Can Small RNC Rule Change Affect GOP Race?

by Stuart Rothenberg September 12, 2011 · 12:00 PM EDT

The devil, people say, is in the details, and there is no better example of that than a relatively small change in the rules of the Republican Party, which could end up having a big effect on the GOP’s presidential nominating process and even on the general election.

Unlike Democrats, Republicans don’t make rule changes between national conventions. Rules adopted at one national convention stay in place for four years, until the next national convention.

On Aug. 6, 2010, however, for the first time in history, a rule change passed the Republican National Committee by an unheard-of two-thirds majority and was enacted.

The rule, drawn up by the Temporary Delegate Selection Committee established at the 2008 GOP convention, was subject to an up-or-down vote without amendment at the party’s 2010 summer meeting.

Under the first part of the new Rule 15, which has received plenty of media attention, only Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada are allowed to select delegates to the 2012 convention in February, while other states can begin the process no earlier than the first Tuesday in March.

But the new rule also states that, aside from the four February states, all other states holding contests before April 1 (that is, the often crucial March states) must “provide for the allocation of delegates on a proportional basis.” Proportionality is not defined in the rules.

Then-RNC Chairman Michael Steele, who was chairman of the Temporary Delegate Selection Committee, praised the changes, saying they would “ensure that we emerge from the primaries with the strongest Republican nominee possible to defeat Barack Obama.”

Whether that is true will be tested next year.

Supporters of the change believe the new calendar, combined with the proportionality requirement for March contests, will make it more difficult for a candidate to deliver a quick, early knockout.

“We will have a 60-day nominating contest that will be long enough for the party to evaluate the candidates and consider their electability, but not so long that it will create a problem for the general election,” Tennessee Republican National Committeeman John Ryder, a member of the temporary committee, told me recently.

But unlike the Democratic National Committee, which in 2008 succeeded in making the primaries in Michigan and Florida irrelevant because those states violated the party’s calendar “window,” the RNC opted for a different strategy.

While the DNC stripped the states of all their delegates (possibly costing Hillary Rodham Clinton the nomination and presidency), the new RNC rule imposes only a 50 percent penalty on states that violate the early window. The early indications are that the penalty won’t be punitive enough to keep as many as three large states — Michigan, Florida and Arizona — from setting primary contests within the early window.

Ryder argues that stripping a state’s entire delegation is “so draconian that it won’t ultimately be imposed” — the Democratic Convention eventually seated both the Michigan and Florida delegations — and he readily admits that the new rule is a compromise that allowed the change to pass.

If the GOP race drags on into March, and opinion is divided about whether it will, the proportionality requirement kicks in, introducing a new wild card into the contest.

Opponents of the rule argue that it could prevent one candidate from wrapping up the contest by Super Tuesday, thereby causing the contest to drag out longer, forcing Republicans to spend resources on an internal fight and hindering the RNC from raising money for an expensive general election against a sitting Democratic president who might raise close to $1 billion for his re-election campaign.

Supporters agree that proportionality may drag out the race but doubt that it will go much further than early April, when winner-take-all contests are again allowed.

Interestingly, Rule 15 doesn’t impose an additional penalty on a state that violates the February window for also violating the proportionality requirement.

In other words, if a state not authorized by the RNC rules to select delegates in February does so, it loses half its delegates. But if it also selects the remaining delegates through a winner-take-all system — which maximizes the importance of a state in the nominating process — it suffers no further delegate reduction.

While Ryder admits that the RNC’s Rule 16 (“Enforcement of Rules”) only applies to the February “window” and not to the proportionality requirement, he notes that Rule 23 (“Contest Procedure”) allows challenges to a delegation at the convention if a candidate feels wronged by the way a state selected delegates, including violating the proportionality rule.

States don’t have to inform the RNC about their delegate selection procedures and dates until Oct. 1, so Chairman Reince Priebus and his team won’t know officially about the problems they are facing for another three weeks.

And we won’t know how the process plays out until we see where all of the GOP presidential hopefuls play in the early primaries and caucuses and how the media covers contests that violate RNC rules.

While most observers don’t expect the Republican race to play out the way the Obama-Clinton fight did, stretching on well past the first contests of March and into the spring (potentially benefiting the candidate with the deepest pockets), the new RNC rules add a dose of uncertainty.

Any state using a winner-take-all process before April 1 that isn’t protected by the February carve-out could easily generate an unwelcome credential fight at the 2012 convention, quite possibly, for example, by the supporters of presidential hopeful Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who always seem ready for a fight.

Will the new process make the GOP race long enough to test the contenders and capture the public’s attention without being so long as to divide the party? Or will states ignore the RNC rules, figuring that they’ll still get plenty of attention from the candidates and media? Even supporters of the new rule don’t yet know the answer to these questions.