Analysis: Why Are GOP Primaries Such a Mess?

PHOTO: Republican Presidential CandidatesCharles Dharapak/AP Photo
Republican presidential candidates, from left: former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, pose for a photo at the start of the South Carolina Republican presidential candidate debate Monday, Jan. 16, 2012, in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

The Republican primary season isn't over, but viewed as a whole it's been something of a logistical farce. Just ask Rick Santorum.

The former Pennsylvania senator is running a shoestring campaign and he won the very first voter preference contest, the Iowa caucuses.

The problem was nobody knew it until 16 days later when the Iowa Republican Party announced the certified result that Santorum won by the razor-thin margin of 34 votes. At least we think he did. Eight precincts' votes were lost and not counted.

Mitt Romney, who placed second, was able to declare an eight-vote victory on caucus night and carry that momentum into the next primary of New Hampshire.

Not that it really mattered. The Iowa caucuses don't award any delegates to the national convention.

The mistakes meant reports that Romney was on track to an historic victory in the first Republican presidential preference contests morphed somehow in one day into an historic split of the first three contests between three different candidates when Newt Gingrich won South Carolina.

The problems didn't end there.

In Michigan, the caucus rules publicized by the state party before the contest would have given Santorum 15 delegates to take to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., in August. Except those rules, which had been circulated to the media and in a memo to the various Republican presidential campaigns before the Feb. 28 primary, weren't, apparently, the real rules.

The real rules, according to a vote the day after the primary by the Michigan GOP steering committee, gave Mitt Romney 16 delegates and Rick Santorum 14. It wouldn't be a stretch to call the Michigan GOP's decision unfair. The Santorum campaign has appealed to the national party to step in.

The likelihood that selection of the GOP nominee comes down to that one delegate is slim.

But in addition to that single delegate, add on the Ohio delegates Santorum won't be eligible to receive in voting on Super Tuesday -- at least nine and maybe more. This is more the fault of Santorum's campaign, which didn't file the appropriate paperwork in specific congressional districts.

And it's not as big a snafu for the Santorum campaign as Virginia is. He won't be eligible for any of the 49 Virginia delegates after missing a state filing deadline.

That's still nowhere near the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the GOP nomination. But every delegate counts.

In Ohio and Tennessee, where Santorum leads in polls, he will get delegates proportionally. Other big states, like Florida, awarded their delegates in a winner-take-all format.

And at the end of the day, running for president in a major party has just as much to do with having your name on all the ballots as it does having the ideas that resonate with a majority of Republicans.

This is part of what has led to movements like Americans Elect, which is seeking to get a non-party candidate on every ballot in the country on Election Day. It is an online process dreamed up by political consultants and politically minded rich folks who want to see an alternative. Their motto is "Pick a President, Not a Party."

However, the most supported candidate in the Americans Elect primary is Republican Ron Paul, whose supporters are the most loyal in politics. And Paul, who would eviscerate a good portion of the federal government, has very little chance of gaining mainstream support in a general election.

While Florida gives its delegates winner-take-all, the largest prize -- California -- splits it's delegates by congressional district. Texas, which controls the second-largest number of delegates behind California, allocates its delegates proportionally.

What's not clear about Texas is when the primary will occur. Federal courts have rejected the new GOP-drawn legislative maps in an ongoing legal fight. Texas Republicans have moved the primary back at least twice and is still not 100 percent certain of the probable, court-recommended May 29 date.

The rules for running for president in a major party are messy, byzantine and different down to the local level, in some places.

Counting of ballots can be spotty, as in Iowa, or ineffective. It took the Nevada GOP nearly two days to count the caucus votes from the same number of people that attend an average Major League Baseball game.

The local and state party systems are the backbone of the national parties, grooming candidates for offices at the state level and for Congress. They are the key pieces of infrastructure that help get out the vote for both parties. But they're also ungainly webs of bureaucracy with their own internal politicking.

It's not an issue that's isolated to Republicans, although their foibles have been showcased this year because there is not a major challenger to President Obama. But four years ago, remember the superdelegates?

Then, as now, one of the main problems was Florida, where both statewide parties have made sport of moving their primary up in violation of national party rules.

Democratic candidates Obama and Hillary Clinton pledged in 2008 not to campaign in Florida, but conducted surreptitious activities anyway. Florida had been stripped by the national committee of all of it's delegates.

There is a chance the primary campaign could have had a different outcome if Clinton had been given all of the state's delegates to begin with. The voice of Floridians supporting her candidacy was not heard at the convention. But all of the state's delegates ultimately got to go to the party anyway. The DNC surely didn't want to turn off all the party officials in the swing state of Florida.

This year, expecting, perhaps the RNC would reinstate its delegates eventually, too -- the convention takes place in Tampa, Fla., after all -- Florida Republicans broke the RNC's rules and moved their primary date up into January. That created a leapfrog of states moving up their primaries, shortened the campaign season, and led Iowa, which wanted to go first, to hold it's caucus Jan. 3.

There is always the argument that the democracy is not supposed to be a clean and smooth-running business. The will of the people is supposed to trickle up to Washington rather than trickling back down from the national leaders. But the lack of ballot access for some major candidates, the problems in counting votes and late-changing rules have created a system of confusion that has arguably hurt the party.