RNC Autopsy Could Have Unintended Side Effects in Early Primary States

Early states mixed on whether they will benefit from RNC guidelines.

March 19, 2013— -- The recommendations in the Republican National Committee's "autopsy" report to tighten the party's primary process are getting mixed reviews from those states and candidates that clearly benefited from a longer calendar and more debates last time around.

The changes called for in the RNC report include moving up the convention, holding fewer debates, and making the process shorter in general.

John Brabender, Rick Santorum's senior campaign adviser, said the RNC should get "credit for a pretty good effort" and there are "many, many good things in the report."

There are, however, a "few things in there (the report) that could potentially limit the candidates who win presidential primaries and basically put the thumb on the scale for the wealthiest candidates, the candidates that have the strongest establishment backing to the detriment of candidates who may be more qualified, have a better message, and can win in November," he said.

"We've got to be careful we don't try to solve one problem and create a second," Brabender said.

He said it is a "worthwhile cause" to try to condense the process to focus on the Democratic nominee, but his worry is that it could "produce a less vetted, less capable, less credible candidate."

"What it does increase are opportunities for a candidate who can do well reading a teleprompter and do TV commercials vs. candidates who can rigorously defend their positions and demonstrate the ability to think on their feet and understand a wide range of issues," Brabender said.

Santorum was able to win Iowa, which despite not being proclaimed the winner until more than two weeks later, propelled him to keep Mitt Romney on his toes until April.

He was able to accomplish the feat by campaigning relentlessly, shaking as many hands and kissing as many babies as possible in the first caucus state. He had little money, but also relied on the near-constant debates as a platform to get heard when his campaign couldn't afford advertising.

In the end, Brabender said, it will be the candidates who have the "ultimate say" and it will be up to them if they want to play by the RNC's rules.

The report does vow to keep the traditional early states a "carve-out" to start the primary process, but Craig Robinson, the former political director of the RNC who now runs IowaRepublican.com, says even with that caveat he's "very nervous" that these guidelines will "condense the process or compact it even more."

Since Florida moved up its primary in 2012 and it "compressed" Iowa's window, forcing the caucus to Jan. 3, Robinson said that he's worried with a shortened schedule it would mean a December caucus for Iowa.

"If everyone needs to be done by May 15 so that we can have a convention in June, there's a risk of stacking it up in the beginning," Robinson said. "I think we are overreacting to what happened last time."

Robinson said 2016 will be more like 2008, with two open seats, and it could benefit the party to keep Republican voters engaged longer, just as Democrats were in 2008 when then-Sen. Barack Obama and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton went after the nomination for months after John McCain wrapped up on the GOP side.

As for the number of debates, Robinson agrees there were too many (there were 20 in 2012 and the RNC is now calling for half that number) and there is "no need to start debating in May," but he said he doesn't know how the "RNC is going to control this process if they can't even control their calendar."

"People like these debates, they learn something from the candidates," Robinson said, adding it gives a voice and exposure to the candidates who don't have "enough money to run negative campaign ads and blast their opponents."

Another big Iowa event that could go by the wayside with these new guidelines is the highly-anticipated, much-covered, but not necessarily a measure of who will be the winner of the caucuses never mind the nominee, the Iowa Straw Poll, despite it being a money maker for the state party. The Straw Poll is not mentioned in the report, but could be a casualty of a shorter process.

A.J. Spiker, chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, says it will be up to the "candidates at the time" if there is a Straw Poll in 2016.

"If there is a market for it, it will happen -- if not, it probably won't," Spiker said. "I don't think anyone knows now if it will happen or not."

Spiker urged the RNC to have a "balanced approach" when it comes to caucuses, primaries, and conventions. If the RNC makes primaries a priority over caucuses, he said, it could help "better funded candidates and better known candidates more than lesser known candidates" who need the caucus process "to get the momentum going," as Santorum did in 2012.

There was also mention of "regional primaries" in the report, something Spiker also said the RNC should be cautious about, because he thinks it could lead to "super pacs buying the nomination for candidates."

"We want to have a process that involves grassroots activists where they have a large say in the party and it's not just the wealthy and well connected," Spiker said.

On the other side of the country, those involved in the first in the nation primary in New Hampshire were much more positive about the RNC's report, although GOP strategist Jamie Burnett agreed with Robinson that the biggest problem is regulating rogue states from leapfrogging Iowa and New Hampshire, something not touched on in the nearly 100-page report.

"At a certain point, the chairman should be a strong advocate for that," Burnett said.

"I think Iowa and New Hampshire will be fine whenever the process ends, as long as there is an order to the process," Burnett said.

Candidates will still "engage early in the retail politics" that New Hampshire is "known for and is really useful for vetting the candidates," he said.

Burnett added that 20 primary debates are "excessive" and he supports "shortening the cycle so people aren't campaigning tomorrow for something that happens in 2016."

Of course the party can't stop that.

Just days after the November election, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad's office announced that possible 2016 contender Marco Rubio would be heading to the Hawkeye State. Of course he wasn't campaigning and instead headlining an annual campaign fundraising birthday party for Branstad, but until candidates announce their intentions these trips to the early voting states will just be "visits."

Neil Levesque, the non-partisan director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, agreed, noting he knows of potential candidates planning to hit the ground "in force" in New Hampshire this spring. The RNC might be able to move up the convention and shorten the process on one end, but candidates will still start visiting states as early as they feel they must, he said.

Another GOP strategist who helped run both of Mitt Romney's campaigns in New Hampshire, Jim Merrill, was also positive about the report, calling it both "comprehensive and thoughtful" and that it "addresses many of the challenges that we saw on the ground over the past year."

"From my perspective in New Hampshire, the report very clearly recognizes the importance of our state's first in the nation primary, both historically and looking ahead to 2016 and beyond," Merrill said.

"To win New Hampshire's primary, a candidate has to earn it every day," he said. "There is no better proving ground for candidates to test their mettle, along with their ability to connect with voters and build a winning grassroots team. The RNC's proposal to condense the primary period to some degree -- only after the early 'carve-out' states like New Hampshire first perform their vital functions -- makes sense, to avoid a rerun of 2012's long-slog primary process."

As with anything on either side of the aisle, not all Republicans will agree with every element of the RNC report, but those on the ground defending their states, as well as those working for less well-financed candidates, will be among the first ones to know whether these changes are realistic as well as helpful for the party.