Boy: Wait a second! I saw the whole thing! The machine’s fixed! Who’s she, your mother?
Tiffany Case: Blow up your pants!
—Gary Durbin as Boy and Jill St. John as Tiffany Case in Diamonds Are Forever
If you’re a conservative, when is the last time you voted for President without holding your nose?
I’ve argued with friends about whether there’s something in the machine that’s preventing conservatives from getting nominated, or whether it’s as simple as the conservative base just isn’t big enough to get its way. But one way or another, the fact is the process is consistently yielding crappy nominees; indeed, aside from Barry Goldwater in 1964 and Ronald Reagan in 1980, the GOP hasn’t nominated a real conservative for President in nearly a century.
And it’s happening again this year. It’s only mid-January, yet the field has already lost Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, and now Rick Perry. Iowa's flip notwithstanding, it appears that Rick Santorum’s bid is on life support. Anything short of a close second in South Carolina on Saturday will effectively end Newt Gingrich’s run, which means we won’t even get to February before we’re down to Mitt Romney and Ron Paul (who I assume won’t quit until he literally doesn’t have gas money to get to the next stop).
Excuse me if I don’t quite get that tingling sensation up my leg.
For all practical purposes it looks like the nomination race will be essentially over before Super Tuesday (March 6). Here in Texas, I likely won’t get any real vote, because we don’t go until April 3. Those of you in California, New Jersey, or Utah who don’t have your primary until June? You’ll be looking at a one-name ballot.
So what, Rusty? You could argue that the campaigns that have fallen or are in the process of falling have collapsed under their own weight. Running a national campaign over a long term is a necessary skill to compete in the general election, and if a candidate can’t do that—whether because they lack the organization, can't raise funds, or wet themselves on national TV—better to find that out early and weed him out. And maybe conservative candidates simply can’t muster enough votes to win the nomination (if that’s really so, maybe it’s time to form a separate Conservative Party).
But I submit that the nomination process itself is rigged against conservatives.
Consider that 12 states (13 if you include the always-critical battleground of the Northern Mariana Islands) hold their primaries before Super Tuesday. While they only hold about 15% of the total delegates, these states have an almost decisive say in who the nominee is because winning the early contests is so essential to maintaining enough fundraising momentum and national interest to stay in the race. By process of elimination that means conservatives are out before they ever get a chance.
What do I mean by that?
Of the 12 states with primaries before Super Tuesday, four are uber-liberal states that have gone to the Democrats in each of the last four Presidential elections, by average margins approaching 10 points or more: Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, and Washington. Another two—Iowa and New Hampshire—are consistently blue come national election time, going Democrat in three of the last four elections. Another five are at best erratic, splitting their recent Presidential results, and even when the GOP candidate has won it’s been by the slimmest of margins: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, and Nevada. Among the states getting their say before Super Tuesday, only South Carolina can be considered solidly conservative. But they have an open primary, meaning independents get a say in the South Carolina nomination process. What this suggests is that virtually all of this early weeding out of candidates occurs in states that skew center-left, which necessarily disadvantages conservative candidates.
Let’s take it a step further.
Thirteen states fall into what I would call the deep red, reliably conservative category, voting for the GOP candidate in each of the last four elections by an average margin of 10 points or better: Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming. These states hold some 24% of the delegates. That moves to 28%—nearly double the pre-Super Tuesday delegate count—if you also include Georgia and Montana, which both have gone to the GOP in the last four elections, but with an average margin of less than 10%. These states are where the bulk of the conservative base resides, and one suspects that a Bachmann, Gingrich, Perry, or Santorum would likely take a decisive victory over Romney here—if they could last long enough to run that race. But of these core conservative states, only South Carolina gets an early say. While four states (five if you include Georgia) participate in Super Tuesday—and even that impact is dampened by the fact that super-deep-blue Massachusetts and Vermont, and unreliable-to-blue-leaning Ohio and Virginia also participate in Super Tuesday—most if not all of the conservative candidates will likely already be out of the race by then, leaving conservative voters little left from which to choose.
In other words, under the current primary system the GOP can’t nominate a conservative, because the conservative candidates are gone before the conservative voters get a chance to vote.
You could fix that by holding a single nationwide primary, but that would for all intents and purposes rule out a lesser-known candidate from the start. A marginal candidate can mount a campaign when only a few states at a time are in play, and then gain momentum (and additional funding) with some early successes; witness, for example, Mike Huckabee in 2008, or Herman Cain last Fall before he flamed out due to personal issues. But with a single national primary, only the mega-wealthy and already-famous—like a Donald Trump—could run a viable campaign.
Let me offer some suggestions. One, eliminate winner-take-all contests in favor of proportional representation (like the DNC does). This ensures that second- and third-place finishers retain relevance heading down the campaign trail.
Two, eliminate open primaries. The primary process isn’t intended for the general public to decide who the nominees are, it’s intended for—in this case—the Republican Party to decide who its nominee will be. If you aren’t part of the party, why should you get any say in that? If you’re not a Republican and want a say in who gets nominated, start your own party and make your own nomination.
Third, streamline the calendar by lumping the states in buckets, similar to the Ohio Proposal the RNC rejected coming out of the 2008 elections. I would try to keep smaller states together, regionalize where I can to minimize travel expense, and keep each bundle with a mix of typically conservative and non-conservative states. I might also save the states with the biggest delegate jackpots for a final showdown, so there typically remain enough outstanding delegates to be won that those not currently at the top of the leaderboard are still in the game. And I’d compress the schedule and get it finished earlier, so the party and nominee can focus more time and resources on going after the Democrats heading into November.
Just as an example, you might do something like this:
February 2—First Regional Test: Iowa, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Vermont, West Virginia, (roughly 132 delegates at stake).
February 23—Battleground I: Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Nebraska, New Jersey, Virginia, Wisconsin (roughly 291 delegates at stake).
March 13—Battleground II: Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oklahoma (roughly 267 delegates at stake).
April 12—Second Regional Test: Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, Vermont, Wyoming (roughly 133 delegates at stake).
May 1—Battleground III: Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Utah, Washington (roughly 256 delegates at stake).
May 18—Battleground IV: Alabama, Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi (roughly 259 delegates at stake).
June 19—Final Showdown: California, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas (roughly 876 delegates—about 40% of the total—at stake).
July 4-6: Republican National Convention
My two cents, since I don’t get a vote.