Let’s Stop the Trend toward a National Presidential Primary
Mr. Reince Priebus, Chairman
Republican National Committee
You received last month my notice, as required, that I shall propose a single amendment to The Rules of the Republican Party at the August 14-17 meeting of the RNC in Boston.
It’s a one-word amendment to Rule 16 (c)(2) to change the word “may” back to the word “shall” – a small change of wording that would have a major effect on our Republican presidential nomination process and please a great many grassroots Republicans.
Because many new people have recently become Members of the national committee and because debate on Rules matters is customarily limited, I decided to discuss this matter in advance and in some detail in this letter to you, with copies to all RNC members.
My change would repeal one of the worst power grabs pushed through by Ben Ginsberg at the 2012 Republican National Convention Rules Committee in Tampa.
For decades, Republican leaders watched as state after state moved their presidential primaries earlier and earlier. We moved closer and closer each election cycle to what amounted to a “national primary,” where a majority of convention delegates would be elected on a single day or within a period of a very few days. There was almost unanimous agreement that a national primary is a bad idea.
Here are some of the reasons why almost all party leaders agreed that something had to be done to stop the movement toward a national primary:
1. The selection and binding of most national convention delegates in a very short period of time would give a huge advantage to a very wealthy candidate. There would not be time for anyone who started without such wealth to build a base of supporters by proving himself or herself to be an excellent candidate early in the presidential nomination season and, over time, building a winning grassroots campaign.
2. The front-loading of our delegate selection would give the major liberal media an opportunity to build up quickly someone they wanted our party to nominate. The liberal media can, in a very short time, generate favorable coverage and national celebrity for any Republican candidate they choose. They have done this before and might do it again. It takes longer for grassroots Republicans to unite behind their choice of candidates.
3. There should be a sufficiently long period in the nomination contest to test every potential nominee in a number of successive contests in a wide variety of states and circumstances. Without such a testing period, one lucky break or one early mistake could result in our nominating someone due to a fluke.
Something really had to be done.
Literally for decades, our Party wrestled with this problem. Many solutions were proposed. One, called the Delaware Plan, actually passed at a Convention Rules Committee, but some states objected and filed a minority report which would have resulted in a Rules battle on the floor of the convention.
Our presidential nominee that year didn’t want a convention floor battle on anything, so his people pressured enough supporters of the Convention Rules Committee’s Delaware Plan to withdraw their support of it. No reform was passed that year.
Front-loading of the primaries got worse, but it became clear that no presidential candidate about to be nominated at a national convention would let a Convention Rules Committee change the timing of presidential primaries because there was always a fairly strong minority of the states which, for different reasons, opposed any one of the several proposed reforms of the system. No convention floor battles would be tolerated.
Front-loading of the delegate-selection process grew and grew.
Finally, it was decided to set up a special commission to propose a Rules reform to somehow spread out the delegation-selection period enough to prevent a national presidential primary. Enormous amounts of time, talent, and RNC money were invested in coming up with a solution. A solution was found that almost everyone accepted. A special “one-time-only” Rules change permitted passage between conventions of a reform of delegate-selection-timing rules, so no national convention would have a floor fight over it.
The reform provided that, with the exception of four smaller “carve-out” states, delegate selection and binding could not begin until March, but no winner-take-all primaries could be held before April. States choosing to hold binding presidential primaries in March, the Rules said, “shall” have to allocate their delegate votes among the candidates using some form of proportional system. That reform was adopted and was in effect for the 2012 nomination process.
The reform would have worked as intended, but the strong compulsion to move to the front of the line in the nomination process led some states to disregard our Rules and to schedule binding, winner-take-all primaries before April 1. Those states which “jumped the gun” were subjected to the penalty of losing half of their allocated number of delegates, but that penalty wasn’t strong enough to stop some state legislatures from leap-frogging those states which were in compliance with our Rules of the Republican Party. As a result, our 2012 presidential nomination process started much earlier and therefore lasted much longer than our Rules intended.
The problem of insufficient penalties to states which violate The Rules of the Republican Party regarding the timing of states’ delegate selection and binding was recognized, considered, and debated in the run-up to the 2012 national convention. A much more severe penalty was adopted and is now in effect. States which violate the rules regarding the timing of the selection and binding of their national convention Delegates will have their delegations automatically reduced to only nine Delegates. That’s a powerful and probably effective deterrent to state parties and state legislatures which might otherwise break our national Rules.
