The new rule, written after months of painstaking negotiations among senior members of the national committee, would push the beginning of the presidential nominating process back a month, to Feb., as part of a plan to prevent wealthy candidates from stealing the nomination.
GOP caucuses and primaries would be held that month in the 4 early states -- the rule codifies IA, NH, SC and NV as states allowed to hold contests in a "pre-window." Every other state would be allowed to hold their nominating contests on or after the first Tuesday in March.
But there's an important caveat, members of the Temporary Delegate Selection Committee said: Any state that holds its nominating contest before the first day of April -- that is, any state that rushes to front-load their nominating process -- will have to award their delegates on a proportional basis.
That's a dramatic change from previous party rules; many states awarded delegates on a winner-take-all basis, setting up key dates on which candidates could win big chunks of delegates and shut out their rivals. In '08, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) won all of FL's delegates, even though he won just 36% of the vote. Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Mike Huckabee won a combined 59% of the vote -- and no delegates. Giuliani, who had viewed the state as a firewall, dropped out of the race that night.
This is a welcome change for Republicans in a variety of ways. As Ed Morrissey notes, this change would allow for candidates with lower initial name recognition to have a stronger shot at the nomination and wold also draw out the primary contest.
One of the principal benefits of a drawn-out primary calendar that starts with smaller states is that it allows candidates who might not start out with the most money or the highest name ID to prove themselves to the voters, building a movement state-by-state, county-by-county. A national primary or a primary that is extraordinarily front-loaded greatly incentivizes the ability to raise money fast and generate free national media coverage. This set of incentives might not always lead to the strongest general election candidate.
Stretching out the primary calendar may also have other electoral benefits for Republicans in the 2012 cycle. 2008 witnessed the slightly unpleasant spectacle of the primary campaign beginning in earnest at the end of 2006/very beginning of 2007, a situation only exacerbated by the front-loaded primary schedule. Some of the most intriguing possibilities for the GOP nomination (such as Bobby Jindal, Scott Brown, and Chris Christie) could only benefit from spending a little bit more time ripening on the national stage. Christie, for example, would hardly be a plausible candidate if he had to stop governing at the end of this year in order to conduct a year-and-a-half primary campaign. But by around the middle to later part of 2011, if his budget gamble has paid off, Christie could make a very strong case indeed.
There is no historical necessity for a primary battle to begin almost two years before the election. Bill Clinton waited until October of 1991 to declare that he was running. And a drawn-out primary fight in 1992 only strengthened his candidacy.
Regardless of which party controls Congress after the 2010 elections, 2011 looks likely to be a very fluid year. Especially if Republicans end up controlling the House and/or the Senate, they will need to have as much focus on governing as possible throughout 2011. Pushing back the primary calendar and drawing it out can only help them in this regard.