In presidential primary schedule, money talks [Commentary]

GOP is considering holding its party convention June, rather than late summer

January 28, 2014|Thomas F. Schaller

The Republican National Committee announced last week that it wants to condense its presidential primary schedule and possibly hold its 2016 national convention as early as June, rather than later in the summer, as is traditional for both parties.

It's a wise but also very sad decision because it confirms what most Americans already know applies to both parties: Money matters most.

Republicans have struggled in recent presidential elections, losing four of the past six contests and five of those six in the national popular vote. They need to shake things up. While no panacea, moving the national convention to the beginning of the summer might be a partial cure.

An earlier date has two immediate potential benefits.

The first is time — specifically, more time for the general election phase after which the party has officially selected its presidential candidate and that nominee has chosen her or his running mate.

As reported in Double Down, Mark Halperin's and John Heilemann's account of the 2012 election, the consensus view is that the Obama campaign's risky decision to spend a big chunk of its war chest in early summer to define Mr. Romney as an out-of-touch, corporate plutocrat changed the entire dynamic of the race. By the time Mr. Romney introduced himself to the nation in his Tampa convention acceptance speech that August, many swing voters had already soured on the former Massachusetts governor and Bain Capital founder.

So at least in theory, a condensed primary calendar and earlier convention may prevent Republicans from wasting time and money on an end-of-summer convention that arrives too late to matter.

Second, and more importantly, an earlier convention offers potential campaign finance benefits.

Oh, how presidential campaigns have changed in just a few cycles. The Democrats nominated John Kerry in Boston the last week of July 2004, a full five weeks before the Republicans re-nominated President George W. Bush. Senator Kerry's campaign had to stretch its federal matching funds across 13 weeks, while the Bush campaign had to make the money last only eight weeks.

Why was an extra five weeks during the general election considered a liability three cycles ago, but having two extra months is now deemed an advantage? Because the huge sums raised by recent presidential candidates probably mean party nominees will never again accept the presidential matching money because it comes with a total spending limit and the monies can't be accessed until after the nominating convention.

In 2008, Barack Obama became the first modern candidate to reject matching funds; when he did so again in 2012, Mr. Romney had no choice but to do the same. Once matching funds are no longer part of the equation, the financial penalty of an early convention disappears.

As for those already sick of what they believe is a too-long presidential election process, they're right: It is too long. The process unofficially starts at least two years in advance when television pundits recap the results from the preceding midterm elections. Iowa and New Hampshire now vote shortly after the New Year. Feature profiles and investigative stories about potential 2016 candidates, especially former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and current New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, started gracing magazine covers in 2013.

So the modern presidential campaign season is already pushing three years. One or both parties moving their national conventions up a few months won't lengthen the overall campaign season. It merely shifts two months from the primary stage to the general election period.

If you want to blame Republicans for general opposition to campaign finance limits, fine. But given the current state of the law, you can't blame them for wanting to hold their convention earlier. Under current law, it's a smart move.

And given how early most voters make up their minds — according to a poll taken in December 2011, before the GOP primaries even began, 94 percent of voters had made up their minds about a potential Obama-Romney matchup still 11 months away — a June convention is oddly late.

Finally, for those people worried about being inundated with extra TV ads in summer 2016, there's one more benefit: They will have an extra reason to get outside more.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears every other Wednesday. His email is Twitter: @schaller67.

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