Republicans Are Trying to Build a Better Primary


Jonathan Bernstein reports on Republican efforts to shorten the primary season:

If all goes according to plan, the result will be votes in the first four (“carve-out”) states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina — in February, followed by votes in rapid succession in March and April, with the primary season finishing up in May. That’s a lot more compressed than the January-to-June schedule of the past few cycles.

….The 2012 cycle, the theory goes, just went on too long, with eventual nominee Mitt Romney taking too many shots from other candidates. My feeling, however, is that the hits Romney took almost certainly didn’t matter for the fall campaign. The real lesson of 2012 that Republicans should worry about is that virtually any crank, no matter how little qualified for president, can have a very good two weeks….It’s essentially the stories of Michele Bachman, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum in 2012.

By compressing the calendar, you increase the danger that a mediocre or worse candidate could get hot at just the right time and wrap up the nomination before the party has time to stop it….The March crunch could get so momentous that it overwhelms the rest of the schedule. In other words, if crunch time in March takes on the air of a de facto national primary — even one spread out over two or three weeks — it could mean trouble.

I agree that compressing the actual voting might not matter much. These days, primary campaigns start early: we’ll almost certainly have several declared candidates by early 2015 and a full field by the middle of the year. Those guys are going to be out on the trail taking shots for a very long time no matter what. Besides, primary season is almost always effectively over by March or April anyway, even if there are a few Ron Paul-esque stragglers who refuse to concede for PR reasons. It rarely lasts more than 14 or 15 weeks.

So what about Bernstein’s theory that the real problem is that a compressed schedule runs the risk of a fluke win by a fringe candidate? I’m not so sure about that either. The clown show of 2012 was truly sui generis, something that’s never really happened before. And I’m not so convinced that any of the fringe folks would have had better odds in a compressed primary season, as he suggests. Sure, they each got hot for a week or two, but they typically got hot in one or two states. I don’t think they could have replicated that performance if they’d been competing in lots of different states at once.

But I could be wrong! Generally speaking, my advice to both parties is simple: Make your primaries as similar to a general election as possible. That would mean, for example, ditching the Iowa caucuses, since the kind of retail politics that win in Iowa are irrelevant to success in November. What you want is a candidate that can raise lots of money; appeal to lots of people; and has a good media presence. That’s what wins general elections these days, and a successful primary season is one that gives the advantage to those qualities. The quaint notion that New Hampshire is a great place to start because it’s a small state and gives everyone a chance is ridiculous. No modern political party should want a process that gives everyone a chance. They should want a process that brutally winnows out the vanity candidates and narrows the field to folks who know how to win on the big stage.

It won’t happen because it would require the parties to play massive hardball with the Iowas and New Hampshires of the world, something they won’t do. But they probably should.

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