By Craig Robinson
On Monday, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus provided the media with a blunt assessment of the committee’s 2012 campaign effort. Priebus admitted, “Our message was weak; our ground game was insufficient; we weren’t inclusive; we were behind in both data and digital; and our primary and debate process needed improvement.” In many respects, Priebus admitted that the organization that he was elected to steer to victory failed at every facet of the campaign except for fundraising.
In his remarks to the National Press Club, Priebus mentioned a number of areas where the Obama campaign simply out preformed Republicans. The only problem is that President Obama didn’t run against Mr. Prebus and the RNC. He ran against Mitt Romney.
Even though the RNC’s report didn’t come out and say that the Romney campaign was an utter disaster, it’s impossible conclude otherwise. While there are many ideas put forward in the proposal that would be worthwhile programs for the RNC to pursue, Republicans would also be wise to call the Romney campaign for what is was, a failure. It does the RNC no good accept total responsibility for every fault of the Romney campaign.
The RNC report offers more than 200 solutions to the problems that the GOP experienced in 2012, but in reality, Priebus is only offering Republicans one solution – a larger, more expensive, more controlling RNC in future campaigns. The 100-page RNC missive seeks to regulate outside groups, have complete say over every detail of presidential debates, and it advocates for the presidential primary calendar to be condensed and its contest regionalized.
The Des Moines Register published an article on Monday that said the RNC proposal bodes well for Iowa’s First-in-the-Nation caucuses. The proposal protects Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, by granting them a “carve out” and specifically stating, “[I]t remains important to have an ‘on ramp’ of small states that hold unique primary days before the primary season turns into a multi-state process with many states voting on one day.”
The RNC’s carve out for the four early states is indeed a good sign, but in the last two presidential cycles, Iowa’s preferential status was jeopardized when states like Michigan and Florida purposely violated RNC rules and moved their contest to earlier dates. The compression of the nomination calendar in 2008 and 2012 forced Iowa to hold its caucuses on January 3rd. While that date has worked, it is less than ideal because of its proximity to the holidays. Compression of the calendar also makes it extremely difficult for the four early states to conduct their contests due to state laws that regulate the time between similar contests.
The RNC’s inability in recent cycles to create any sort of stability when it comes to its presidential nomination calendar makes its suggestion of regional primaries following the early states seem not only far fetched, but improbable. Making any adjustment to the nominating calendar will invite chaos as large states like Florida, Michigan, Texas, and others all jockey for position. Regional primaries are not necessarily a bad idea, but getting the states to agree to a plan is easier said than done.
Equally ambitious is the RNC’s move to have complete control over the presidential debates. Reining in the number of debates and regulating the timing of them is an honorable goal, but how the RNC plans to force news agencies and candidates to comply with their wishes is anyone’s guess.
To understand this, one only needs to look at what happened in Iowa in 2007. ABC News held a presidential debate in August against the wishes of the Republican Party of Iowa. The candidates choose to participate and the debate was held at Drake University. Later that year, a Republican Party of Iowa Debate with Fox News was canceled because the candidates didn’t want to participate, opting to instead participate in a new debate with the Des Moines Register.
The point is simple. It is the presidential candidates, not state party committees, the RNC, or even the news organization hosting the debate who determine what debates will actually happen. Campaigns will always do what’s best for their campaign, regardless of whether or not the debate is sanctioned by the RNC.
While the 20 debates held in the 2012 Republican primary went a bit overboard, it was the back-to-back debates that occurred in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida that were the big problems. In New Hampshire, the debates were on back-to-back days. In South Carolina and Florida, the debates were three days apart. The problem is not the oversaturation of debates, it’s that the debates between contests were dictating a campaigns strategy. Some said that Rick Santorum should have skipped New Hampshire, but how can he when he’s obligated to spend the two days following the Iowa caucuses debating in that state?
When it comes to compressing the nominating calendar and limiting the number of debates, the RNC should proceed with caution. Who benefits from a compressed calendar the most? The candidate with the most money. Who benefits the most by not having so many debates? The candidate with the most money, who is often the frontrunner.
Maybe instead of trying to lengthen the primary schedule like the RNC did after the 2008 race, or the effort now to compress the primary process, the RNC should attempt find a balance between the two. Or better yet, the RNC should first attempt to provide states and candidates some sort of certainty as far as the nomination process is concerned. That would go a long way in preventing the awkward spacing of the debates and contests.
Mr. Priebus and the RNC have their hands full with the responsibilities they already have. Maybe before the bite off even more, they should perfect the areas of the process that they already control.
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