In the Talking Heads’ song “Once in a Lifetime” there is a moment when lead singer David Byrne awkwardly belts out a question: “How did I get here?”
That’s the question Republicans should be asking themselves right now. Facing a vulnerable incumbent, they find themselves with a weak field trapped in a bruising primary and no clear end in sight. It is a trap of their own making, a product of an innocent-sounding RNC rules change and a Supreme Court ruling.
Proportional delegates and super PACs are two innovations that are intersecting to make this primary season unlike any other. So don’t reach for precedent to understand the present nomination fight—because new rules apply.
But how did they get here? The RNC’s fateful decision to adopt proportional-delegate rules dates back to a little-noticed party meeting in Kansas City. It was August of 2010—the Tea Party was providing midterm election momentum and at that moment it seemed like an Islamic Cultural Center a few blocks from Ground Zero was the most important issue facing the nation. RNC Chairman Michael Steele was trying to walk back comments about how Afghanistan was a “war of Obama’s choosing” while kicking off a “Fire Pelosi” bus tour.
But while the media followed the entertaining stumbles and soundbites, real news was being made behind closed doors at the Kansas City Marriott Downtown. The members of the Republican National Committee were voting to change their traditional primary calendar math to make it look more like that of the Democrats’.
“There were a lot of people on the RNC and other places who were not very happy after ’08,” says David Norcross, a longtime New Jersey committeeman and chairman of the Rules Committee when the primary changes were made. “We didn’t think it was right that four or five states got to pick the nominee. It was slam, bam, thank you, done—and I think we were not helped by that. In fact, some of us think McCain was not helped by that because he was not forced to sharpen his candidate skills. It was over and he went on to wait for the Democrats to produce a candidate. Just sitting around waiting.”
“In 2008 McCain cleaned up the nomination after a few states while the Democrats kept fighting on, and it was a real drain in terms of energy. The media essentially ignored us,” concurs Michael Steele, now an MSNBC analyst. “We wanted to have an open process that allowed different candidates to have time to get in the game and to allow states that had previously been ignored to get a chance to vote. The goal was to have enough states to get an opportunity to play.”
Party activists were particularly irritated that the independent-minded maverick they considered the center-right establishment candidate, John McCain, was able to wrap up the nomination before a more socially conservative challenger could credibly emerge and start racking up delegates.
And so the RNC was empowered at the 2008 convention to come up with a plan to improve the primary process, culminating 20 years of failed reform efforts. The plan that was ultimately championed by Norcross and others seemed to balance admiration for the Democrats’ more drawn-out proportional process with an intended April 1 deadline, after which point states were supposed to switch to the traditional winner-take-all-format, allowing for a speedy resolution of the nomination race. “It was never, ever anybody’s idea for this to go to the convention,” assures Norcross, who is now a Romney supporter.
But Republicans’ belief in federalism led to little follow-through on this pivotal point.
Given conservatives’ healthy respect for tradition, not everyone in Kansas City was sold on the change. “People got caught up in the idea of ‘we want to play’ and ‘we want our state to be counted’—and that became more important than ‘what do you need to do to win the presidency?’” remarked one skeptical RNC member who asked to speak on background. “They weren’t thinking through what it takes on a practical level.”
Ironically, among the most vocal advocates for the rule change was the prominent Romney supporter and former New Hampshire governor, John Sununu. He was working the committee members with the full force of a well-fed party mandarin, ending the session with a powerful speech that provoked applause. “I don’t think you would see this rule change pass if Sununu hadn’t gotten up and given this really passionate speech,” recounts the aforementioned RNC member. “The rules change needed to get two thirds of the vote to pass, and that speech made all the difference.”
Among the dozen dissenting votes was Massachusetts Republican National Committeeman Ron Kaufman, a long-time Romney supporter who carefully measures his words while trying not to indulge understandable “I told you so” moments.
“You don’t get frustrated because politics is a game of rules and you play by the rules,” Kaufman says. “But the point is that every cycle is different. This cycle we are running against an incumbent Democrat raising a billion dollars. And to elongate the process—for whoever the nominee was going to be—makes no sense.”
The other way this cycle is different is, of course, the presence of super PACs. And somehow, their potentially game-changing impact on a proportional delegate race did not come up in the RNC deliberations. “No—that was the one big miscalculation,” admits Kaufman. “Nobody understood the impact super PACs would have on this cycle in terms of keeping candidates politically alive and in the game.”
With super PACs, the forces that in the past have pushed candidates out of the race—namely a lack of cash—no longer apply. With proportional delegates, they can sustain a long campaign, steadily building up delegates, punctuated by the occasional win.
Looking at the long road it takes to mathematically get the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination, it becomes clear that the intended plan to make all states after April Fools’ Day winner-take-all never materialized. Instead, the vast majority of states decided to embrace the new proportional rules, leaving the delegate math even more difficult to achieve.
When I asked Steele if he thought the race would go on until one candidate actually reached 1,144 delegates, he replied with a simple, definitive “Yes.”
“Just because you’re not cleaning up in the delegate fight doesn’t mean you can reverse the rules.”
“That’s the goal—it has to be 1,144. And Romney doesn’t have a path to 1,144 right now. That’s the challenge he faces—even if he were to win all the remaining winner-take-all states he would still be in the low 700s at best.” Then Steele added the words that no one in the Romney camp wants to hear. “If you don’t get at least 1,144, you have got to go to the convention and negotiate with the other candidates to gain some of their delegates. That’s the process.”
That’s the process—decided with the best of intentions, but loaded with untended consequences, in a Kansas City conference room in August of 2010. Sure, the other candidates could be muscled out before the end of the primary season, but the presence of super PACs makes that much less likely than in the past. Santorum, Gingrich, and Paul might not be able to beat Romney outright, but they can block him from getting the nomination before the Tampa convention. There will be attempts to wriggle out of the rules and paper-over differences, but in the end the rules are remorseless—and the Romney allies who helped push the rule changes through might live to regret it.
“Just because you’re not cleaning up in the delegate fight doesn’t mean you can reverse the rules. It’s not the way the system works,” says the vanquished RNC chairman Michael Steele, with a hint of vindication. “If a process isn’t working for you, maybe it says something about your candidate. Don’t hate the game; hate the player.”