The GOP Fight Won’t Be an Early Knockout

Jeremy WertzFebruary 8, 2016
Photo by Greg Willis

This election season will provide more than the usual number of debates, campaign speeches, and SNL skits. Despite the spotlight shining firmly on the unusually high number of candidates, this uptick in politicking is largely thanks to a change in rules by the Republican Party designed to foster a longer primary season.

This change happened after the Republican party lost in a landslide to Barack Obama back in 2008. During the 2008 presidential election the Democratic Party's nomination wasn't decided until June 3rd, when Barack Obama won just enough delegates to beat Hillary Clinton. This is in stark comparison to the Republicans, whose primary had been decided four months sooner on February 5th (known in the political world as "Super Tuesday"), when McCain beat out his challengers to win the nomination.

In the post-mortem, the Republican Party thought the highly publicized and drawn out campaign between Obama and Clinton gave the Democrats more momentum in the general election. This belief led the Republican Party to change how primary delegates were assigned. As part of the new strategy, the Party advised states to distribute delegate votes won proportionally based on the number of votes received, instead of the previous method of winner-take-all. For instance, if a candidate won three-fifths of the vote they would receive three-fifths of the eligible delegates instead of all of them. This would result in longer primary campaigns, giving those candidates more time to dominate the airwaves and drive voter excitement to their side.

The effects of this change were seen in 2012 during Mitt Romney's primary campaign. Romney won several key states early in the primary cycle, enough to secure the nomination under the previous rules. However, because of the new rules the official nominee wasn't decided until April. Yet, to the GOP's chagrin, this tactic did not generate the same kind of excitement the 2008 Democratic Primary did, nor did it lead to a Presidential victory.

In the 2012 post-mortem, many Republican analysts cited a lack of turnout from traditional Republican supporters as a main factor in Romney's defeat. They attributed this lack of turnout to a weak candidate, and not the new longer primary season from the recent change in primary rules.

Fast forward to 2016, and these rules will likely create a very long primary cycle, on top of the months of campaigning behind us. Unlike 2012, where several candidates would shoot to the front of the pack only to fizzle out a few weeks later, 2016 has produced many "anti-establishment" candidates who appear to have relevant staying power. Not to mention several "traditional" Republican candidates who are all vying for the same type of voter. These candidates will all likely split delegates in this new proportional system, and in doing so could extend this primary season late into the summer.

While having candidates in a long competitive primary campaign, is great for the 24-hour news cycle and late night comedian only time will tell if it helps the GOP generate the kind of excitement they are looking for in the general election.


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