On the surface, talks between the Democratic and Republican parties about an orderly nominating process in 2012 are proceeding apace. But behind the scenes, deep divisions within the Republican Party threaten to jeopardize RNC chairman Michael Steele's year-long effort to reform his party's delegate selection process.
The bigger context is the perennial conflict between the RNC, itself quite conservative, and its expected convention delegates in 2012, who will be both conservative and anti-establishment. Within the RNC, state chairs, who are elected every two years, are battling elected members of the committee, many of whom have served for decades and who worry about losing control of the process to the Tea Party movement.
Steele wants order. His temporary delegate selection committee has proposed the following rules change, with the previous rule in brackets:
"No primary, caucus, or convention to elect, select, allocate, or bind delegates to the national convention shall occur prior to the first Tuesday in March [February] in the year in which a national convention is held. Except Iowa, New Hampshire, [and] South Carolina, and Nevada may begin their processes at any time on or after February 1 [the third Tuesday in January] in the year in which a national convention is held and shall not be subject to the provisions of paragraph (b)(2) of this rule. (2) Any presidential primary, caucus, convention, or other meeting held for the purpose of selecting delegates to the national convention which occurs prior to the first day of April in the year in which the national convention is held, shall provide for the allocation of the delegates selected on a proportional basis."
The rules committee will likely pass the new language, and the entire RNC gets to vote on it later this summer.
For at least 23 states, though, the new rule creates an instant problem: by state law, they must hold their primaries in either January or February. Since they do not hold their primaries during those months, they are out of compliance and risk losing half of their delegates. To remedy this, rules committee members proposed allowing the RNC to grant states "waivers" if they are bound by state law (which might be changed by a Democratic legislature, for example) to hold primaries at a different time. But these waivers, in essence, would grant enormous power over the entire process to the chairman of the committee; very few stakeholders in the process -- including presidential candidates -- want to see Michael Steele become the arbiter of their ascension.
The other way these 23 states could deal with their forced primary dates is to not hold primaries at all. They'd hold caucuses -- beauty contests -- or conventions instead. The more caucuses and conventions there are, the more conservative the resulting nominees are likely to be. This is why many mainstream conservative candidates like Mitt Romney, assuming he decides to run, hope to participate in as many early primaries as possible. Primaries, paid for by states, encompass a wide range of Republican ideologies. Caucuses and conventions don't. And in 2012, they'll probably be full of energetic Tea Party activists.
Democrats can sit back and watch. They have every incentive to nudge the GOP into holding caucuses and conventions and, in fact, can very easily influence what the GOP does by changing their primaries to caucuses and conventions, assuming the cooperative effort passes and each party follows the same rules. Why? Because they KNOW who their nominee is going to be, and provided the conventions and caucuses are large enough to accommodate a range of delegates, Democrats don't really need to hold primaries.
The best way forward for Republicans may be the status quo: let Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada go in January. Let the 23 states with February primaries proceed at their own risk, losing half their delegations, yes, but playing significant winnowing/threshold roles in the process, as Michigan and Florida did in 2008. This would create a Super Tuesday primary, probably on February 7, and the GOP might know the identity of its nominee early. Remember: in 2008, the GOP had time to organize itself before the Democratic nomination process was completed, although they did not really take advantage of the time. This cycle, GOPers on the committee adhere to one of two theories: a protracted process helps energize the party (like it did for Democrats in 2008) OR it hurts the party because it delays the start of needed pre-general-election activities.