GOP Primary Foul-ups, Bleeps and Blunders

The presidential primary is almost over, and the Republican Party should be glad about that.

The 2012 contest has reminded everyone of how messy American democracy can be, and the party is lucky to have finally (almost) escaped its tragicomic clutches. At various moments of logistical calamity, the acronym "SNAFU" came to mind as state officials struggled through the GOP's newly intricate primary process, complicated by an August 2010 rule change that pressured states to adopt later primary dates and less-straightforward delegate schemes.

A few highlights worth revisiting:

  • Party rules rewritten, defied. Thinking Barack Obama had ultimately benefited from his drawn-out battle against Hillary Clinton in 2008, GOP leaders wanted to make their 2012 primary took longer. They succeeded.The Republican National Committee approved a new calendar in 2010, allowing just four states-Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada-to vote in February, with the rest of the states beginning in March. A radical change, no state could hold a winner-take-all contest until April.

    Five states promptly broke the rules, losing half their delegates under the RNC's promised penalty. Florida led the way with a double-face-slap to the RNC, holding a winner-take-all primary on Jan. 31. Under the RNC's wording, Iowa avoided penalty by not "awarding" any delegates, but Florida, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Arizona and Michigan all defied the party and were docked.

    Compounding matters, Rick Santorum's campaign repeatedly claimed that Florida and Arizona delegates would be re-allocated on proportional rules and that the penalties would be lifted-a dubious prospect, according to RNC officials and party members-hanging the specter of convention-eve haggling over much of the primary race.

  • And the Iowa Caucus Winner Is … Mitt Romney! No, wait, Rick Santorum.It was the most widely publicized Republican voting contest, and after a late night of vote counting, chairman Matt Strawn announced that Romney had won by a mere eight votes.  "The good news is we were able to verify the vote reports tonight," Strawn said at the press conference, warning that precincts would have two weeks to send in their certified tallies.

    When those certified results came two weeks later, Rick Santorum had won, and the Iowa GOP reversed its results-announcing that a few votes were not reported and would never be found. Strawn resigned in the aftermath.

  • A Day of Counting in Nevada. Fewer than 33,000 votes were cast in the Nevada caucuses-underperforming a moderately attended major-league baseball game-but it took Nevada GOP officials more than a full day to tabulate results, after the Iowa-counting debacle made clear the public recriminations for getting things wrong, and after Ron Paul backers had threatened lawsuits in Nevada leading up to the vote. After Saturday's caucuses, the Nevada GOP released its final tally late Sunday night.
  • Michigan's One-Delegate Monte. Before Michigan's primary, the state's delegate rules were clear:  The party chairman had explained them on the record to reporters, and the campaigns had been notified in a memo. Afterward, not so much.Romney won, but the Santorum campaign held a conference call with reporters the following day to boast of its apparent tiein delegates. Later that day, Michigan's RNC committeeman Saul Anuzis, an avid Romney supporter, called foul, claiming the rules had been decided differently at a party committee meeting.

    Stating that it had mis-explained its delegate rules repeatedly along the way, the Michigan GOP  gave Romney a delegate win, moving one delegate out of Santorum's prospective column and into Romney's, and prompting Santorum's campaign to allege skullduggery.

  • Missouri's Meaningless Primary. Missourians are accustomed to voting in primaries, but instead they had to mark two dates in their 2012 calendars: a meaningless primary in February, unconnected to delegates, and caucuses in March that began Missouri's delegate-selection but entailed no vote on the presidential candidates.Missouri Republicans could blame this confusion on GOP disorganization and an intra-state political squabble, wherein the GOP-controlled legislature bungled an attempt to comply with the RNC's calendar. GOP legislators tacked other provisions onto a bill to move the primary; the state's Democratic governor, perhaps in a recriminatory mood, vetoed it after the legislature had left session; returning in the fall, Republicans disagreed over legislative priorities and failed to pass a new bill despite the state party's pleas, missing the RNC's deadline to settle primary dates; and then, finally, Republicans in the state Capitol tried and failed to cancel the primary altogether.

    Topping off the turmoil, the caucuses didn't all go well: In St. Charles County, one of the largest caucuses in the state, the chair feuded with Ron Paul supporters and had police shut down the event and remove them. A joint-jurisdictional police helicopter arrived on scene.

  • These Ballots Are Too Big. Not once, but twice Republicans learned that local election officials had printed ballots that were too big to fit in the scanner machines used to count them. This happened first in Illinois, where one poll worker used her hairdryer to shrink the ballots-and it worked. Wisconsin, luckily, was able to correct its problem before primary day.
  • Candidates Miss the Ballot. Not the fault of election organizers so much as that of the campaigns, complaints arose nonetheless after Santorum and Newt Gingrich missed the ballot in Virginia. Santorum also missed the ballot in the District of Columbia and failed to field full slates of delegates in Ohio and Illinois.

This is but a sampling of the travails state GOP officials faced in trying to administer the 2012 primary, a job made more difficult by the need to create new delegate-allotment rules, a task that some states completed on time, and some states didn't. In a few instances, states left gaps in their delegate rules (numerical rounding was a commonly unaddressed phenomenon).

Had Rick Santorum remained in the race, plugging his strategy to win delegates at state conventions, Republicans would face yet another round of complications.

With Romney as the presumed nominee, they can take deep breaths and plan for next time.

Elizabeth Hartfield contributed to this post.

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