BY JONATHAN TILOVE | Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, 8:17PM
Texas will be the first big state to vote in the 2016 presidential nominating process under new rules approved by the Republican National Committee, and it will be able to use a modified winner-take-all system in allocating delegates that will further enhance the state’s standing in choosing party’s next nominee.
“It’s very safe to say Texas has just become a major player in the 2016 primaries,” said Texas GOP Chairman Steven Munisteri, who helped craft the new rules as one of 17 members of special Rules subcommittee whose handiwork was approved by the full Republican National Committee at its recent winter meeting in Washington.
The new rules will shave months off the nominating process, move the national GOP convention up from the end of August to either late June or mid-July and impose severe sanctions in loss of delegates against any state that tries to jump the queue and join the four states – Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada – that are permitted to hold their primary or caucus before March 1, the day Texas and several other states are scheduled to vote.
It’s impossible to say this far in advance how the changes might affect the choice of an eventual nominee in a contest that potentially could include both Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Rick Perry. But Texas will loom large in that process.
“It makes us the 800-pound gorilla on March 1,” Munisteri said.
Moving up the national convention to either the week of June 27 or July 18 also has an added potential big side benefit for the Austin economy – the possibility of hosting the 2016 Republican state convention.
State parties are required to submit their list of delegates 45 days before the start of the Republican National Convention – or Friday, May 13, 2016, if the convention begins as early as June 27. (States with late primaries, like California and New Jersey, where Democrats can block a date change, get a waiver from the 45-day requirement.) The state party in Texas had scheduled its convention for the second week of June in Houston. But now, Munisteri said, the timing requires the party to move the convention to early May, which Houston cannot accommodate. He said the party would choose between Dallas and Austin as the substitute site. He said that while Austin has been unable to handle a convention of this size – with 18,000 delegates and alternates – the building of the massive new JW Marriott downtown is changing that.
A long process in 2012
The rules changes were born out of frustration with a process that party officials believe dragged on too long in 2012, hurting the GOP nominee’s chances in the general election.
In 2012, the process stretched from the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3 to the Aug. 27 start of the Republican convention. Under the new rules, no state can vote before Feb. 1, and the nominee will be named by early summer.
Munisteri said the collapsed timetable will shorten the time that competing Republican candidates are beating up on one another and lengthen the time they can focus on the Democratic opposition — as well as put national party money at the disposal of the nominee.
Last time, Mitt Romney was unable to tap into $100 million in national party money until he was nominated at the end of August, leaving him exposed all summer to the Obama campaign’s negative onslaught.
February is now, under the rules, the exclusive preserve of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. In the past, if a state jumped the line to get into the early mix, it would lose half its delegates to the national convention. Under the new rules, states with 30 or more delegates would lose all but 12 of their delegates (including the three RNC members who are automatically convention delegates), and smaller states would be left with only nine delegates (including the three RNC delegates.)
Winner take all
Under the new rules, states that vote during the first two weeks of March are obliged to award delegates proportionally to keep an early front-runner from steamrolling to victory. But Munisteri successfully slipped in an amendment providing Texas and other states in that two-week window the leeway to devise a modified winner-take-all system.
Munisteri’s amendment did two things. It permits a state to award all its delegates — either at the district or statewide level — to a candidate who wins 51 percent or more of the vote. But that is a threshold that might be tough to reach that early in the process.
The second part of the Munisteri amendment permits a state to deny delegates to a candidate who wins less than 20 percent of the vote. If, for example, in a multicandidate field, one candidate received 35 percent of the vote and no other candidate received at least 20 percent, the top vote-getter would get 35 percent of the delegates, and the remainder would be uncommitted.
However, there is an additional kicker in Texas, explained Munisteri, because the state party here includes “uncommitted” as a choice on the ballot. If, in the previous scenario, “uncommitted” received less than 20 percent of the vote, Munisteri believes the candidate who received 35 percent would be entitled to all the delegates — winner take all.
Would that pass muster with the national party? The first opportunity to challenge the state’s design would be, after the fact, at the national convention, at which, practically speaking, it would be a judgment call by the nominee. Either way, the Texas party would have accomplished its desired effect of creating a system that would maximize candidate interest in competing in Texas in search of its potentially huge delegate haul or at least to spoil another candidate’s chances of hitting the jackpot here.
More rule changes
It will be up to the delegates at the party’s 2014 state convention to decide whether delegates should be allocated based on results statewide or at the congressional district level, or, as has been past practice and is most likely, a mix of both – with three elected from each of the state’s 36 congressional districts and the rest allocated statewide.
If Texas retains firmly in Republican control in 2014 and gets all the bonus delegates for which it would be entitled, it would send 155 delegates to the 2016 convention, just shy of the 162 delegates allotted California.
At its May meeting in Memphis, the RNC is likely to consider other rule changes to exercise greater control over the number and format of presidential debates in 2016 and to sanction candidates with potential loss of delegates if they participate in unauthorized debates. Munisteri said the general feeling was that there were too many debates last time and that the inquisitors were sometimes more interested in “gotcha” moments than helping Republican primary voters choose their best nominee.
Next up will be how Democrats respond to the new Republican rules and calendar when the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee meets at the end of February.
Josh Putnam, a Davidson College political scientist who closely follows the rules process at his FrontloadingHQ blog, said Democrats almost certainly will move up their convention, not wanting to leave a long gap between when the Republicans select their nominee and Democrats choose their own.