Home/Daniel Larison/The RNC Shoots Itself in the Foot (Again)

The RNC Shoots Itself in the Foot (Again)

Graphic by Tim Markatos

Philip Diehl explains how the RNC’s own rule changes are coming back to haunt them in this election:

The last thing the Republican National Committee wanted was a drawn-out battle for the nomination. That’s why the RNC attempted to design the 2016 primary rules to favor an establishment candidate. Of course, the 2016 presidential race has been anything but favorable to establishment candidates: The dynamics of the race point squarely to an anti-establishment candidate securing the nomination. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz now have a near-insurmountable advantage in the race, one that will almost certainly leave the establishment candidates finished by early March.

The RNC has a great talent for fighting the last war. Each cycle they do their best to remedy whatever they perceived to be a major flaw with the last primary season, and they end up with an outcome they hate even more than the last one. In 2008, McCain won quickly against a divided field. He had the nomination effectively sewn up by Super Tuesday (February 5 that year), and Romney’s withdrawal from the race later that same week guaranteed that McCain would win. Because McCain was a nominee many Republicans didn’t want, the RNC set out to prevent the same quick success of a front-running candidate. To that end, they spread out the primaries and fought against “front-loading” the calendar in 2012, and they moved away from winner-take-all rules in some places. That gave them a drawn-out fight between Romney and his rivals that they concluded lasted far too long. Because they assumed that this hurt the eventual nominee and damaged the party with the endless series of primary debates, they went back to a system that was supposed to give a front-runner a better chance to wrap things up sooner. Unfortunately for them, this year party leaders loathe the top two candidates to differing degrees and would prefer that neither of them wins, but the RNC arranged things so that it will be very difficult for any of the other candidates to stop them both.

Some states have what Diehl calls “winner-takes-most” rules that set up a threshold for winning delegates. If a candidate reaches 15 or 20%, he gets his share, but if he falls short of that he gets nothing. The trouble for the “establishment” candidates is that none of them is consistently polling well enough to meet the threshold in most places. Diehl gives an example:

Georgia, a winners-take-most state with a 20 percent threshold, illustrates the formidable obstacles the establishment candidates face. A CBS News/YouGov poll conducted in mid-January shows the outsiders taking 76 percent of the vote while the four insiders combined take just 19 percent. Rubio leads the insiders with 13 percent, trailing Trump by 26 points. Only Trump, with 39 percent, and Cruz, with 29 percent, would qualify for delegates, splitting the state’s 76 delegates between them. So far, none of the establishment candidates are close to meeting Georgia’s 20 percent threshold.

The Georgia scenario will play out in six states holding primaries on March 1, otherwise known as the SEC Primary.

Of course, things could change between now and March 1, but the point is that Rubio or any other “establishment” candidate can’t afford to hang around for months finishing in third place again and again in the hopes of winning at some later date. If the GOP had a purely proportional system for awarding delegates that might not be such a terrible plan, but it doesn’t. As Diehl points out the Southern states that vote on March 1 account for 422 delegates apportioned by the same rules, and he observes that they “are conservative states in which establishment candidates will likely struggle to meet the thresholds. The Republican nomination contest is rigged to favor the strongest candidates, and until something changes dramatically that means the system is rigged to favor Trump and Cruz.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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