimately selected the delegates who went to the St. Paul convention. To FHQ, this is the sort of process that is being described.

…and those delegates would be bound based on the results of the primary. That isn't a beauty contest. However, the fact that those primaries are late and the race will have likely been decided by that point renders it almost a beauty contest; maybe even technically so. Generally though, when we talk of beauty contests, what makes them so is the absence of a binding mechanism. It isn't clear to me that that is missing in this case. FHQ would be surprised if that was true in practice.

2) The other thing about this particular idea is that it makes for a potentially unhappy compromise. On the one hand, Tea Party folks might like the prospect of wresting control of a state party away from the establishment wing of the party. That is something about which the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party has become increasingly organized at least up to 2012. Theoretically, it gives them -- once in control -- the ability to name their folks to these delegate lists in late primary states. As has been witnessed over the last few years, however, instances of the Tea Party taking over state parties have been pretty limited in number. What this accomplishes in most cases, on the other hand, is that it provides more fuel for the fire of dissension within the Republican Party. All that does is potentially give state-level Tea Party factions one more thing to grouse about within the frame of RNC/establishment unfairness.

Both the delegate slates and beauty contest/binding issues are messy. Want to avoid them as a state party? Move your contest up. That is a pretty clever stick, folks.

…at least on paper. But states have proven clever in their own right in responding to national party rules. The problem for the states is that the national parties have wised up. They've adapted by moving to close the loopholes that states have exploited in the past.

Will it work? Time will tell.

As a coda to this discussion, FHQ should note the procedural barriers that the RNC now faces in changing its rules. According to Rule 12, three-quarters of the full 168 member RNC has to sign off on any rules change. That is a very high bar. First however, the subcommittee proposal -- and it will likely be introduced as a package to be voted on rather than in pieces -- will have to clear the Rules Committee. The threshold for passage there is only 50%, but something that passes the Rules Committee by a bare majority will likely not fare well before the full RNC. A near-unanimous vote in the Rules Committee may prove a necessary signal to the full RNC or at least three-fourths of them. Whether that will be sufficient in the eyes of that many RNC members remains to be seen. Three-quarters is awfully high and makes potentially big, fundamental changes with unclear ramifications that much more difficult. FHQ has spoken to a number of RNC rules folks and there are differing opinions on this. They run the gamut from confidence that the chairman can push the changes he wants through (as has typically been the case) to doubt based on how high the bar for change has been set.

It will make for an interesting set of winter and spring RNC meetings. Expect the subcommittee to issue its recommendations at the winter meeting and for them to be more fully debated and voted on at the spring or summer meeting next year.

1 Well, the 2012 Republican delegate selection rules did not allow for a double penalty; one for both a timing violation and a proportionality violation. As such, the Florida delegation was only officially reduced by 50% for the timing violation.

2 On that point, it should be noted that the Texas primary and its large cache of delegates will be in March 2016. A battle over redistricting in the Lone Star state forced the primary to late May 2012.

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Friday, October 11, 2013

"Can it stick?"

That's Dave Catanese asking whether "no primaries before February 1" will happen in the Republican presidential nomination race in 2016.

The answer is no. There are at least two reasons for that.

First, there is nothing in the current RNC rules for delegate selection that sets February 1 as a point on the calendar beyond which no primaries and caucuses can occur. That was the rule for the 2012 cycle, but that rule has been tweaked for 2016. The idea for 2012 was that February was carved out for Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina and that the remaining states would fall in line on or after the first Tuesday in March. That, as Mr. Catanese points out, did not really work out so well.

However, for 2016, in addition to the new super penalty, the carve-out states were given a bit more latitude by the RNC for their primary and caucus date-setting. Now, the four carve-out states are no longer fettered by the limitations of a February 1 threshold. Those limitations included not only an ever-decreasing number of days in February in which to schedule those four contests -- assuming some state or states made the jump into February -- but the application of the 50% delegate reduction if any of the carve-outs jumped the February 1 barrier.

What the RNC did in Tampa was allow for the carve-outs to have a month prior to the next earliest contest in which position their primaries and caucuses. That is both a protection of the four earliest states and a nod to the reality that it requires approximately one month of days for Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina to space their contests they way they like or to comply with what state law calls for.

