For 2012 and beyond, a superior Republican primary system

This is version 1.1 of In 2012 – no more open primaries – a proposal, that I wrote on January 21, 2008. The nomination process was an absolute miserable train wreck, the culmination of years of a worsening and chaotic system. In this case, it had already given us an inevitable nominee — too early, an unrepresentative and unsatisfactory candidate, with most of Republican America cut out of the process. I thought a better process could surely be devised.

January 2008 was a time for Republicans to begin focusing on the upcoming election, yet this piece was well received. Seemingly I was not the only one dissatisfied with the nomination process. However, now Republicans are in the mood to replace worthless people and processes with productive and vibrant ones. Starting with our own house.

So let’s start with the basic question. What is the purpose of the primary season? It is to select the Republican nominee in the general election for President of the United States. What should the purpose be? For Republicans to select that nominee, having had a fair chance to evaluate the candidates, and the candidates having had a fair chance to make their case.

I offer a proposal that achieves that end.

What is broken about the current nomination process

Who is in control of this process? Technically in charge is the national Republican Party, with the state GOP parties, state legislatures, and the national leftist media(yes, that’s what I said under my breath too!), all having a finger in the pie. As a practical matter, nobody is in charge. It’s a zoo, the monkeys are out of the cages, and they’re flinging poo at each other.

Seriously, the system is a complex system driven by multiple entities with often competing interests. All those groups have been allowed to grab whatever influence and control that they could get away with. The result is chaos, and that result would only by delightful accident produce a candidate satisfactory to the bulk of voting Republicans.

Witness the issues raised by the 2008 season, through my eyes:

  • Candidates declared campaigns virtually in the aftermath of the 2006 elections. The one laggard who declared 14 months before the election (instead of the requisite 22 months) was pilloried roundly by the press, by the other candidates, and by the right-blogosphere. And he was the man who should now be president. That’s right, I said it.
  • Televised debates began, what, in July of 2007? Most of them were hosted by the left-wing press, and the fora and questions were distinctly unhelpful in helping Republicans get to know their candidates. About ten candidates got soundbite-sized time slots to answer left-slanted questions. Seriously, moderators like far-left, leg-tingling-for-Obama Chrissy Matthews? Questions from YouTube entries? Just stop it.
  • The heavily Democrat national media did the expected. John McCain was certainly their pick for the Republican nomination, and their coverage was mostly horse-race reporting, when they weren’t focusing on trivia.
  • With a September convention, the first primaries and cauci were in early January. Some of the states were punished for going earlier than the GOP mandated. Apparently they were not punished enough to be deterred.
  • The early states were mostly non-Red states open to Democrats and Independents to vote in (and they did). The principle thing they all had in common was that they were not bellwether states. None of them could be expected to be a reliable indicator of what the Republican voters across America would vote for. South Carolina, the 9th state to go, was the first reliably Red state — however, open primary. Nice going. After South Carolina, the decision was close to inevitable.
  • Super Tuesday approached rapidly – 4 weeks after the first primary, still not having had a decent closed primary in a Republican state. Nearly half of the delegates were designated on that day, 7 months before the convention and 9 months before the general election. Stooooooooopid. The deal was sealed on that day.
  • Every state after that, including bigs like Texas, were superfluous.

Proposed solutions should address a few areas


  • The central truth of my proposal is that only Republicans should have a voice in who the Republican nominee is, and how the process is done.
  • There should be no presupposed notion that all Republicans must be conservative. RINOs are still Republicans. Northeastern liberal Republicans are still Republicans. But there should be a presupposed notion that Republicans in the most reliable states on election day deserve to be substantially involved in the process. Such is not currently the case.
  • The national party must be large and in charge of the nomination process. The national party can set standards and punish non-compliance by nullifying, reducing, or refusing to seat a state’s delegates. They should do so with gusto.
  • The time scale in which this is played out is unacceptable. It must begin later and end later.
  • A Super Tuesday is about the most moronic idea imaginable. There is something very healthy about a vetting process, where early, relatively low-stakes primaries weed out candidates whose organizations are weak, or whose message simply fails to resonate..
  • The predominant national media are a huge hindrance, a malevolent meddler in the Republican nomination process. They wield tremendous power in the current system, and they hate us. They have demonstrated repeatedly that they use their power to deliberately subvert the will of Republican voters. So we must cut them out of it – coldly, deliberately, and with deadly precision. We don’t try to cut them out of reporting it of course, but we cut them out of the control loop, out of the ability to control the dialog, and out of the ability to control the framing of issues for Republican voters. And we should enjoy doing it.

The proposal

In chronological order as the season plays out.

