WASHINGTON — “If Reince Priebus from Kenosha, Wisconsin, is the Republican ‘establishment,’ God help us,” says the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus. His physical presence is almost as unprepossessing as James Madison’s was, and his demeanor is self-deprecating. But with meticulous — Madisonian, actually — subtlety, he is working to ameliorate a difficulty that has existed for two centuries and in 2012 wounded the GOP.
The Constitution’s framers considered the presidential candidate selection process so important they made it one of the four national institutions they created. Three were Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidency. The fourth was the presidential selection system based on the Electoral College, under which the nomination of candidates and the election of the president occurred simultaneously.
Since the emergence of parties in the 1790s — something the otherwise prescient framers did not foresee — nominees have been selected by the parties’ congressional caucuses, next by national conventions controlled by the parties’ organizations, then by conventions leavened by popular choice (state primaries and caucuses). Finally, because Hubert Humphrey won the 1968 Democratic nomination without entering any primaries, the selection of nominees has been entirely by popular choice since 1972.
Priebus’ perilous, and probably thankless, task is to rally a fraying party behind rules that will solve two entangled problems — the delegate selection calendar and the number of candidate debates. The delegate selection process needs to be long enough to test the candidates’ mettle but not so protracted that it leaves the winner politically battered and financially depleted.
Debates must be numerous enough to give lesser-known and modestly financed candidates opportunities to break through. They must not, however, be so numerous as to prolong, with free exposure, hopeless candidacies. Or to excessively expose the candidates to hostile media debate managers. Or to leave the winner’s stature reduced by repetitive confrontations.
The GOP’s 2016 selection calendar might be compressed at both ends, creating two intense months in March and April. There will likely be no Republican delegate selection events — primaries, caucuses or conventions — prior to Feb. 1. The four prima donnas — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — probably will have February to themselves because this entitlement, like all entitlements, is immortal.
The Republican convention could come as early as late June, so the nominee can have more time and General Election contributions to build momentum entering autumn. Furthermore, perhaps 10 days could be added to the current requirement that all delegates must be selected 35 days before the convention. The last delegates would be selected no later than mid-May.
There will be severely enhanced penalties for state parties that jump to the head of the line, into February. Previously, line jumpers were penalized half their delegates; now the penalty could be severely enhanced. For example, one senior Republican — not Priebus — involved in rethinking the rules says Florida could go from more than 100 to nine.
Currently, beginning March 1, states’ primaries can award delegates proportionally or winner-take-all. In 2016, through the first three weeks of March, allocation should be proportional to prevent an avalanche that unduly truncates the selection process. (In 2008, more than 40 percent of all delegates were selected on one day in February.) This should please everyone wary of a calendar that would allow the richest, best-known candidate to run the table early.
Regarding debates, the new rules, not yet fully formulated, will be the first rules. The object is to prevent a recurrence of the jungles of 2007-08 (21 debates) and 2011-12 (20 debates). In 1980, there were six, which Priebus thinks is about optimal.
Marginal candidates with minimal financial resources, for whom debates are the oxygen of free publicity, will resist any restrictions. Suppose they accept invitations to unauthorized debates. Will more plausible candidates be tempted to join them? Not if any candidate who participates in unauthorized debates is, before the convention begins, denied a substantial portion of whatever delegates he or she has won.
Priebus, who must placate fractious party factions, won admiration across the party spectrum when he said that if NBC and CNN proceeded with their proposed election-year miniseries and documentary, respectively, about Hillary Clinton, neither organization would be allowed to sponsor an authorized debate. By this he earned some deference for his changes.
Madison crafted our constitutional architecture of incentives — principally, the separation of powers — to encourage self-interested people to be moderate and compromising. Priebus’ Madisonian revisions of the incentive structure of the nominating process could protect the party, and presidential candidates, from its current penchant for self-destructive behavior.
George Will’s email address is email@example.com.