And that brings us to the second reason that "no contests before February 1" is not likely to stick in 2016. The way the Republican rules are constructed now, there is an incentive to actually schedule a contest for the last Tuesday in February. And in 2016 that last Tuesday in February is an early last Tuesday -- February 23. Unless Nevada and South Carolina hold concurrent contests on the Saturday prior to that last Tuesday, there is no way both Iowa and New Hampshire can fit into February and remain consistent with state laws. Mainly this has to do with the New Hampshire law. Though Iowa law calls for an eight day buffer between its caucuses and the next contest, the Hawkeye state parties have scheduled their caucuses within that range of New Hampshire in each of the last two cycles; just five days before in 2008 and a week in 2012.

New Hampshire sticks to its statute as numerous times over the last generation have borne witness but most recently in 2012 when Secretary Bill Gardner held the line against the Nevada caucuses positioned on the Saturday after the Tuesday he was eyeing for the Granite state primary. If Nevada and South Carolina did not have a history of weekend contests, it would be easier for New Hampshire and then Iowa to fall into place with all four within a span of time of less than one month. As it stands, Saturday contests in Nevada and South Carolina increases the New Hampshire buffer to eleven days instead of seven. The law does not change, but the secretary cannot follow the state law by scheduling the primary for a point on the calendar just four days in advance of another contest.

But that is somewhat tangential to all of this. The real point is that the RNC has allowed the carve-outs a month prior to the fifth contest or next series of contests (if there are multiple states on that next earliest contest date) in which to schedule their contests. That could mean that all four end up in February, but that is less likely now because there are already a couple of states scheduled for that last Tuesday in February. And Arizona and Michigan are there without penalty at the moment. That is the incentive mentioned above.

Now, the intent of the Republican rulesmakers in Tampa last summer was to create a two part penalty: a super penalty for any state with a contest prior to the last Tuesday in February and a 50% penalty for any state before the first Tuesday in March. The thinking was that the super penalty would hit any state willing to jump beyond the last Tuesday in February and the proportionality requirement would assess a separate 50% penalty on Arizona and Michigan -- neither of which had proportional allocation in 2012.1 But there currently is no proportionality requirement in the RNC rules (see may/shall issue) and even if that loophole was closed, there is no penalty that would be assessed to a proportional state with a primary schedule in that area of the calendar between the last Tuesday in February and the first Tuesday in March.

But the RNC rules aren't finalized yet. Those loopholes may be closed and the incentives removed for other states wishing to get in on Arizona's and Michigan's turf. Even if that incentive is removed (and/or other states don't challenge the enforcement of the super penalty), Arizona and Michigan are still positioned on the last Tuesday in February. And given the carve-out state conflicts touched on above that is very likely to push at least Iowa into late January.

Things will change between now and late 2015 -- when the calendar is set -- but right now, the calendar will include at least one January contest. And folks, that's an improvement over 2008 and 2012 that the parties can tolerate.

1 Michigan was suppose to have been proportional (at least the two statewide at-large delegates were), but didn't really end up that way.

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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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Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Rules Don't Really Start to Take Shape Until the Candidates or Their Surrogates Get Involved

Back in the late spring of 2012, FHQ had the opportunity to sit down with folks on the Rules Committees of both parties. The bipartisan group at one point was talking about penalties nested in each party's delegate selection rules, and I took the opportunity to gauge the Democratic contingent's thoughts on the (new in) 2008 penalty that stripped candidates of delegates for campaigning in rogue states. I was curious to see if they thought that rule -- Rule 20.C.1.b -- would carry over to 2016.

The response I received was that that rule -- designed to remove the incentive states had to move up on the primary calendar (no candidate attention leads to less or no media attention) -- was a function of an agreement between the prospective candidates (and their surrogates) and the early states. The penalty worked, in part, because the candidates were on board with the rule. And the campaigns obeyed it. Florida and Michigan may have defied the Democratic National Committee rule regarding the timing of their contests, but the candidates stayed away from both.1

Furthermore, DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee members there added that the extension of that rule -- the candidate-specific penalty -- to 2016 was dependent on the involvement of the candidates, campaigns and their surrogates, nascent though they may be even at this point in the cycle. Again, the Democratic rules don't really start to take shape until the candidates or their surrogates get involved. That is why Harold Ickes return to the RBC was actually a significant signal -- albeit one that tends towards being inside baseball. There was not a whole lot of turnover on the committee, but Ickes was a major "new" face on the panel with Clinton connections as Jonathan Martin details in his New York Times piece.2

We don't yet know what the 2016 Democratic delegate selection rules will look like, but there is a baseline for comparison in the 2012 version. Actions by the Republican National Committee may also affect what the Rules and Bylaws Committee devises on the Democratic side. And now we know that when the committee convenes again in November in New Orleans and next year when the real rules work begins, there will be someone with Clinton connections on the panel that will ultimately decide what shape those rules will take. That's noteworthy.