  • Declaration of candidacy — no change. This is America, anybody can run and be judged on their merits, and declare as soon or as late as they want to.
  • Debates — have the national GOP sponsor a series of debates
    • At least 5 debates, at 3 week intervals.
    • Starting Nov 1 (this is important — not a day earlier). We must give this season a slower start.
    • All candidates are invited who are currently polling at least 4% of likely Republican primary voters in Rasmussen or Gallup.
    • The national GOP decides when, where, and who moderates, and what the format and questions are.
    • This is not a rule, just a highly recommended guideline. Have the moderators be prominent, influential conservatives. Picture Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, Thomas Sowell, Haley Barbour, Jed Babbin, Fred Thompson, Rick Santorum, Ramesh Ponnuru. And Erick Erickson!!! And a couple of those FNC hotties like Kim Guilfoyle and S.E. Cupp. (uh oh, did I just objectify them?? Oh noes….) Also have some prominent Republicans who aren’t so distinctly conservative, perhaps even a libertarian-leaning person or two – Former President George W Bush, Peggy Noonan, Dick Cheney, Matt Drudge, Bill Kristol, John Stossel, and Megyn Kelly. Can you imagine how entertaining such debates would be to Republican voters? And can you imagine how insightful and pertinent the questions would be? Republican candidates would have a chance (finally) to answer questions that they and their voters care about.
    • All debates by ABC, NBC, YouTube, etc, are to be boycotted before the end of the 5 RNC debates. For the GOP debate system, eligibility for these debates is contingent on turning down all other debates. A candidate chooses either/or. Play the left-wing media game and hit all those debates, or hit the RNC-sanctioned debate series. We’re going to royally cheese off most significant media outlets. But who cares, they hate us anyway, and frankly they can’t hurt us in this area. We know CSPAN and FNC would jump all over the chance to televise these debates — and we give their people all the before-and-after-debate commentary and analysis, face-time, exclusive access, etc. And let’s be real. Almost 40 million viewers watched Sarah Palin’s 2008 Convention speech, and 9 million of those watched it on FNC. These debates will draw huge, off-the-charts ratings.
  • The Primary season — Iowa and New Hampshire go bye-bye as the lead-off states. As I stated earlier, the national party needs to assert authority and dominate this process – while being a benevolent and fair arbiter of the state machinery. I propose:
    • that the first 2 primaries be the first and second Tuesday on or after March 1. One state each week.
    • they be selected to go on a lottery basis for each 4-year cycle.
    • states eligible for a “front 2” will have to have gone GOP in 3 of the last 4 presidential elections. They will have to be worth at least 8 electoral votes, and not have been a “front 2” in the last 3 cycles.
    • to be able to seat delegates at the convention, primaries (or caucuses) must be closed. Not semi-open, not semi-closed (see definitions). Only Republicans select the Republican candidate for President.
    • Any state going earlier than those first 2 states seats no delegates in the convention. Any state not having closed primaries, ditto. No delegates. It is likely this will not initially deter some (IA and NH, I bet you a thousand dollars). The left-wing media will lionize these states; it is their one chance to influence the process. But it won’t count for much, and it won’t happen the second cycle. See the next point to see how fast the candidates will lose interest.
    • Candidates who even “file” (whatever the term is) and/or make campaign stops after November 1 in states who violate the above, such candidates will not be allowed to speak at the convention, even the acceptance speech should they win the nomination. Brinkmanship? Oh yeah. Don’t you love the taste of gunpowder? It’s a time for political courage by the party, for once.
    • No “super-days”. Using the number of electoral votes as my guide (good rule of thumb, another barometer will do) – no primary day may have more than 70 electoral votes at stake (that’s less than 15% of the total). This allows little bitty states to combine their “purchasing power” without Republicans getting stupid about it. How to arbitrate whose primary is when? I’m open, but I’d suggest a first-come, first serve.
  • The Convention — Have it in July for Pete’s sake, the first full week after the July 4th holiday. This compresses the primary season (March – June), and magnifies the general election season. This is done de facto anyway, so why not make it legit, and give our guy/gal a full running start in the general campaign.

My rebuttal to the rebuttals

When I posted this in 2008, there were some people with opposing ideas. It was quite a healthy discussion. I am fine with people having ideas that conflict with mine. However, I like this plan, from top to bottom. I see no substantial flaw, and the only thing keeping it from being enacted would be the failure of leadership at the RNC.

  • But what if some candidates ditch the RNC debates and go to the ABC/MSNBC/YouTube debates? You will get 100% compliance from the candidates. I guarantee it. Suppose Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee (for example) skipped the RNC debates and went on a series of major media debates, while Pawlenty, Christy (yes I said it), Jindal, and Cain did the RNC circuit. You do remember that Republicans vote in Republican primaries, don’t you? You skip those debates in favor of the media, and the Herman Cain and Tim Pawlenty ads just write themselves. Not only that, GOP voters will be highly resentful, since we’ve had all we can stand from the leftist media. The proposed RNC debate series is a great idea, the candidates know it, and most of them would relish it. To skip the RNC debates is campaign suicide.
  • But there would just be softball questions. OK. Seriously. Close your eyes and try to imagine Rush Limbaugh asking a softball question. Picture Thomas Sowell failing to cross-examine every candidate’s fiscal and tax policy. Or maybe you think Megyn Kelly will ask if they are “surprised, enchanted, troubled, or humbled”. Uh huh. Yeah. You are high if you think these people are not going to mercilessly grill these candidates. The thing you can be sure of is that they will ask questions and cover issues that Republicans care about.
  • I would prefer a national primary day. The vetting process provided by earlier primaries will weed out the weaker candidates and candidates who are not representative of Republicans. We will get to observe them on the trail, how they respond to success and failure, how well they raise money, how they handle the leftist media. Such skills and organization are required for the general election. A single national primary day deprives us of all those things.
  • A candidate must have cross-over appeal, and this system would fail to account for that. First, nobody who is not a Republican deserves a say. I dare say better to die with a captain we are willing to fight for……. But second, you can be sure the national media will constantly be polling the primaries, polling various Republicans against various Democrats in head-to-heads, how they poll among independents, blacks, women, men, and so on. Republican primary voters will take into account many factors; among them, their view of a candidate’s electability. It will hardly be a secret what a candidate’s cross-over appeal will be. If, in the end, American Republicans choose their Mondale, their unelectable candidate, we will have done it with eyes open. So be it.

In conclusion

This plan can be implemented. The only weakness is that the RNC is dominated by establishment types who would just as soon not have conservatives picking the nominee. And our ColdWarrior is leading the movement that will remove that obstacle sooner than you think.

Further, this plan is sensible, pragmatic, and equitable.

PS — This whole thing was inspired in part by Jed Babbin’s excellent column Whose Primaries are They? from Human Events, the morning I posted my original in January 2008.]