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2012 GOP Nomination Contest Affirms Value of New Rules

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I wrote this piece with FairVote democracy fellow Sheahan Virgin.

Rick Santorum's decision to suspend his campaign effectively handed the Republican nomination to Mitt Romney. Although several states have yet to vote and Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul remain in the race, Romney is sure to win an easy victory at the Republican convention, absent a major controversy.

Before pundits rush on to talk of the general election and its dwindling number of swing states, however, we should reflect on the nomination contest and the impact of its rules. In 2010, the Republican National Committee (RNC) changed its rules in order to delay the start of voting, to discourage the frontloading of state contests, and to allocate early states' delegates by proportional representation instead of winner-take-all.

Despite the usual anti-democracy talk of insiders who wished Romney could have eliminated his competition after just a few states had voted, the Republican National Committee's Rules Committee this week handily rejected proposals to go back to a more compressed schedule full of winner-take-all primaries. As the New York Times reported:

Morton Blackwell, a member from Virginia, also opposed the change. He said that the longer process, made possible by proportional voting, made it possible for more states to consider the candidates. "We have had a full vetting as a result of the rules," Mr. Blackwell said.

We agree that the new rules are a big improvement over the 2008 rules. But we would encourage Republicans, as well as Democrats, to consider further improvements that will ensure future nomination contests balance the goals of freedom of choice, maximum participation, and success in nominating a representative candidate.

The Republican Journey

Certainly, the 2012 Republican primary was replete with drama -- either comedic or tragic, depending on your perspective. It featured a colorful cast of characters, with nearly each one getting his or her moment on the national stage. Yet despite a series of unexpected surges and retreats, the outcome was rarely in serious question. The Coronation of Mitt Romney was less about the outcome than the journey.

Relative to the GOP's contest in 2008, the 2012 battle for the Republican nomination was a protracted affair that continually oscillated back and forth, with Romney gaining momentum only to see it subsequently fizzle after surges for Santorum or Gingrich. As the race settled into a marathon, Romney embraced delegate math to prove his continued inevitability. Though grassroots Republicans in many states exulted at their chance to weigh in, establishment Republicans fretted over the odds of a brokered convention and a divided party. With the media's relentless handicapping of the race and all-consuming focus on "who's up and who's down," many overlooked the benefits of a drawn-out process: that more voters in more states were getting the chance to cast a meaningful vote in a Republican primary.

There can be little doubt that the meta-narrative of the 2012 Republican primary was the way in which Romney -- despite an unrivaled ground operation, a redoubtable financial war chest, the powerful services of an "uncoordinated" Super PAC, the backing of the party establishment, and polls that designated him as the most competitive Republican against Obama -- struggled. The question is why -- and whether the process did more to rally the party around Romney than would have a quick knockout victory. As we turn to the general election, the answer to this question could be very important.

Competing Theories: Romney Was Weakened by Proportional Rules or by Being Romney

The Inside-the-Beltway explanation of Romney's troubles insists that the RNC's embrace of more proportional allocation of delegates for early contests undermined Romney. As such, the 2012 GOP primary was longer than usual because new rules allowed Romney's opponents to earn delegates in states that, before, would have gone as a winner-take-all unit to the victor. Proponents of this theory made up for their lack of rigor in looking at real numbers with emphatic opinion.

The alternative explanation focuses on Romney himself -- in part his tendency for gaffes and being workmanlike more than inspirational, but more fundamentally the question of whether his faith (as a Mormon) and New England brand of Republicanism were too much to inspire some conservatives to back him this spring and work hard for him in the fall. In particular, Romney faced challenges due to a history of more socially moderate positions and his leadership in enacting a state-based version of President Obama's health care plan.

As such, the 2012 GOP nomination contest was longer than usual because the overwhelming favorite had trouble connecting with the party base. According to Gallup, the percentage of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents saying they would "vote enthusiastically" for Romney (35%) trails numbers from 2008 for McCain among Republicans (47%) and Obama among Democrats (54%). FairVote analysis found that, with all his advantages, "Romney 2012" struggled repeatedly to match the vote shares "Romney 2008" had posted four years ago, besting his old self in barely half (just 10 of 19) of states. The Washington Post's Dan Balz fingered one particularly revealing statistic: in every primary or caucus with an exit poll, Romney lost when more than half of respondents were white evangelical Christians and won when fewer than half of respondents were white evangelical Christians.

