RNC Primary Rules That Haven't Yet Taken Effect Have Failed: Report

A lesson on how to read The New York Times.

The New York Times over the weekend reported some bad news for the Republican Party, pertaining to the effort party elites have made to re-engineer a primary process with new rules, in the hope that the 2012 presidential election defeat would not be repeated. It's not working out, according to the Times piece titled, "Party Rules to Streamline Race May Backfire for G.O.P." What are these rules, and why are they backfiring? Well, let's allow reporters Adam Nagourney and Jonathan Martin to explain:

But as the sprawling class of 2016 Republican presidential candidates tumbled out of their chaotic second debate last week, it was increasingly clear that those rule changes — from limiting the number of debates to adjusting how delegates are allocated — had failed to bring to the nominating process the order and speed that party leaders had craved.

In interviews, Republican leaders and strategists said that rather than having a presumptive nominee by early 2016, who could turn to the tasks of raising money and making the case against the Democratic candidates, it was doubtful that a candidate would be in place before late spring — or even before Republicans gather for their convention in Cleveland in July.

And they said they were increasingly convinced that Donald J. Trump could exploit openings created by the party’s revised rules to capture the nomination or, short of that, to amass enough delegates to be a power broker at the convention.

Hold on a minute. It's "increasingly clear" that the "rule changes" that limited "the number of debates" have failed? There have only been two debates. It's still just September. How is this possible?

It also ... doesn't make sense. The "rule change" governing the debates mandated that there be far fewer of them. And lo, there will only be, at most, 12 debates -- down from more than 20 held in the 2012 election cycle. If the GOP never changes this rule, then we're having more debates. How does having more debates create "order" or foster "speed?"

This is never really explained, but let's leave that aside for the moment, because the authors of this piece have made an even more impossible contention: it being "increasingly clear" that "rule changes" governing "how delegates are allocated" have failed. There's a really simple reason this can't actually be true: As of right now, no delegates have been allocated. Delegates won't be allocated until January, after Iowa holds its caucuses.

No one in the world knows more about the ever-changing rules of presidential primaries than Josh Putnam of Frontloading HQ. I expected he'd have some thoroughly and understandably baffled reaction to this New York Times article, in which two ostensibly seasoned reporters claim that events that will occur in the future have failed to succeed in the past. I was not disappointed! Per Putnam:

It is wrong because Nagourney and Martin fall into the post hoc ergo propter hoc trap. Essentially, the conclusion is: the RNC made nomination rules changes, thus the "chaos" we are currently witnessing is direct result of those rules changes. And then they even talk to and aggregate quotes from folks like Richard Hohlt who not only subscribe to the chaos theory, but who feel the rules changes have led to "unintended consequences".

But here's the thing: For those rules to have either the desired effect that the national party wants or for there to have been unintended consequences, the rules actually have to be implemented. And a great many of those rules and their attendant effects have not kicked in yet. One cannot draw conclusions from something that has yet to occur. One can only speculate. And that is pretty much what we're getting from this article: speculation.

Of course, it's a little weird to be calling this "speculation." A speculative piece would examine the current state of play, survey what's going on, perhaps extrapolate a bit on a few pat assumptions, and then say something like, "Despite the best efforts of the Republican Party to have a calm race, this could end up going to a brokered convention," and then pad out the piece with a few paeans about how this time it's different because of Donald Trump.

And that sort of piece has been written -- but always conditionally. Something may or could happen. Nagourney and Martin are reporting, impossibly, that right now it's "increasingly clear" that the GOP's efforts have been a categorical failure.

There are other very strange passages in the Times piece. Like this one:

But the evolving Republican landscape also suggests that the party’s changes, like squeezing primaries into a shorter period in hopes that one candidate would break through, are proving no match for a field this big and rambunctious, powered by the forces of populism and anger at Washington, and financed by wealthy benefactors.

How can it be said that the GOP's change to the primary calendar, in which the contests have been "squeezed ... into a shorter period," are at this very moment "proving [to be] no match for a field this big and rambunctious?" Again, that "shorter period" is months away from even beginning. Besides, who is to say that the field will be as "big and rambunctious" as it is right now? There will be some winnowing between now and the Iowa caucuses, and further winnowing after the New Hampshire primary.

