Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

May New Delegate Rules Shape the Soul of the G.O.P.?

Timothy Sherratt


In the aftermath of Mitt Romney’s victory in the New Hampshire Primary let me call attention to an under-analyzed feature of the Republican primaries in 2012.

The Republican National Committee (RNC) amended its rules for this year’s primaries to require states holding primaries before April 1st to allocate delegates proportionally. Winner-take-all rules make the early coronation of a nominee much more likely. Proportional allocation encourages candidates to work harder in more states to secure enough committed delegates to win the nomination at the party convention.

Why the change, and what is its significance? One suggestion in the Huffington Post links the RNC’s decision to the lengthy Democratic primary struggle between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, which lasted almost to the convention itself. This protracted struggle held the public’s interest and raised the candidates’ profiles.

If there is an echo of this sentiment in the Republican race so far, it must lie in the large television audiences for the many debates the candidates held in 2011. Of course the dramatic rise and fall of candidates, notably Perry, Cain, Gingrich and Santorum, could not have been easily predicted. The somewhat contrived struggle for the “true conservative” (anti-Romney) mantle has not hurt either.

As was the case for the Democratic primary in 2008, proportional allocation of delegates based on percentage of the popular vote promises to sustain public interest deeper into this primary season than winner-take-all rules would do.

Thirty years ago, one would have cautioned Republicans that such a course was un-Republican. Let the Democrats wash their dirty laundry in public. They do things that way and seem to like it. Republicans instead prefer to anoint and worship, falling dutifully in line behind their chosen leader.

Not any longer. In 2012, it is the GOP that looks positively pluralistic. There’s the Establishment, so-called, represented by Mitt Romney. There is social conservatism, in the person of Rick Santorum, whose Iowa showing has given those positions traction in a race dominated by economic woes and the size of government. There is libertarian Ron Paul whose firm, if limited, following would make conservatism in that image. And there is Newt Gingrich who led a revolution in the modern Republican Party in 1994 by insisting that in order to shrink government the Congressional GOP had first to be part of it.

This is a far cry from the simple distinction between economic and social conservatives routinely trotted out to explain the Republican Party.

To date, the proportional allocation of delegates has made no contribution to this more pluralistic GOP. What it may achieve, as the primary season progresses, is to encourage candidates to compete longer even without front-runner prospects. Amassing delegates for “their” wing of the party may not alter the outcome of a nomination contest in which Governor Romney appears the likely winner. However, it may instruct the party on ways to manage its appeal to the electorate and to resolve its internal tensions.

The Republican Party is becoming more pluralistic, but the American political system is not. Multiple-party systems enjoy cohesive parties, which govern through party coalitions. In the American two-party system, diversity is internal to each party. For better or worse, primary elections have allowed party factions to capture the party label and refashion the party in the image of the successful nominee. Winner-take-all rules usually produce a clear winner to rally around but often leave internal discontents to fester.

Managing internal discontents may be becoming harder for the Republicans than for the Democrats. The Democratic Party is comprised of factions, but the emergent diversity in the G.O.P is grounded in convictions. Compromise accommodates faction but threatens conviction.

Proportional allocation of delegates may contribute to sustaining public interest in the Republican nomination contest after the early primaries even if these all but anoint Governor Romney as the nominee. But forging a multi-dimensional party from the several perspectives that find a home in the GOP would be no less important a contribution. If the new rules secure a place for libertarians wedded to Ron Paul such that he sticks with his stated intention not to run a third-party campaign, they will have passed their first test. 

—Timothy Sherratt is a professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.



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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”