Republicans Debate: Conventions or Primaries?

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Brian Snyder / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney addresses supporters at his Iowa Caucus night rally in Des Moines, Iowa January 3, 2012.

In their continuing effort to tame the revolutionary wing of the GOP and advance electable, conservative candidates, establishment Republicans have hit on a new theory: the problem is not just which Republicans are voting, it’s how the party votes.

Several top national GOP figures tell TIME they believe that primaries should be used in intra-party contests, rather than caucuses, because primaries generally require less time and attract higher turnout, broadening the base and downplaying the influence of party extremists.

The theory comes from party analyses of the 2013 Virginia governor’s race and Obama’s 2012 reelection.

In June 2012 the Virginia Republican governing board decided to replace their primary with a convention. The result was an easy win in May 2013 for Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli over the more moderate lieutenant governor Bill Bolling. But in the general election Tuesday, despite a weak opponent in Democrat Terry McAuliffe, Cuccinelli could not escape his ultra-conservative social views, and lost Tuesday, in large part due to women voters.

“I believe that Virginia would have been far better off sticking with a primary process rather than going back toward a convention process,” says Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster. “Caucuses tend to nominate candidates who are farther from the mainstream of political thinking. That’s not healthy if your goal is to win an election.”

The basic format of a caucus excludes many of those interested in the political process. For example, it took nearly 10 hours to decide this year’s G.O.P. candidate for Virginia lieutenant governor, E.W. Jackson, and he was chosen by a mere several thousand people. Jackson garnered less than 5% of the 255,000-plus votes last year when he ran for Senate in an open primary. (Of course, the vote tally was also larger because of the office and election year.) Jackson lost by 10% Tuesday, according to the latest tally by the Washington Post.

“Our party should throw out the largest net possible for all Republicans to participate in the nomination process, and this includes military, home bound, and young people who may not be able to participate in all the various layers a convention process demands,” says Paul Bennecke, who served as Political Director for the Republican Governors Association (RGA) from 2007 to 2010. “Whether they are serving abroad, physically or financially unable to travel long distances, can’t commit to several weekends of convention steps, or away for school, there are a host of good reasons why some voters aren’t able to participate in convention style nominations—and their voice should be included in the process so we garner their energy for our party’s eventual nominees.”

On the national scale, moderate Republican operatives and candidates believe that the Iowa caucuses, the first nominating contest for the presidency, are having a terrible effect on the outcome for their party. “You get isolated results with little national meaning,” says Terry Holt, who served as National Spokesman for the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign. “Caucuses have a very debilitating effect on our ability to stay united and to elect the strongest candidate.”

“In order to be competitive again with the Democrats we need to get back to finding a candidate who can win nationally, who goes through a process that tests him but also builds his momentum,” he adds.

In 2008 Mitt Romney spent millions more than other candidates at the the Iowa caucuses and still lost to evangelical favorite and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. In 2012, after tempering expectations, Romney spent more on TV ads than every other G.O.P. candidate but Texas Governor Rick Perry before the Iowa caucuses. Still, Romney’s campaign spent around 66 times more than caucus winner and social conservative pick Rick Santorum on media buys, according to Buzzfeed.

It’s no surprise then that Romney isn’t a fan of the format. “I’m concerned that there’s an effort on the part of some to move toward caucuses or conventions to select nominees, and I think that’s a mistake,” Romney told the Boston Globe Monday. “I think we should reward those states that award delegates to the convention based upon primaries. Primaries are the place where you see whose message is connecting with the largest number of people.”

While the Iowa caucuses picked Huckabee and Santorum in 2008 and 2012, respectively, the New Hampshire primaries held several days later accurately picked the party’s general election nominees, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Romney.

The primacy on primaries extends not only to voters and candidates, but to donors as well, according to Wayne Berman, who served as one of McCain’s 2008 National Finance Co-Chairs.

“If you take the notion that parties exist to win elections—not just to contest them, but to win them—I think that a primary process is probably a better process,” says Berman. “Candidates are in a very competitive environment; they are going to the electorate and they are using the same communications skills, messaging skills, presentation skills…They are having to do all that to win a primary, which means they are better prepared for a general [election].”

Of course some notorious Tea Party candidates, like Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell and Indiana’s Richard Mourdock, have won state primaries even without the backing of some prominent Republican donor groups, and did not seem well prepared for the general election. And despite the motivation behind moving to an all-primary format, it doesn’t appear likely that primaries will take over anytime soon.

“I have a generally bias in favor of primaries,” says former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a 2012 Republican presidential candidate and most recently the author of Breakout. “[But] I think we need to focus on what we stand for, why we can do a better job for America’s future, and not get all tangled up in trying to manipulate the system. The amount of energy it’s going to take to try to manipulate the political selection process is not worth the effort.”

Morton Blackwell, Virginia’s Republican National Committeman and a member of the state’s G.O.P. central committee, says that the only way to get Iowa or other caucus states to change their ways would be from a “top-down” decree from the Republican National Chairman or a presidential nominee about to be nominated—a motion that wouldn’t sit well with Blackwell. “I would vigorously resist any effort to tell Virginia, as a state party, to make our decisions,” says Blackwell.

Another Republican familiar with the party’s delegate process believes that that caucus strategy excludes the popular vote. “What that is, the elites of the party, the people in power now, squeezing out the voices of all the voters in their state so those people in power can continue to dictate it,” says the Republican. “That’s not a recipe to elect strong candidates, it’s a recipe to keep those same people in power now in power.”

A.J. Spiker, the G.O.P. Iowa Chairman, believes that Iowa’s caucus system is an accurate predictor of where the party is, if not an accurate predictor of who the general election is going to pit. He says the caucus presents a good “snapshot” in time—in 2012, the moderate Romney got around a quarter of the vote, the social conservative Santorum got around another quarter, and former Texas Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian, received the third highest tally. “I think that’s a pretty good snapshot of the G.O.P. right now and where we are,” says Spiker.