At the 2012 Convention Rules Committee meeting in Tampa, D.C. Delegate Ben Ginsberg used his position as the spokesman for the Romney campaign to push through the repeal of many changes recommended by the RNC Standing Committee on Rules and unanimously approved the previous day by a vote of the entire Republican National Committee. And Ginsberg threw the power of the Romney campaign behind many entirely novel and unexpected new changes which had the effect of centralizing power in our party and making it more difficult for power to flow from the bottom up.
These Ginsberg power grabs were unprecedented. In living memory, no candidate about to become the Republican presidential nominee had ever used his power to generate wholesale changes in The Rules of the Republican Party at the convention which was about to nominate him. That historic practice of restraint made good sense for our nominees. The Rules changes made at a national convention have their main effect on the presidential nomination process four years later. If the current nominee were to win the election, it would be highly unlikely that any aspect of The Rules of the Republican Party would hamper him during his term of office. Why risk aggravating either side in a Rules controversy when you want everyone to unite in your election campaign?
Even President Richard Nixon, who had every other aspect of the 1972 Republican National Convention locked down tight, allowed the grassroots Delegates to debate and decide all Rules matters in the normal process, without any pressure from his campaign organization.
By the way, there was a major Rules controversy at the 1972 convention, including even a nationally televised convention floor fight which didn’t hurt Nixon’s re-election campaign at all. The issue was the formula for setting the number of Delegates each state would be allocated. It was a liberal vs. conservative dispute, with Gov. Ronald Reagan of California as the main speaker for the conservatives and Senators Jacob Javits of New York and Chuck Percy of Illinois leading the liberal forces. Reagan’s side won.
One of the worst of the Ginsberg power grabs at the meeting of the Convention Rules Committee in Tampa was a deceptively simple amendment to change “shall” to “may” in Rule 16 (c) (2). But its effect was massive. It wiped out the requirement that binding presidential primaries in March allocate delegate votes by some proportional system.
Outraged that Ben Ginsberg was throwing out the hard-won reform designed to prevent a dangerous front-loading of the delegate-selection process, I stepped across the floor in the committee meeting and asked him why he was doing that. His entirely unsatisfactory reply was: “We did it for some friends of ours.”
For me, his answer will forever be memorable proof of the principle that power in our party should, wherever practicable, flow from the bottom up, rather than from the top down.
The amendment to the Rules I am proposing at our RNC meeting later this month in Boston would repeal that Ginsberg mistake and prevent winner-take-all primaries in March 2016.
Other amendments to our Rules may be able to wait for consideration at future meetings, but this change should be adopted as soon as possible. If we delay action on this matter, state parties and state legislatures will certainly begin to front-load winner-take-all primaries into early March of 2016.
Reince, the Tampa convention was thrown into a shouting turmoil by the Ginsberg power grabs. Large numbers of Republican leaders and convention guests went home angry, and that hurt the Romney campaign in the fall election.
That anger persists, and it is hurting the Republican Party. You will recall the narrow defeat of my proposal at the Spring Meeting of the RNC in Los Angeles to repeal all of the Ginsberg power grabs that the RNC could repeal. My proposal received the votes of 25 states in the RNC Standing Committee on Rules meeting there. Outrage continues at a high level among grassroots Republicans across the country. This contributes to a growing dissatisfaction with our Republican leadership at many levels.
No action by the Republican National Committee can entirely eliminate this grassroots dissatisfaction, but there are things that the RNC and you, personally, can do to start winning back the confidence of many of the people whom you and I want to give their time, talent, and money to Republican committees and Republican candidates.
One of the easiest things to do would be to make it unmistakably clear that the Ginsberg power grabs are now recognized as a slap in the faces of grassroots Republicans. Show that what Ben Ginsberg did was an aberration and not a sign of the future direction of Republican Party leadership.
I ask you to openly support my proposed Rules change in Boston at the meeting of the RNC Standing Committee on Rules and at the full RNC meeting there. Show that you want to avoid another rush to what would amount to a national presidential primary which decades of responsible Party leaders have tried to avoid.
I also ask that you support record votes on my proposal in the Standing Committee on Rules and at the RNC meeting. Grassroots Republicans should know how their representatives on the RNC vote on matters of great interest to them.
Let’s start to show people whose participation we want in our party that concentration of top-down power is not the way the Republican Party is headed.
Virginia Republican National Committeeman
cc: RNC Members