When examining the data, the argument that the RNC's new proportional rules harmed Romney crumbles. First, FairVote's analysis shows that the effect of proportional delegate allocation on Romney's totals was a wash; Romney shed nearly as many delegates to his challengers in states he won as he gained from states he lost†. Indeed his actual share of delegates (52%) is far closer to what would have happened with the same vote totals and pure winner-take-all (53%) than with pure proportionality (39%), primarily due to "quirks" in state rules caused by the RNC's "loose definition" of what constitutes proportional allocation.

The evidence instead suggests that Romney's struggles resulted from his inability to connect with Republican voters. Public opinion polls during the nomination contest often showed a majority of Republican voters were dissatisfied with their party's candidates. But by proving his mettle, winning key states, and adjusting his rhetoric, Romney seems to have earned far more respect and support among Republicans.

The latest polls now show a majority of Republicans welcomes Romney as the nominee, and several polls of the general election contest, including a New York Times poll, show him even with Barack Obama and a Gallup poll showing 90% of Republicans say they will back him. Although some pundits still grumble that having to work hard for the nomination has tarnished his candidacy and increased his negatives by forcing him to highlight more conservative positions, it's clear that Romney has become a more representative Republican nominee -- and that he may win in November.

How to Make the Nomination Process Better

Looking forward, we would suggest a few simple changes to the rules, based on this year's contest -- not necessarily our ideal plan, but one that we could see Republicans and Democrats adopting in 2016:

Make it clear that any state violating the proposed schedule in 2016 will lose all its delegates: This change is almost certainly the only way to stop Florida from again violating the party's plan to have the first states vote in February.

Enforce stricter proportionality in contests held before April 1: Too many states like Florida used winner-take-all in early contests despite the 2010 rules, and many states that used proportionality employed mixed, quirky forms that still created substantial distortions in voter preferences. (Note that the Democrats wisely use proportional representation for all presidential nomination contests.)

Adopt ranked choice ballots to handle fractured votes: Due to the media's obsession with "winning," we should allow voters to cast ranked choice voting "instant runoff" ballots, which would allow us to determine which of the vote-leaders would have won if matched one-on-one against his or her top opponent.

Adopt ranked choice ballots to handle overseas voters: Ranked choice ballots at least should be cast by overseas voters so they don't end up having their ballots count for a candidate who has dropped out since mailing in their ballot.

Be sure to stay with FairVote as the general election between Mitt Romney and President Obama heats up. If you missed our unique analysis of the 2012 GOP nomination battle, see examples of our pertinent materials below:

GOP 2012 Primary Race Results: Compares each candidate's share of the popular vote to his or her share of RNC delegates, state-by-state

Romney 2012 vs. Romney 2008: Explores how this year's Romney candidacy performed relative to his 2008 self; in most states, Romney 2012 struggled to match Romney 2008

Paul 2012 vs. Paul 2008: Explores how this year's Ron Paul candidacy performed relative to his 2008 self; in the vast majority of states, Paul 2012 bested Paul 2008

Romney Delegate Total Nearly Matches Total if All Contests Winner-Take-All: Examines the way in which Romney's delegate total, rather than reflecting pure proportional allocation, was nearly identical to what would have resulted under pure winner-take-all rules

RNC Proportional Rules Not Hurting Romney: Rebuts claims by Romney surrogate Chris Christie that the RNC's proportional allocation of delegates has damaged Romney

The Florida Republican Primary and the Effects of its Rule Breaking: Looks at the consequences of Florida's decision to use winner-take-all for its allocation of delegates

Ranked Choice Voting and the GOP: Discusses the way in which RCV (also called instant runoff voting) could assist the Republican Party in achieving majority consensus over the choice of its nominee

Understanding Proportional Representation in New Hampshire: Delves into the proportional rules of the nation's first primary to make sense of how the new process works

Iowa and New Hampshire's First in the Nation Status Unfair to Other States: Discusses the consequences of having the same two states go first in every presidential election

Understanding How the Iowa Caucuses Work -- and Don't Work: Places the Iowa caucuses in context and clears up existing misconceptions

GOP Primary Rules All Over the Place: Details the way in which new RNC rules vary between states, creating confusion for both voters and researchers

† This includes the Missouri primary, a non-binding contest that Rick Santorum won on February 7. The other 12 states are as follows: Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Tennessee.