Can Republicans win in 2016 by changing their rules?

The Republican National Committee, gathered in Washington, wants to avoid a rerun of 2012, when Mitt Romney was left bruised and broke after the primaries, 20 debates, and a late convention.

Joe Skipper/Reuters/File
The Republican National Committee could take steps Friday to prevent a repeat of this: Florida held its Republican presidential primary in 2012 on Jan. 31, earlier than national party officials wanted.

No, the Republican Party isn’t suggesting that the next presidential race be decided by counting only the ballots in red states or having Democrats send in their ballots by pony express.

Rather, the Republican National Committee (RNC) wants to tweak the party’s 2016 primary calendar, have fewer debates, and hold an earlier convention. These changes may sound trivial, but they could add up to a major reform that allows the Republicans’ best candidate to rise to the top in a reasonable amount of time, and then head into battle with the Democratic nominee fully armed, Republican strategists say.

These changes are “much needed if the GOP wants to win the White House in 2016,” says Ford O’Connell, chairman of the Civic Forum PAC. “They should reduce infighting and permit the eventual nominee to preserve resources for the general election battle.”

The rules changes – particularly in the primary calendar and in the awarding of delegates – are a hot topic at the RNC’s annual winter meeting, under way in Washington. Under the proposed new rules, expected to be approved by the full RNC on Friday, four states will be allowed to hold their primaries or caucuses in February 2016: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Other states can schedule their contests as early as March 1. And if a state breaks the rules and goes early, it will lose most of its delegates to the party convention.

In addition, a state that holds its contest between March 1 and March 14 must award its delegates proportionally, rather than winner-take-all, which would reduce that state’s clout. After that, states can award delegates winner-take-all. The final primary will be held in late May, and the Republican National Convention will be held in late June or early July. An earlier convention will allow the party to unite around its nominee sooner than in recent cycles.

Contrast that with 2012: When Florida flouted the rules and held its primary on Jan. 31, the four “carve-out” states moved even earlier. Iowa held its caucuses on Jan. 3, forcing candidates to campaign during the holidays. Florida was punished by the loss of half its delegates and a bad hotel assignment at the convention held in its own state, in Tampa.

Combine the extended primaries with 20 debates and a late August convention, and that left Republican nominee Mitt Romney bruised and broke during the long summer of 2012, unable to spend general election funds to go after President Obama until he had been formally nominated at the Republican convention.

The changes to the primary calendar passed the RNC’s rules committee Thursday, but not before a handful of conservative RNC members raised a ruckus. Front-loading the primaries would give a big advantage to wealthy candidates and to “not reliably conservative” Republicans, argued Virginia committeeman Morton Blackwell, in a veiled slap at Mr. Romney.

Mr. Blackwell also complained that a brief primary season would allow insufficient time to see if a candidate can withstand the rigors of an extended national campaign. But other committeemen disagreed and predicted the new rules would pass the full RNC on Friday with the required support of three-quarters of the members. 

Democrats don’t plan any significant changes to their primary calendar and are dismissive of the Republican reforms.

“Republicans are struggling in national elections because they are out of touch, not because of their convention date or their primary calendar,” said Lily Adams, deputy communications director at the Democratic National Committee, in a statement. “As long as Republicans continue to oppose and block common sense policies like immigration reform, increasing the minimum wage, and equal treatment for all Americans no matter who they love, Americans will continue to reject them.”

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