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New rules could mean a long, dramatic battle for the GOP presidential nominee

Washington state nixed a primary, to save money, but the complicated caucus/convention system next spring could occur in the midst of the homestretch for the candidates.

Mitt Romney (Romney campaign)

Mitt Romney (Romney campaign) None

Ready or not, the 2012 presidential campaign is well under way.  Some on the left may not be happy about it, but President Obama almost certainly will face no serious opposition for the Democratic nomination.  All the drama will be on the Republican side, and based on the rules this cycle, and the early maneuvering, there may be drama aplenty.

Most American elections are very simple; whoever gets the most votes wins.  There is nothing simple, however, about our process for electing a president.  The rules are the key to everything, and the rules seem to change every four years.  Most of us will be spectators in this drama, especially given the fact that the Washington legislature has cancelled the presidential primary in order to save money.

To enjoy the show you need to understand what is going on, so here's a primary primer.

The one thing political parties still control is the presidential nomination process. The Republican National Committee (RNC) writes the rules for the national convention, and the various state parties write the rules on the selection of delegates to that convention.  State parties and state governments that attempt to ignore those rules run the risk of not having their delegates seated at the convention.  Courts have ruled against state parties when it comes to primary elections and access to the November ballot, but no court is going to tell the Republican or Democratic Party how to run their conventions. 

This cycle, the RNC has tweaked the rules in a very significant way.  They have effectively set up a three-stage process.  The traditional early states will be allowed to conduct their caucuses and primaries in February.  The states that apportion their delegates in a caucus/convention format, or by a primary election that awards delegates proportionate to the votes received, will be allowed to go in March.  States that hold winner-take-all primaries must wait until at least April.

This staging is designed to slow down the process and allow more candidates to compete deeper into the year.  Winner-take-all primaries in big states favor candidates with lots of money and established name familiarity.  By pushing those contests back, the RNC has given hope to candidates who otherwise might not have a chance.  Will the GOP regret this choice?

Conventional wisdom holds that the Republican nominee with either be Gov. Rick Perry or former Gov. Mitt Romney.  I share that view.  But the rules, and the ability of candidates to use the internet, the plethora of televised debates, and the 24-hour cable news cycle to spread their message, may allow one or more of the long shots to remain viable deep into the process. Meanwhile, money is becoming less important in such modern political campaigns.

So let’s walk through this process, with a special eye to how the caucus/convention system will work in Washington state.

The Iowa caucuses will lead things off on Monday, Feb. 6.  Caucuses tend to favor conservatives popular with the GOP’s grassroots activists. Perry and Romney will survive Iowa no matter poorly they may do.  But which one or two of the “others” will do well enough to emerge as alternatives to the big two establishment candidate?  Iowa will winnow the field.

The New Hampshire primary follows on Tuesday, Feb. 14.  Like most primary states, New Hampshire allows independent voters to participate.   New Hampshire has therefore revived many “moderate” candidacies, and this will be a crucial contest for Romney.  If he loses Iowa and New Hampshire his campaign will be in serious trouble. Conversely, if Perry loses Iowa and New Hampshire he will face a virtual must-win in the South Carolina primary on Tuesday, Feb. 28.

If Perry or Romney runs the table in February it’s game over.  But what if Michelle Bachman wins the caucuses in Iowa and Nevada, Romney wins New Hampshire, Perry wins South Carolina, and Ron Paul does well enough everywhere to remain alive?  Game on.


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