1 Barack Obama along with John Edwards, Joe Biden and Bill Richardson all went through the extra step of taking their names off of the ballot in the Michigan primary. Clinton appeared, joined by Chris Dodd, Dennis Kucinich and Mike Gravel ( well as a line for Uncommitted).

2 Here is a rough comparison between the membership of the Rules and Bylaws Committee as just installed and the one that was in place in 2009:

There are 13 new members on the RBC now as compared to early 2009, though changes to the membership did happen in the interim. Even if that 13 is the baseline, the turnover on the committee now versus then is less than 50%. Hat tip to Frank Leone for posting the 2013 list here and sharing with FHQ the 2009 membership roll.

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

North Carolina is the New Missouri

...or How the 2015-16 North Carolina presidential primary process could look like Missouri's in 2011-12.

Now that North Carolina has jumped up the calendar and out of compliance with at least the Republican National Committee rules for 2016, it sets in motion the now-quadrennial dance between the national parties and would-be rogue states. North Carolina is now firmly lodged in that "rogue" area. And FHQ has mentioned several times in reaction to the 2016 presidential primary calendar provocation out of North Carolina recently that the move may result -- depending on how the process within North Carolina goes between now and 2015-16 -- in North Carolina Republicans (and perhaps even Democrats) being forced into utilizing caucuses as a means of allocating delegates.

That point came up again in the recent AP look at the aftermath and ramifications of the North Carolina presidential primary move. The caucus route is still a potential end point for one or both parties in North Carolina in 2016, but it is one of several options:
  1. North Carolina does nothing, takes the penalty and heads to the 2016 Republican National Convention with 12 delegates and a reduced number on the Democratic side as well.
  2. The North Carolina General Assembly does nothing, but one or more of the state parties opts for a later and compliant caucus to avoid penalty from either or both of the national parties. Call this the Missouri Route.
  3. The North Carolina General Assembly could reverse that part of the new law and move the primary back to May where it started.
  4. The North Carolina General Assembly could keep the separate presidential primary, but move it back to, say, March 1 -- the first date on which non-carve-out states can schedule delegate selection events -- or consolidate all the primaries again, but hold them in March and not May. 
Those are all viable options for decision-makers in the Tarheel state. And at least according to the AP piece, there are some within the legislature -- state Representative David Lewis, who is also the RNC committeeman from the state -- who say the issue could likely be revisited. Rep. Lewis even put a nice spin on the move -- anchoring the North Carolina primary to South Carolina's -- by saying that it was meant to "signal that we wanted North Carolina to be a more relevant player in the selection of the nominees".

But how is North Carolina potentially staring down a switch to caucuses in 2016? How is North Carolina like Missouri?

First of all, suffice it to say, there is a lot of time between now and 2015, much less 2016. In other words, much can and will happen between now and then. That said, there are echoes of what happened in Missouri in 2011 in the North Carolina discussion.1 Rep. Lewis, for instance, isn't the only member of the General Assembly with an opinion on the matter. Granted, he is a powerful voice given his position on the Republican National Committee, but he is not the only voice.

Over in the state Senate, Andrew Brock (R-34th -- Davie, Iredell and Rowan), who has brought up bills to move the North Carolina presidential primary for years, seemed/seems less willing to move the election. More importantly, Sen. Brock appears prepared to take on any delegate penalty in exchange for influence over the process (via the AP):
"I would gladly exchange my position as a delegate in exchange for having more North Carolinians in the presidential process."
Now, it may be a leap to say that a difference of opinion among two members of the North Carolina General Assembly will or could derail any move to avoid national party penalty, but those sorts of differences did just that in Missouri in 2011. It helps the comparison that there was division among the two legislative chambers in Missouri and we have different ideas about the North Carolina primary represented by members in North Carolina; one from the state Senate, the other from the state House.

The question, though, is whether either side -- move back or stay early -- has enough support to serve as veto point on the other. Though there has been enough support to push a move through in Missouri during the regular session of the legislature, there wasn't in the decisive special session. The idea of being early -- the lure of it -- was too strong.

But does that sort of division exist in the North Carolina situation?

We shall see. The North Carolina presidential primary is now early and noncompliant with RNC rules. Are the penalties enough to right the ship (...triggering either options #3 or #4 above)?  Is there a compromise position that can be met in the meantime ( the second of the two options in #4 above)? If the answer is no to either of those and a veto point in the coordination problem that is setting the primary date exists in the process then the "do nothing" part of option #1 becomes much more likely. That also, in turn, likely means the North Carolina Republican Party steps in to avoid penalties by switching to caucuses.

