Gaming the Calendar is the Ultimate Political-Junkie Sport

And in North Carolina and Nevada, conservatives and libertarians are trying to keep the establishment at bay.

Hal James has twice made the two-hour drive to the North Carolina state capitol from his hometown of New Bern to argue a seemingly arcane point of the political calendar: whether the state should hold its primary in early or late March. Before March 15, the Republican National Committee’s rules mandate that the delegates be distributed proportionally. Afterward, it can be winner-take-all.

James believes that the early date would be a mistake: “We think that waters down the chances of a constitutional conservative,” he said. “If a conservative can pick up all our delegates at the Republican Convention, that’s a big plum.”

James has not picked a candidate, but says he’s leaning toward Scott Walker or Cruz. He and a handful of local Republican Party members have been dropping by legislators’ offices in recent weeks, lobbying for a later primary date that he says would address concerns that Marco Rubio will “waltz into North Carolina” and take a portion of its delegates. Better to forfeit the attention of being one of the first states to vote, he says, than have to share state delegates with a moderate.

The North Carolina legislature is expected to vote on the new primary date in the coming weeks. Passage would put an end to a political drama that has been unfolding since 2013, when North Carolina, jealous of the candidate and media attention received by earlier primary states, tied its primary date to just after South Carolina, one of four “carve-out” states the RNC permits to hold an early contest.

The Republican National Committee pushed back, installing rules with stiff delegate penalties for states that didn’t follow them. And for months, North Carolina legislators have been debating how to comply while maximizing their impact. It may appear to be minutiae—but it also may be the biggest game these legislators ever play.

“At the end of the day, a more conservative candidate is going to win our primary,” said Claude Pope, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party. Which makes the date of the primary a crucial conservative asset. “You can run various spreadsheet scenarios where a different primary date could change who becomes the Republican nominee," Pope continued. In a sense, conservatives face a video-game choice, in which they must decide which power to bestow on their candidate. A February date would give momentum on the primary’s winner, while complicating the electoral chutes and ladders the Republican National Committee has carefully sculpted to have the party come more smoothly to consensus than in years past—and which many conservatives believe to be designed to favor of establishment candidates, especially well-heeled ones. There's not much time to achieve political-escape velocity.

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“The whole cycle is compressed," said Rick Tyler, a spokesman for Ted Cruz, who, like other candidates, has been reaching out to legislators across the country to keep tabs on the primary debates taking place. "It's going to favor candidates who have resources." Allison Moore, a spokeswoman for the RNC, said the consolidated calendar will give more states a say in the nomination process and help the party pivot its focus to defeating its Democratic opponent sooner.

In North Carolina, the penalty in delegates—the state would only be allotted twelve as opposed to 72 if they wait till March—appear to be too steep, and national and state Republican officials are confident that North Carolina will eventually obey the party’s wishes.

But legislators could choose a different benefit. After March 15, the GOP rules allow a winner-take-all primary, but between March 1st and March 15th, delegates have to be allotted proportionally—which in one scenario, could make all the difference. It’s not implausible, Pope and party leaders in other states say, to imagine an overcrowded field of Republican candidates (there may be nearly 20 all told) that divides the first four primary states. With no clear frontrunner, well-funded moderates, (of which there is no shortage this cycle) and well-funded conservatives (of which there is no shortage of this cycle), could split enough of the following contests to keep the nomination in play until the convention. The chances of that happening are slim. But should that happen, every delegate, from every district, in every state, matters.

Gaming out the calendar is nerdcore politics, the ultimate political-junkie obsession, separating the pros from the mere pretenders. And it matters. On the Republican side, there’s consensus that the drawn out nominating process in 2012 damaged Mitt Romney, the eventual nominee, softening him up before Obama finished him off. Ever since, the party has been twisting arms to rationalize and streamline the system. This week, the Republican National Committee will gather in Arizona for its spring meeting to discuss the details of its full primary calendar. But while the party has managed to get many of its changes instituted, there are still about a dozen states have not finalized the dates and details of their nomination contests.

Earlier this year in Florida, Republican lawmakers shifted their state’s presidential primary to March 15, a move that favors hometown prospects like Bush, the former governor, or Rubio, who encouraged his former colleagues in the legislature to make the change. In Kentucky, Paul is still waiting for the GOP state central committee to give final approval to the details of a caucus that allows him to run for president and Senate at the same time.

Among other states that have primary-related bills pending before their legislatures, Ohio is also trying to move its election so it can be a winner-take-all contest. That would eliminate the complications that Rick Santorum faced in 2012, when campaign missteps left him ineligible to claim almost one third of state’s delegates—and could aid Governor John Kasich next year if he decides to take the 2016 plunge.

Few are as important or as in flux as Nevada, home to 2016’s fourth GOP nomination fight. State lawmakers there have been bickering over whether to change the state’s caucus to a primary election. A bill is working its way through the legislature. Supporters of the change insist that it has nothing to do with politics and that it would fix the problem of embarrassingly low turnout—only about 8 percent of primary voters participated in the 2012 cycle.

Reince Preibus, the chairman of the Republican Party, has been open about his preference for primaries as a way to grow the party. But opponents see the primary as a way to steamroll grassroots party activists, arguing that caucuses encourage more precinct organization and level the playing field for candidates that can’t afford expensive airtime. “They can spend much more money on advertising in primaries,” Jill Dickman, a state representative who opposes the change. “They really don’t do that with caucuses. Caucuses seem to bring in more personal visits with the candidates.”

The stakes of the Nevada decision are perhaps higher for no one than for Rand Paul, whose father’s strong performances in the 2008 and 2012 caucuses suggest he has the most to lose if the caucuses disappear. Not everyone agrees with that assessment—including the Rand Paul campaign, which has said he’s prepared to compete anywhere. And yet, the perception of the Paul organization’s strength in the state is pervasive enough to give other campaigns pause, according to local party officials on the ground like Nick Phillips, political director for the Clark County Republican Party.

“I know from calling the legislators and talking to them, there’s a lot of campaigns that seems to have the opinion that Rand Paul owns the state and why bother competing here,” Phillips said, dismissing the notion that Paul is a clear frontrunner in the state, particularly if there’s a primary election.

On Tuesday, the bill creating a primary in Nevada narrowly passed the Senate. The state assembly is expected to consider the legislation before June 1.

“Moderate Republicans have been trying to destroy the Republican Party here for years,” accused Carl Bunce, who ran the Ron Paul 2012 campaign in Nevada and is in talks with Rand Paul’s team. “They believe the primary will cut down on the amount of people who will engage in party politics.”

Then, summing up a sentiment shared by both sides of the caucus debate, Bunce added, “Just tell me the rules and let’s start.”