The convention should perform its function of of uniting the Republican rank-and-file around the ticket just as well in June as in early September.

Priebus's Political Games

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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No, Reince Priebus, neither the location or the timing of the Republican convention is going to make a difference to the 2016 election outcome. Nor will the number of debates, or whatever success Republicans have in condensing the primary calendar.

I suppose it isn't surprising that a national party chairman such as Priebus might believe that the things that fall within his limited sphere of influence are actually very important. But realistically, none of this is going to matter in November 2016.

Priebus seems to have a bad case of Seligism -- flailing around with dubious ad hoc changes designed to fight the last war. For example, even though the 2012 nomination debates often embarrassed Republicans and promoted fringe candidates and other implausible potential nominees, the 2016 edition could showcase a large, strong field of candidates.

And the idea that Mitt Romney lost because of his (sort of) extended nomination battle is just silly. Barack Obama wasn't hurt by the extended fight through the primaries and caucuses in 2008. The most dominant nomination performance by a non-incumbent in the modern era was that of general-election disappointment Al Gore. In fact, the political science literature on divisive primaries shows the difficulty of establishing the direction of the effect -- that is, whether hard-fought nominations help the winner by energizing the party, or hurt by making unifying the party difficult. That's a good sign that whatever the effect may be, it isn't very large.

In any case, most of this activity is harmless. The convention's job of uniting the rank-and-file around the ticket should work just as well in June as in early September. And whatever the Romney campaign says now, all modern presidential nominees have had more than enough money to spend in the campaign, and they all find ways of working around campaign finance laws, which at this point are, at most, very mild inconveniences.

The one danger involves the attempts to monkey with the calendar of caucuses and primaries. The basic story here is that party actors -- the politicians, formal party officials and staff, campaign and governing professionals, activists, party-aligned interest groups and party-aligned partisan media who have the biggest say in nomination politics -- have become very good at competing and coordinating their efforts to choose a nominee. That's a positive; leaving the selection exclusively to primaries means, in practical terms, that media attention winds up being a random wildcard. Instead, presidential primaries are largely what they were in the 1940s through the 1960s: trial runs that allow party actors to see how candidates perform with actual electorates. We've seen, however, that when party actors want to coordinate, they can, and a consensus nominee has little trouble winning the nomination from that point on.

The danger is that the ability to coordinate depends on a stable set of rules and norms. The more changes there are to the rules, including the calendar, the more difficult coordination becomes. This time around, however, it appears that rules and calendar changes won't be extensive (always follow Josh Putnam for everything you need to know about such matters), and so problems are unlikely.

  1. Perhaps Republicans are confident that most of the winnowing will happen long before the voters get involved, and that just as in 2012, the field for most of the debates will consist of the nominee, one or two serious contenders, and a bunch of goofballs and attention-seekers. They could be right! Republican winnowing has happened quite early in recent cycles, and one of the big questions I have is whether that was the result of deliberate decisions, or just the way the cards fell.

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