When the Republican National Committee adopted a new primary calendar in January, few people fully thought through the impact. Successfully and necessarily fighting the last war, Chairman Reince Priebus led the RNC to adopt reforms to end the mindless chewing-up of would-be nominees by more than a score of cable-ratings-driven debates as well as to put the brakes on the scramble by states to schedule their primaries and caucuses ever earlier.
When the dust settled at the RNC, a new regime was in place, backed by tough sanctions on rogue states that break the embargo on pre-March 1, 2016, primary contests, a promise of a sane debate schedule, and a late June or early July convention. The early leader for this gathering is Las Vegas, but the sheer folly of that messaging is dawning on party elders, and Cleveland, with its restored downtown and new convention center, looks better and better, especially given Ohio’s critical role in the Electoral College map.
Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada are permitted by the new rules to hold their nominating contests in February 2016, and will almost certainly do so. All other states must wait until March 1 under pain of significant delegate penalties, and any state that picks a date from Tuesday March 1 until Monday March 14 must allocate its delegates proportionately. “Winner-take-all” contests can begin March 15.
States interested in influencing the election, or in grabbing the biggest slice of the billion-dollar campaign expenditures pie, thus will pick either March 1 or March 15 for their contests. March 15 looms large in many hypothetical primary schedules. Indeed, the two or three weeks leading up to March 15 are going to see a flood of money wash ashore in the states smart enough to get their legislatures moving towards relevance now.
Which brings us to the unlikely duo of Texas senator Ted Cruz and 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
The former hasn’t said he is running but almost certainly is. The latter has very specifically said, “No, no, no, no, no,” and those closest to him believe that is a real “No!” The Romney reboot naysayers applaud the 2012 nominee’s reticence, and practically shout, “Romney’s done, run into the ground, finished as a force in the party.” And they are right if they mean Romney has no practical chance to be the nominee if he isn’t running.
But they are very wrong if they mean Romney has no ability to make the political weather, and having run twice and lost both times doesn’t change that. The reality is that the new GOP map and likely primary calendar greatly favors Cruz, whom the establishment greatly, indeed irrationally fears, as Iowa and South Carolina will be on fire for the firebrand with the extraordinary rhetorical and debating skills. New Hampshire was going to be Chris Christie country, but may end up being a 10-way carve-up train wreck of a primary. The new Granite State poll released April 18 puts Senator Rand Paul atop a field of 13, with an underwhelming 15 percent of the vote, “favorite daughter” Senator Kelly Ayotte tied for second place with Paul Ryan, and Christie a point behind them.
A badly split New Hampshire result would leave Cruz marching through South Carolina with Florida’s Senator Marco Rubio hoping to stop him there and in Rubio’s long-ago home state of Nevada. But right now it looks like all the momentum will belong to the Texan as the big two March dates loom. The media love a political blitzkrieg, and Cruz would be rolling with Iowa and South Carolina on his board.
Unless, that is, something old becomes something new, something that Governor Romney could champion and for which there might be many takers: an open convention, one where the outcome was not preordained by the delegate contests leading up to it.
Romney could begin the movement to an open convention with a declaration of support for the concept and a statement of his intent to run in the primary contests in his own “favorite son” states and a handful of others without obvious GOP national figures (like Idaho, Oregon, and Washington) and only in these favorite son and “empty” states. Romney’s reason to make this limited “run” would be to help his party by sponsoring the idea of a genuinely “open convention,” which would in turn juice the interest level in the GOP field and debate and retain the maximum flexibility of a party that simply must win in 2016 or watch the Supreme Court slip away and the Obamacare revolution reach the “not possible to repeal” status its backers are prematurely claiming.