I also nearly fainted from laughter at this line, in the Times' piece: "As a result, the campaigns are preparing for a marathon delegate battle, and have begun building organizations in territories as far-flung as Guam and American Samoa."

Well, yes. This is how you run for president, by planning to win delegates with a successful operation built to last throughout the primary season, and doing that requires you to "build organizations" in "far-flung" places.

Hey, by the way, just because the GOP's rules changes may reflect a desire for the primary season to not be drawn out to the bitter end doesn't mean party leaders wanted the matter to be decided after a sprint through January. Everyone understands that there are no "winner take all [delegates]" contests until March 15, right?

It is on a lot of levels, a bizarre story. It bundles a lot of speculative memes and pop-political obsessions (Brokered conventions! Super PAC cash will keep bad candidacies alive! Long primaries make it hard for the winner to "tack to the center!") into one place, and then insists that the worst is coming to pass for the Republicans because of their new rules -- despite the fact that the campaign season has barely started and the vast majority of the "rules" that were "changed" aren't currently in effect, and thus aren't currently dictating an outcome. 

So why does this piece exist? Why didn't some editor say, "Hey, you guys can't say that a thing has definitively happened four months before it occurs?" Probably because this isn't a piece about the byzantine primary season rules at all. That's actually not what this story is about, and once you figure that out, it stops being so confusing.

Let's consider something that this piece promises and delivers upon: interviews with "Republican leaders and strategists." And nary an anonymous quote in the bunch. In that sense, this is the platonic ideal of an "insidery" horse-race article.

And everyone quoted basically has Donald Trump on the brain. Former Mitt Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom tells the newspaper, “Somebody like Trump, who is operating in a crowded field, could put this contest away early if the crowd doesn’t thin out.” Former John McCain adviser Steve Schmidt shows up with these urgings: "There is no magic date upon which the air will come out of the Donald Trump balloon. The notion that Donald Trump cannot be the Republican nominee is completely and totally wrong.”

Another GOP strategist, Phil Musser, warns that Trump might end up with delegates of some significant number, and thus be in the position to "shape the race" (that is, appear at the GOP convention). And, in case you need a reminder of how that might go, well -- here's a reminder:

Some Republicans still wince when recalling how Pat Buchanan’s 1992 challenge to President George Bush resulted in his winning a prime-time speaking slot at the convention that renominated Mr. Bush.

“And that set the tone for the election,” [Republican donor and lobbyist Richard F.] Hohlt recalled of Mr. Buchanan’s fiery speech. “Do we end up again in one of those kinds of deals?”

It's pretty fun how the quotes from consultants proceed in order, from a whisper that Trump might last a while in a long primary to a shout about Pat Buchanan wrecking the shop and paving the way for a President Clinton.

Yeah, this wasn't a story about RNC rule changes or the vagaries of the primary calendar and delegate allocation. This was a story about elite signalling: well-known Republican consultants sending a message to party officials that they want the party's kid-glove approach to Trump ended. They want the code-red ordered and the oppo-bomb dropped now, and they're letting party officials know that if their squeamishness about not "going negative" so early in the primary process leads to Trump having a spot on the convention stage -- or worse, becoming the nominee -- they'll make sure they take the blame for it. And these consultants are making sure that this message gets read by the GOP's donor class by putting it in The New York Times -- which they still read every weekend.

Really, this story wasn't intended for an audience of normal human Americans -- that whole bit about primary season rules was just a vessel in which this story-within-a-story about famous GOP consultants urging their party to let slip the dogs of war was safely transmitted. Now that you know that this piece exists as a bit of intra-party soap opera, which you got to witness, it's actually kind of fun and interesting.

Of course, you might remember how presidential primaries tend to work. Big fields eventually shrink (Scott Walker: see you later!), elite endorsements and campaign war chests are usually what produce eventual victors, and the polls ahead of the first nominating contests tend to feature a lot of tire-kicking on new candidates -- leading to the rise of various "flavors of the week." The fundamentals of "discovery, scrutiny, and decline" are still in effect, and there's even some evidence that Donald Trump is not immune. So why don't these consultants just cool it with the dramatics and see what happens, instead of pitching a fit in the pages of The New York Times?

Hey, I can't say for sure! But rest assured that no one ever got paid for sitting back and letting the electoral fundamentals happen.