Does Changing 2016 Primary Calendar Change the Game?

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Republicans are meeting this week to make changes to their 2016 nomination process. The goal? To compress the calendar of primaries and caucuses, based on the conclusion that a long, drawn-out process was bad for Mitt Romney in 2012.

At least, a compressed calendar seems to be what they'll wind up with if the changes work as intended. Compression is actually coming from two different impulses. One is a long-standing effort by both parties to bring order to the front end of the nomination process by postponing action until February; the other is a finance-driven decision Republicans have made to move up their convention. If all goes according to plan, the result will be votes in the first four ("carve-out") states -- Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina -- in February, followed by votes in rapid succession in March and April, with the primary season finishing up in May. That's a lot more compressed than the January-to-June schedule of the past few cycles.

Now, it may not actually work out that way. The parties have consistently tried and failed to start in February. Remember, setting primary and caucus dates is generally up to state legislatures, and beyond that to state parties. If Arizona or other states ignore the incentives to delay their primaries, then the carve-out states will inevitably schedule their votes in January, and there you go. As always, I'll be following Josh Putnam over at FHQ to keep up with exactly how it's all going.

One interesting question is whether compressing the calendar is actually a good idea. Indeed, some observers see this as a case of fighting the last war. The 2012 cycle, the theory goes, just went on too long, with eventual nominee Mitt Romney taking too many shots from other candidates.

My feeling, however, is that the hits Romney took almost certainly didn't matter for the fall campaign. The real lesson of 2012 that Republicans should worry about is that virtually any crank, no matter how little qualified for president, can have a very good two weeks.

Actually, that's not really a new lesson; the idea that almost any candidate can surge temporarily goes way back, maybe even to George Wallace in the Democratic primaries in 1972. It's essentially the story of Gary Hart in 1984; Hart wasn't an unqualified crank, but he might as well have been, given the content-free hype he received for a short while. And it's essentially the stories of Michele Bachman, Herman Cain, Newt Gingrich, and Rick Santorum in 2012.

Indeed, the possibility that an essentially random candidate could win it all has always been one of the main reasons a national primary would be such a bad idea.

To a large extent, the "invisible primary" during the years before the Iowa caucuses does winnow out unappealing candidates. But not all of them. For those weak candidates who manage to catch fire, the long slog of primaries and caucuses makes it hard to stretch a flash-in-the-pan moment in the primaries into an actual nomination.

By compressing the calendar, you increase the danger that a mediocre or worse candidate could get hot at just the right time and wrap up the nomination before the party has time to stop it.

If the revised Republican calendar works as planned, that result would still be unlikely. Among other checks, there should be several weeks to work through the carve-out states before the real crunch in March. The worry, however, is that the March crunch could get so momentous that it overwhelms the rest of the schedule. In other words, if crunch time in March takes on the air of a de facto national primary -- even one spread out over two or three weeks -- it could mean trouble.

The larger point is that the parties shouldn't worry so much about what the process does to the eventual nominee. Political junkies may remember in November what happened at a debate in February, but swing voters surely will not. What the parties should ensure is that the process successfully settles on a candidate, and that the winner is someone who party actors want -- and, most of all, that it avoids producing a candidate they can't live with. By that standard, 2012 for the Republicans was not a mistake: It was a total success.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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Jonathan Bernstein at