The Perils of a Speedy 2016 GOP Primary

By moving the contests up in the calendar, the party could hurt its most promising candidates.

Ninety-six-year-old World War II veteran Eugene Morgan (L) of West Memphis, Arkansas, listens to U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (D-MN) (2nd R) as Rep. John Carter (R-TX) (R) looks on during Morgans visit to the World War II Memorial October 2, 2013 in Washington, DC. (National Journal)

The Republican National Committee is holding its annual winter meeting this week, where it's moving forward with long-discussed plans to compress the 2016 presidential primary calendar, crack down on an unruly debate schedule, and protect the first-in-the-nation status of the four traditional early states. Party leaders viewed last election's never-ending nominating process as akin to a dysfunctional reality TV show, where the spotlight shone brightest on the party's least-credible candidates and empowered their political critics.

But several GOP strategists fear that the party is more focused on rooting out anything that might have contributed to its 2012 defeat than on cultivating its field of 2016 prospects. The new crop of hopefuls is filled with reform-minded governors and tea-party leaders — but many of the most promising contenders aren't yet household names.

"Anytime you talk about limiting access and [debate] opportunities, it helps the front-runner. It really makes me nervous," said former Iowa Republican Party Political Director Craig Robinson, who is now editor in chief of the Iowa Republican website. "There's not much time to compete once you figure out who's real or not. You don't want to space it out so if you don't win Iowa or New Hampshire, you don't have a chance."

In 2012, the establishment-favored, biggest-budget candidate was Mitt Romney, whom party officials viewed as the most electable in a weak field. The lengthy nomination process allowed underfunded long shots to stall Romney's path to the nomination and forced him to tack to the right in the general election, hurting his electability.

But in 2016, the opposite could be true. With New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie looking less formidable in the wake of Bridgegate, there might not even be an establishment favorite this time around. The best-funded candidates with the most loyal followings could turn out to be grassroots favorites such as Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, who boast strong name identification, close ties to the base, and deep small-donor fundraising networks — but whose outspoken conservatism could hurt them in a general election. The party's more-electable candidates could wind up being those like Wisconsin's Scott Walker, a conservative Republican governor in a blue state who, at the moment, isn't very well-known nationally.

"I think that there is a tendency to always look at the last loss and make changes based on that. There is a tendency to not look at all presidential races over recent history but to look at the last one that burned you," said Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., who served as Karl Rove's deputy in the Bush administration. "Sometimes that brings a good result, sometimes it doesn't."

Party leaders view the calendar reforms as long overdue and aimed at protecting the prerogatives of the traditional early states without allowing the nomination process to drag on indefinitely. The party is expected to schedule its national convention as early as late June, which would mean states would need to submit their delegate slates 35 days earlier — by May. That would significantly shorten the nominating process, from the nearly six months of primaries and caucuses in 2012 to a three-month sprint in 2016.

The RNC would block off February for New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada, the four traditional early states. That would likely make March a long-distance scramble focused on big-market states such as Florida and Texas — a schedule that would favor the best funded and most organized of the remaining candidates. The new rules would harshly penalize states that violated them, stripping offenders of all but nine or two-thirds of their delegates — whichever was more punitive. States could not have winner-take-all contests if they held them before March 15.

"Getting a better calendar gets more people and more states involved," said RNC Communications Director Sean Spicer. "This system as proposed will get more of our grassroots supporters and activists engaged in the process." He added that many states that held late primaries were irrelevant to the process under the old calendar but would be more empowered under a compressed primary schedule.

The committee's other priority at the meetings is to figure out how to limit the number of debates and more tightly regulate how moderators are chosen. They're hoping to involve conservative media outlets and talk-show radio hosts in the process, and to prevent outspoken liberals like MSNBC's Chris Matthews from moderating. Spicer said the goal was to have enough debates for everyone to have a shot at getting his or her message out — estimating that eight to 14 would be an ideal range, down from the 20 held in the 2012 cycle.

"Mitt Romney debated Herman Cain more often than he debated Barack Obama. The national electorate is more interested in the debates between those who actually might be president than in the American Idol-esque debate-a-thon we endured in '12," said onetime New Hampshire Attorney General Tom Rath, a former Republican Party national committeeman.

But while most Republicans agree that the process got out of control in 2012, some worry that the party could take things too far in the other direction — limiting the amount of free media exposure the nationally televised debates can provide to compelling up-and-coming candidates.

"It's the law of unintended consequences. You don't want to showcase Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain," said one senior GOP operative. "You should want to showcase Scott Walker, Bobby Jindal, and Marco Rubio."