Republican National Committee officials are set to vote this week on a rules package that would discourage the kind of grueling march to the presidential nomination that occurred in 2012, when the race swung from Mitt Romney to Newt Gingrich to Rick Santorum and finally back to Romney in April.
"It dragged on too long,” said Henry Barbour, an RNC committeeman on the rules committee. “We need it to be a little faster, we don’t want it to be a sprint.”
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Recommended changes under consideration would carve out the month of February for the traditional Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina contests and impose stricter penalties on states that try to jump in line, according to RNC officials.
The new rules would require states to reward delegates proportionally after that, but only for a brief two-week period, down from four in 2012.
And, perhaps most importantly, the new rules would require states to pick their delegates no later than 45 days before the convention. Given that the convention is likely to be pushed way back to late June or early July, that means mid-May is the likely end point for any contests.
The rules committee moved to send the changes to a general vote Friday.
The irony of the current debate is that the lengthy 2012 contest was itself a product of deliberate changes by the RNC. Republican officials who watched the epic 2008 fight between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama thought that the long contest helped keep Democrats’ message in the spotlight and register new voters in all 50 states. To try and replicate it, they required states to award their delegates proportionally instead of winner-takes-all up to a certain date, which made it much harder for one candidate to decisively knock out their opponents.
But as the old adage goes, generals always fight the last war. When the 2012 contests began, Republicans panicked as Romney struggled to close the deal and his opponents piled on with more and more damaging attacks.
“These RNC rules that turned to proportional awarding of delegates, this was the dumbest idea anybody ever had,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Romney backer, told Fox News in February 2012.
Even worse, election rules prevented Romney from spending money raised for the general election until after the party’s convention in late August. With his primary cash drained by his long fight to win the nomination, Romney was left vulnerable to a barrage of attack ads over the summer from President Obama’s campaign.
“It gives our candidate more time to start spending the dollars,” Errol Galt, a national committeeman from Montana, told msnbc.
But compressing the calendar to encourage an early winner also means that second-tier candidates have fewer opportunities to build momentum for a potential upset. Their task will get even harder if, as the RNC is also considering, there are fewer televised primary debates where they can make their case without spending money on expensive ad campaigns.
Morton Blackwell, a national committeeman from Virginia opposed to the changes, complained at Thursday's rules meetings that a dark horse candidate would not be able to build momentum under the new schedule.
"How can you expect two more weeks [of proportional contests] to give a candidate time to raise significant additional funds and recruit additional volunteers?" Blackwell said. "This is a sham."
The rules change runs directly into the establishment vs. tea party divide that has roiled the party. The insurgent candidates who would be disadvantaged by the changes are much more likely to be tea party conservatives. By contrast, the most likely beneficiary of the changes would be someone like Christie or maybe former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush – an establishment guy who could raise large sums of cash for a knockout ad blitz.
Barbour insisted the proposed changes still offered plenty of time for a dark horse to emerge.
“Iowa may be the first day somebody casts a vote, but the reality is the campaign is going on all of 2015,” he said. “People who say the length of time is too short, they should talk to some Americans. I think most folks think it’s way too long.”