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Lehigh: Mitt says, Primaries, not caucuses

Published November 13, 2013 6:16 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Mitt Romney has a good idea for the Republican Party he briefly led in 2012: Its nominating process should reward states that hold primaries rather than caucuses.

"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 Globe recently. "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."

And caucuses? To see the problem there, one need only look west (or midwest), to Iowa's famous-by-virtue-of-being-first caucuses. The process there often elevates candidates who have little chance of winning the GOP nomination and even less of ever becoming president.

In 2012, Rick Santorum, the defeated former Republican senator from Pennsylvania, was Iowa's eventual narrow winner. In 2008, it was former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. In 1988, George H.W. Bush, the sitting vice president and the man who eventually won the nomination and the presidency, finished third behind both Bob Dole and Pat Robertson(!).

Because of Santorum's Iowa success, he'll likely run again in 2016, when he'll again have no realistic shot at becoming president. Still, he'll command a certain amount of attention in the early going because of his previous support among Iowa caucus-goers. If, that is, candidates even further to the right, with an equally remote shot of ever becoming president — like, say, Ted Cruz — don't steal his thunder.

Mind you, though Romney's comment hints at the notion that primaries reward more mainstream conservatives, while caucuses favor hyper-conservative hopefuls, that's not an argument Republicans themselves usually make. They prefer to stress the greater participation that primaries encourage.

"I don't think it's about conservatives or non-conservatives voting," says Stuart Stevens, a former top Romney adviser. "It's just the idea that more Republicans voting is better."

Well, not just that idea. Long-time GOP strategist Mike Murphy puts it with characteristic candor. Processes like caucuses or conventions maximize the power of a narrow group of committed activists — and that influences the candidates.

"You incentivize your politicians to only appeal to the voters they get for free in the general election, the absolutely hard-core base, as opposed to the voters they need to win," Murphy says.

When the RNC's presidential post-mortem panel — officially, the Growth and Opportunity Project — made its similar recommendations last March for presidential primaries rather than caucuses or conventions, they went the diplomatic route.

"Our party needs to grow its membership, and primaries seem to be a more effective way to do so," the panel wrote. "The greater the number of people who vote in a Republican primary, the more likely they will turn out and vote again for the Republican candidate in the fall election."

But that effort to tiptoe through the Tea Party tulips hasn't fooled the wacko birds (to use John McCain's apt phrase) and their followers. The 2012 GOP campaign featured a dozen or more caucuses, most in the relatively early going; the activists and true believers recognize that moving to primaries would diminish both their candidate's prospects and their own clout. Thus the warnings that such a move would touch off an intra-party war.

So where does the RNC's recalibration effort stand?

Going nowhere, says one close observer, in part because the RNC has only limited tools to nudge such changes along.

Not so, says RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski, who notes that during its summer meeting here in Boston, the RNC appointed a subcommittee to pursue the matter further. "This is very much a work in progress," she insists.

Let's hope so. Certainly the party establishment and many of its donors seem to realize that the GOP needs to find its way back to more sensible and pragmatic ground.

But the effort might well pick up steam if, say, someone who can speak first-hand about the problems that come when nominating contests put a greater premium on ideological purity than electoral viability made a sustained case for more primaries and fewer caucuses.

Mitt?

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at GlobeScotLehigh.