You keep your spot, New Hampshire.

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Republicans Get Nomination Season in Order

Jeanne Cummings writes on money, lobbying and politics. As political editor for Bloomberg News, she directed coverage of the 2012 and 2014 elections. The 2016 race marks her seventh presidential campaign.
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The Republican National Committee is on the verge of a big victory: It may be able to revamp the 2016 primary-election calendar without major challenges from states trying to elbow their way ahead of the earliest contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.

On Thursday, the party will announce a reworked primary calendar, which was among the top priorities identified in an RNC internal review after President Barack Obama's re-election in 2012. In that race, Mitt Romney's last major opponent didn't suspend his campaign until April, and even then the eventual nominee had to keep running until the final primary vote was cast in Utah, on June 26. That extended calendar left his campaign broke and his candidacy vulnerable to Democratic groups, which had more time to hone their attacks as the Republican infighting dragged on.

"The current system is a long, winding, often random road that makes little sense," the party review team concluded. "It stretches the primaries out too long, forces our candidates to run out of money, and because some states vote so late, voters in those states never seem to count."

Now, with most state legislatures adjourned or in their final weeks of business, the RNC is seizing the opportunity to finish implementing the lessons of 2014 without interference.

The RNC's goal is twofold: to protect the early "carve-out" states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, and condense the rest of the calendar so voting wraps up in May. The four early states are relatively small and inexpensive, which can allow lesser-known candidates a chance to gather some momentum. These states' delegates, and those of any primary before March 15, will be awarded in proportion to the candidates' share of the vote, another rule that may prevent a better-funded candidate from running away with the nomination.

Beginning March 15, delegates will be allotted on a "winner-take-all" basis, which will boost the reward in big states. Florida, for instance, has moved pushed its primary back to March so its 99 delegates will be up for grabs. In 2012, Florida unilaterally moved its primary to January, to the dismay of party officials and other states.

Republican leaders are getting their way in part because they toughened the punishments for state legislatures that approve changing a primary date to put their state at the front of the nominating line. A state with 30 or more Republican delegates could see its convention contingent shrink to nine if it disrupts the calendar.

Modifying the nomination process is just one of a long list of changes in response to the 2012 defeat. The party has moved up its convention to July from August to give the nominee more time to prepare for the November election, and it will only sanction about a dozen debates to reduce the opportunities for debilitating grandstanding and friendly fire. In 2012, the primary candidates appeared in 22 forums or debates, and none of them survived unscathed.

Beyond primary mechanics, the RNC has also sought to improve its digital and turnout operations. The team working on data has grown from about five in 2012 to 60, said Sean Spicer, the RNC's communications director. The party has significantly expanded its outreach to minority communities, and now has 40 Hispanic field directors.

But will it work? Spicer points to the Republicans' success in the 2014 midterm elections as evidence that things are headed in the right direction. Yet Guy Cecil, the former head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, has said his party's losses last year reflected an anti-Democrat wave and had nothing to do with the relative strengths and weaknesses of the two camps' campaign operations.

Rick Palacio, the chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party, is more nuanced in his judgment. He got a close-up look at the competition's revamped campaign operations in 2014 when Republican Cory Gardner ousted Democratic Senator Mark Udall. The Republicans have made a habit of showing up at Asian, Mexican and other cultural fairs, he said. But Democrats still have an advantage in voter turnout operations.

The Republican plan makes sense, at least on paper. The RNC, however, should temper expectations that midterm results will be replicated in the presidential election, when the electorate is larger and more diverse. Avoiding a rerun of the free-for-all of 2012 and presenting a more coherent front is also important. But the candidate field has grown to more than a dozen -- with almost as many more still considering a run -- and fights are already breaking out over who will participate in the RNC's limited debates.

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

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net