But there are hints of Missouri in what is happening so far since North Carolina moved. Whether they are there in the future -- and to what extent -- is a question for 2014 when the North Carolina General Assembly reconvenes.

1 To quickly recap, the Missouri General Assembly voted during its regular session in 2011 to move the presidential primary from February to March and back into compliance with both national parties' delegate selection rules. That bill was vetoed by Governor Jay Nixon because it also contained a provision that would have limited gubernatorial power in filling vacancies to various statewide offices. Even the initial regular session passage was not without fanfare. Some -- particularly in the Missouri Senate -- wanted to keep the primary early despite the penalties. That same division -- mostly occurring along line separating the two chambers of the Missouri General Assembly -- emerged again with the presidential primary issue was raised at during the 2011 special session that was called. In the context of that session the division became gridlock and the bill, after passing the House, went nowhere in the Senate. That meant no move for Missouri. Even steps after that in the special session to eliminate the presidential primary -- to save the state money -- failed. And in the midst of all of that -- and out of fear of the penalties from the RNC -- the Missouri Republican Party chose to hold caucuses for allocating their convention delegates.

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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

On Iowa's Diminishing Power in Republican Presidential Nominations

Did I miss something between Saturday and Sunday about Iowa?

All anyone has been talking about since then -- at least when it comes to the Hawkeye state and my Twitter feed -- is that Iowa is (perceived to be) losing the battle to remain relevant in the Republican presidential nomination process.

Is Iowa's power in the nomination process diminishing?

Did Iowa lose its position at the front of the presidential primary calendar line Saturday night without my knowing it?

The answer is no. And that calendar position is the main reason why Iowa is not going anywhere in the minds of voters or the campaign strategists who will run the campaigns of the candidates for the Republican nomination in 2015 and 2016. For pundits and some folks in Iowa on the Republican side of the aisle, the equation is different,  though.

We certainly hear about the diminishing relevance/influence for Iowa, and that prospect is definitely nudged along by current divisions within the Republican Party of Iowa. But by other metrics it doesn't necessarily look that way. Prospective candidates are visiting at quite a clip -- more so than at a similar point four years ago. Even Chris Christie may make an appearance there in the next year with a competitive governor's race in the offing. The Democratic Party has no plans of removing Iowa as one of the four early states, and the RNC has added new protections for the carve-out states -- Iowa included -- for 2016. None of this is evidence that Iowa is going anywhere or that its role is decreasing. It isn't. It is evidence that the dynamics of any given presidential race in any given year are different and filter through the unique Iowa environment (even that is not a constant) somewhat differently each time. That is to say that Iowa's role in any given Republican presidential nominating contest is evolving. It always has. The events of one cycle affect the future events of another.

There are some constants. Iowa's first. A sizable bloc of its Republican caucusgoers are apparently conservative. [They are. That provides some modicum of certainty that campaign strategists like.] Given that, it is more than reasonable to talk about what an uphill climb it possibly is for an establishment-type candidate to win/compete there. [It can be, but doesn't have to be.] Yet the candidates of all ideological stripes still head out to the heartland to varying degrees of frequency. And the process in both parties still filters significantly through Iowa.

Do either the straw poll or caucuses signal a winner of the nomination?

Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don't.1

And that still isn't what a first contest is normally going to do in a presidential nomination race. Iowa -- both the Ames straw poll and the caucuses collectively -- serves as a winnowing contest. The way in which it winnows differs from year to year, but it still begins the winnowing process.

...and not necessarily the picking of the next nominee.

The instances where those two -- Iowa correctly identifying the nominee and winnowing the field -- converge are the years in which, as Cohen et al (2008) would put it, the party decides or has decided in the invisible primary time leading up to the the first delegate selection event. In years when that convergence does not happen around Iowa, the Hawkeye state does what it normally does: influence the presidential nomination race.

As long as Iowa is first, the "skipping Iowa" issue that always pops up now when there is a Republican nomination contest on the horizon with no incumbent involved (which is to say, a competitive race) will continue to come up. [This is also something that Jon Bernstein dealt with rather eloquently again last week. We're recycling these things from 2012, folks. (see Bernstein here and here also] And people will continue to question the state's relevance.

