Republican operatives and party insiders are increasingly worried that a drawn-out primary fight could have unfavorable and unintended consequences next year for the GOP nominee.
The irony is that Republicans wanted it that way.
In early 2010, Republican National Committee members voted to overhaul their nominating calendar, allocating more delegates to states with later primaries. After watching Democrats win the White House following their prolonged primary in 2008, the RNC changed the system to ensure more states had a voice in the 2012 nominating process.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. But the RNC’s new nominating contest paves the way for a protracted delegate fight this spring, likely drying up the resources of the presumptive nominee
before the general election.
“Having a robust primary that concludes in early spring is a healthy thing for our eventual nominee,” Gentry Collins, former political director for the RNC, told Roll Call. “But I think having a long, drawn-out primary that lasts until late spring or early summer leaves us financially flat-footed. That’s clearly going to be problematic for our nominee if it goes that long.”
Yet that situation appears increasingly likely as new polling shows that early state Republicans remain undecided about their nominee.
At the end of February, only 174 RNC delegates will be awarded out of the 1,143 needed to capture the nomination. That’s 15 percent of the necessary delegates to claim victory in the GOP primary.
Compare that figure with the last GOP presidential primary, when 1,407 delegates had already been awarded by the end of February 2008. That was 59 percent of RNC delegates — and more than enough for Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) to seal the nomination.
To be clear, top Republicans caution candidates can still win the nomination early in the calendar if they pick up enough momentum to clear the field. But even if there’s a presumptive nominee by the end of February, a campaign must have enough momentum to make it until late spring before he or she clinches the nod.
That’s because this cycle, a candidate will not be able to acquire the required number of delegates to secure the nomination until April 24.
No presidential contender knows this delegate math better than former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. If the current delegate allotment rules were applied in 2008, Romney’s delegate tally would have almost tied with McCain’s after the Florida primary — when Romney bowed out of the race.
But how to prepare for a delegate fight is an undeveloped science, GOP campaign operatives said. Every state awards delegates differently, varying in whether they allocate them proportionally or
winner-take-all. Even the threshold to determine a victor is different state by state.
Republican operatives say the prepared campaigns should have planted the seeds already for a 50-state operation. But that’s unlikely, given the unpredictable nature of the primary.
“I’d like to say that we sat down six months before the process really started and planned a very detailed strategy on how to secure delegates,” Chip Saltsman, a campaign manager for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee’s 2008 campaign, said. “But in all honesty, it was about survival. In the back of your mind, you’re thinking about winning Iowa, South Carolina, New Hampshire. You’re not thinking about how to get to the magic number of delegates.”
Republicans caution only two campaigns are making preparations for a long-haul delegate fight: Romney and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
Romney, in particular, has diligently put together campaign organizations in states with large delegate counts and late primary dates, such as Pennsylvania and California. Over the past couple of weeks, Romney and his surrogates repeatedly floated the inevitability and importance of a long primary.
Other candidates are solely focusing on the early primary and caucus states. Former Speaker Newt Gingrich already missed the deadline for one contest — Missouri.
Republicans have not had a prolonged primary since 1976, when then-former California Gov. Ronald Reagan and President Gerald Ford faced off on the floor of their party’s convention for the nomination. Eventually, party leaders negotiated a back-room deal to give Ford the nod.
David Norcross, the former RNC Rules Committee chairman, attended that convention. Since the early 1990s, he said he’s been pushing to revise the party’s primary system until the reforms finally passed in 2010.
“The goal was to stretch it out,” Norcross said. “We wanted more discourse, and we wanted more campaigning in more states. You can’t do that if it’s frontloaded, and of course you can’t do that in a national primary.”
He acknowledged that the calendar changes could mean a primary fight that lasts until June, but he said he didn’t think it would hurt the eventual nominee.
“We’re betting that momentum will kick in in early April or even in March, and that will finish it off,” he said. “A battle lasting into June didn’t stop the Democrats from winning the presidency four years ago.”
But Republicans quickly pointed out that in 2008, both nominations were open battles. This cycle, Republicans are running as challengers.
One Republican insider noted that the eventual nominee’s financial problems will be compounded by those of the RNC. Even though RNC Chairman Reince Preibus has substantially lowered his committee’s debt this year, the RNC still reported almost $14 million in debt at the end of October.
All the while, the president can continue to stockpile cash for his re-election race.
“The longer we prolong the nominating process, the shorter the campaign is,” said Saul Anuzis, former Michigan Republican Party chairman and member of the RNC calendar compliance committee. “When it’s an open seat, I think it’s less critical than when you’re running against an incumbent. But when you’re running against an incumbent, that’s when the shortness of time becomes critical in the campaign.”