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RNC Approves New Rules To Shorten 2016 Primary Season

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus walks around the room Friday at the RNC winter meeting in Washington.
Susan Walsh
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus walks around the room Friday at the RNC winter meeting in Washington.

If the primary calendar played a role in the GOP's defeat in the 2012 presidential election, that part, at least, is now fixed.

By a vote of 153-9, the Republican National Committee approved rules changes Friday designed to start the 2016 primary season in February and end it as early as mid-May. What had been a month-long period where contests had to award delegates proportionally rather than winner-take-all was cut in half to two weeks. And states that violate the rules – either by moving ahead of the four official early states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina), or by holding a winner-take-all contest prior to the March 15 official start date – would be left with no more than a dozen delegates at the convention.

"We don't want a six-month slice-and-dice festival in our party. It's not good for picking a president. It's not good for our party," Chairman Reince Priebus told NPR.

Priebus and others in part sold the changes as a way to take back the nominating process from the "liberal media." Yet the slicing and dicing Priebus referred to actually came from other Republican candidates. On the stump and during the long string of debates, they argued that Mitt Romney wasn't a conservative enough Republican – a charge that Romney had to spend many months and tens of millions of dollars working to refute.

If the 2016 plan had been in place in 2012, Romney's immense financial advantage might have let him put Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum away a lot earlier. With more contests concentrated in a compressed span of time, having the money necessary for TV ads and staff on the ground in multiple states simultaneously is vital.

This is exactly the scenario the party's establishment candidate, whoever that happens to be, will likely have in 2016. And that's the scenario that critics like Virginia's Morton Blackwell distrust.

Blackwell said he supported the idea of compressing the primary season, but opposed shrinking the window where states must award delegates proportionally. The net effect, he said, makes it too difficult for a small-budget, grassroots candidate to succeed.

"Passing this makes it appear that something important was done," he said, rejecting proponents' description of the final package as a good "half-a-loaf" compromise. "You're not getting half-a-loaf of bread. What you're getting is half-a-slice of bread. Because in order for the bread in this circumstance to be meaningful, you've got to have the whole loaf."

The latest rules tweaks were prompted in large part by Florida, which in 2012 held its primary in late January, just as it had four years earlier, to exert a larger role in choosing the nominee. The strategy had worked in 2008, when John McCain won the state heading into Super Tuesday, where he locked up the nomination. That pivotal role was reprised in 2012, when Romney won Florida and retook the momentum after Gingrich's victory in South Carolina.

Should Florida again break the rules and hold its primary before March 1, it will lose all but 12 of its 100 or so delegates, rather than just half it lost in 2008 and 2012.

It's not a sanction Florida Republicans appear to want to face. In anticipation of this rules change, they have already moved the presidential primary from January to the first date that rules allow it to be held without penalty.

S.V. Dáte edits congressional and campaign finance coverage for NPR's Washington Desk.

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S.V. Dáte
Shirish Dáte is an editor on NPR's Washington Desk and the author of Jeb: America's Next Bush, based on his coverage of the Florida governor as Tallahassee bureau chief for the Palm Beach Post.