That's part of being first; something Iowa wants to protect (and probably why a little paranoia about losing them -- real or imagined -- is a good thing for the state). But the bottom line now -- in 2013 -- is that Iowa is safe for 2016. The rules protect them and that guarantees a significant role in the nomination process. that will evolve over the next couple of years and perhaps even look a little different than in 2012 or 2008 or...

1 There's some folly in reading too much into electoral precedents anyway. Two primary phase precedent bubbles were popped during 2012 for instance. 1) The winner of the Iowa caucuses always finishes first or second in the Ames Straw Poll. Michele Bachmann didn't. 2) The winner of the South Carolina Republican Primary has been the ultimately Republican nominee in every competitive nomination since 1980. Newt Gingrich won South Carolina but not the nomination.

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I Am Not an Ames Straw Poll Apologist

...but FHQ is among the most skeptical of skeptics when the conversation turns back toward the "Is Ames Dead?" discussion.

Look, I thought Jonathan Martin's piece Sunday in the New York Times was illuminating. This -- the "Is Ames Dead?" discussion -- is absolutely an ongoing topic within and outside of the Republican Party of Iowa and it has at least some tangential bearing on the progress of any Republican presidential nomination race (Results may vary.). But when it comes to actually killing off the straw poll -- the quadrennial August Republican rite in the year before a presidential election year -- well, it is a bit more complicated than the straw poll is on its death bed.

...and there are certainly more perspectives within the state party about the event than it being like a "Civil War doctor amputating a gangrenous leg to save the life of the patient".

Let's take Mike Murphy's comment from the article first because that is a great place to start. I don't know whether Murphy was channeling Wallace Shawn in Princess Bride or not, but invoking land wars in Asia is a good analogy in the context of an establishment candidate wading into a supposedly ultraconservative affair in Ames. The line is also analogous in a great many ways to attempting to put the halt on the straw poll altogether.


This is something FHQ will revisit later this week in a slightly different scenario, but in this instance there currently is a veto point within the Republican Party of Iowa concerning the Ames Straw Poll. Yes, it is significant that Governor Terry Branstad (R-IA) has openly called for an end to the practice. Very significant. Rare are the times when states volunteer to lose attention in the presidential nomination process. But the party infrastructure itself is not -- at least on this issue -- on the same page with the governor. That makes it quite difficult to stop the practice.

Not impossible, mind you. But difficult.

An example...

Take Obamacare. Republicans on the Hill and nationwide have made no bones about wanting to repeal what is considered by some to be among the signature pieces of legislation to work its way through Congress on the president's watch. However, the law is in place, it is taking effect in the staggered way in which it was intended (and in some cases not initially intended), and there are also veto points within the process of reversing the legislation. There is a Democratic-controlled Senate and a Democratic president standing in the way.

The institution has been erected in other words and is increasingly difficult to tear down the more it becomes, well, institutionalized over time.

Back in the Iowa context, then, there are interests that want the institution that is the straw poll in Ames to continue. And those interests pull the strings within the state party now, too. That makes the interests (ending the straw poll practice) of the governor and other Republican officials and operatives in the Hawkeye state -- those somewhat echoed by the national party or vice versa -- harder to bring to fruition.

Institutionally speaking, there are roadblocks -- prohibitive ones at this point in time -- to putting an end to the straw poll.

At one point -- nine months ago when this issue was last raised so prominently nationally -- there was talk of "tweaking the event" involved in this discussion as well. That sentiment has not disappeared, FHQ would wager. And really, that is where this is likely to end if change is in the offing for the Ames Straw Poll. It is an event -- a fundraiser at its core -- for the party. It is an event that is also somewhat insulated by the fact that Iowa has and will continue to lead off the presidential nomination process in 2016. That is not going to change. In fact, Iowa and the other three carve-out states have received additional protection from the RNC since the 2012 caucuses. And the order of those states is codified in the DNC rules that are likely to carry over to 2016. Iowa's caucuses have no real threat -- not of losing delegates anyway -- on the Republican side from non-carve-outs and have rules-backing on the order of the first four contests on the Democratic side.

Now, FHQ is not saying that there is no way for the Ames Straw Poll to die. But institutionally there are obstacles within the Republican Party of Iowa to that happening. More to the point, there is division within the party about whether holding the event is good or bad for the caucuses early the following year. The space between the two camps and the balance of power there is such that change is unlikely now, and if it occurs, is likely to be somewhere between holding the straw poll as usual and killing it.

And if it isn't totally dead in 2015, that means it ended up tweaked in some way.

...a way that likely favors those holding most of the cards on the decision. The state party.

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