Saturday, January 25, 2014

More GOP Rule Changes in Store

Once again, I've been beaten to the punch on things invisible primary, but Fridays are filled with classes and cricket (I'm proud to be the Bob Uecker of the SDSU Cricket Club), so delay was inevitable.  In truth, I've been pondering this post since December when details began to emerge about the rule changes the GOP was considering, particularly their plan to compress the nomination calendar.  The mulling is now over, and changes have been adopted.  Over at Bloomberg, Jonathan Bernstein has an insightful post on the net effects of the rule change on the nomination process.

Speaking for myself from the perspective of a political scientist, the GOP navel gazing is at once heartening, yet quite frustrating.

To the former, as someone who spends a great deal of time studying institutions, it nice to see that politicians and party officials recognize that individual behaviors are affected by rules and structures, and that they are trying to harness that behavior in a positive direction.

What's frustrating is precisely what Bernstein dubs "fighting the last war;" ferreting out what they felt went wrong in the last race and rearranging institutions based on some pretty spurious evidence of what made the election break against them.  Could the calendar have mattered in 2012?  Highly unlikely.  As Bernstein articulates (and as most political scientists would concur) the happenings of the primary season are noticed by only a very small sliver of the population and they're lost in collective memory come November.  Assuming that the divisions of the primary season aren't indicative of deep, irreconcilable factionalism  - and 2012 wasn't such a case - an extended primary isn't the worst thing that can happen to a party.  And frankly, it didn't take an undue amount of time for Republicans to choose Romney in 2012.  GOP suspicions in 2012 that the partial move from primarily winner-take-all to a degree of proportionality in delegate allocation in early primary states drew out the nomination fight were effectively shown to be mythological by Josh Putnam and John Sides.  GOP navel gazing by the likes of Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, and John McCain was purely speculative, superficially impressionistic, and wildly uninformed with readily available empirical evidence.  It seems to me that these rule changes now are due in part to the survival of this myth.  What's more important to the party's general election prospects are election fundamentals, and what candidates can do in their campaigns to make the best of the cards they are dealt.  That's what the party ought to be concerning itself with, not so much the timing of primaries and sanctioning states for breaking their rules.  It's just not determinative of general election results, or even the results of the nomination fight.  Now, if a primary season is extended by an inability of the party to triangulate on an acceptable candidate across factions that is highly problematic, but a compressed calendar isn't going to help, as the party's got far bigger issues to worry about.

One minor departure that I take from Bernstein's post has some direct relevance to the invisible primary.  While he's spot on in noting that "any old crank" can have a good two weeks in the pre-primary period (and if the timing is right lucky, in the early primary states ala Santorum), I'm more confident that threshing machine of the invisible primary will effectively separate the wheat from the chaff.  So by my reckoning, a compressed calendar won't make much of a difference on nominee quality.  While the cranks might stick around for the sake of landing a book or TV deal, the probability was exceedingly low that the GOP would nominate Bachman, Cain, Santorum, or Gingrich, as each were at the very best factional leaders, and frankly, not particularly serious candidates to begin with.  To the extent that proved necessary, Romney had the party behind him before the first vote cast in Iowa.  The invisible primary actually threshed out some serious candidates, as it should, like Governors Tim Pawlenty and Rick Perry.  And though this thought isn't original to me (and for the life of me I cannot remember who had written it) we know they were serious because they dropped out when they recognized nomination was out of their grasp.  What was left for Romney to contend with were empty husks of challengers, that more or less blew away in the in the early primary season winds.

The bottom line for me (like Bernstein) is that neither party should worry too much about the little details of their nomination systems, they just don't matter that much.  While wholesale changes we saw in the aftermath of the 1968 election cycle were very consequential (and the parties had to scramble to adapt), it seems to me that monkeying around on the margins carries high opportunity costs.  Spend the time, money, and effort on ensuring the chaff is separated from the wheat effectively in the primaries while keeping your party unified, and help nominees carefully choose a general election path that maximizes political return on the fundamentals they have to work with.  Should both parties play a larger role throughout the entire electoral process, our democracy will be that much better off.


  1. Great post, Your article shows tells me you must have a lot of background in this topic. Can you direct me to other articles about this? I will recommend this article to my friends as well. Keep it up.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Thanks for the kind words. Probably the best blog source for primary rules is Josh Putnam's Frontloading HQ. The link is in our blog roll on the right side of the screen.