While the decision by Montana's GOP to move our party's delegate selection up to February by holding limited party caucuses has received a lot of attention in Montana, less has been said about the particularly bold move by Wyoming's GOP to move a part of its delegate selecting process to January 5.
That's right -- even before Iowa and New Hampshire. And this is not a "straw poll" or a "beauty contest," but real delegate selection.
The Wyoming delegate selection process is more traditional than it is in Montana. Some of the delegates are selected at county conventions, and the rest at the statewide convention. This is true both for both parties.
The current Wyoming plan is to leapfrog its county conventions to January 5th where 12 delegates will be selected, and then select the rest of the delegates at the May 30th state convention in Rock Springs.
Both national parties are struggling to get a handle on the aggressive posturing by states -- all of whom want to be first or nearly first, thus having a disproportionate impact on the selection process.
The GOP has been the more lenient, saying that states will be penalized half of their delegates for breaking the barriers set by the national party. The Democratic party has drawn a harder line, saying that all of a state's delegates will be disqualified for breaking party rules.
Jay Cost over at the HorseRaceBlog at RealClearPolitics has been detailing the implications of the more dramatic showdown between Florida and the DNC. He makes a compelling case that it is important for the national parties to maintain control of their own delegate selection processes. He maintains that strong political parties make the selection of a president more democratic, not less.
He seems to believe that a process guided by national parties produces better nominees for the entire country than will a free-for-all of individual states that are just out for their own interests. And again, his case is a compelling one, and the entire series of posts is worth reading.
Cost is clearly cheering on Howard Dean, hoping that he will have the strength to hold the line. He feels (correctly, in our view) that Dean is one of the few major politicos in the national party organizations who understands the long view and the importance of having strong, responsible national parties.
Looking at the success of Dean's determination to pursue a 50 state strategy for the Democratic party -- against all odds and punditry -- it is hard not to be persuaded that while Dean would have made a terrible president, he is one of the best national party chairmen in recent memory, for either party.
On the other hand, the GOP gets low marks for its tepid response of withholding only half of a state's delegates, which Cost feels is not enough of a deterrent to keep states in line. The GOP avoids the accusations of "disenfranchisement" that Floridians are lobbing at the Democratic party (Cost makes short work of that silly argument,) but it stands to lose even more control of its own nominating process.
For what states want is not their fair share of the delegates. What they want is more than their fair share of influence, and as Iowa and NH have proven for decades, the number of delegates does not equal influence.
But back to Wyoming. It appears that more is at play in Wyoming's move to January 5th than meets the eye, and appropriately enough (given the recent hoopla surrounding his resignation,) the memory of Karl Rove is at the center of it. (Read the whole article by Marie Horrigan over at CQPolitics)
Tom Sansonetti, a former Wyoming Republican Party chairman, led the last comprehensive effort in either major national party to bring order to the nominating process. The Republican National Committee (RNC) task force that he led produced what was called the Delaware Plan, which would have divvied states up into four groups that would hold nominating contests spread out from March through June.
But the plan “got shot down at the convention in Philadelphia because Karl Rove didn’t want a floor fight to be on national television on the first Monday of the Philadelphia convention,” Sansonetti said.
“It had nothing to do with the merits of the Delaware Plan,” he continued. “It was just that the convention was scripted, and there was no room for a three-hour floor fight on whether or not the Delaware Plan should be adopted or whether the party was going to stay with its present system.”
National party conventions scripted? Say it isn't so!
Anyway, Sansonetti has led what amounts to a guerrilla campaign to force the GOP to consider major reforms in its nominating process. By skipping Wyoming to the front of the line (a pretty easy and inexpensive process in Wyoming, with its convention format -- a process that can be pushed forward indefinitely with ease,) he and others from Wyoming are not just trying to get more influence for Wyoming:
Wyoming’s move is aimed at sending a message to national party officials that the process is out of control and needs to be fixed. The RNC’s setting of Feb. 5 as the first date for most states to hold their nominating contests spurred nearly 20 states to pile their primaries and caucuses onto that early Tuesday.
Sansonetti was one of the architects of the so-called "Delaware plan," which really is the best alternative plan that has yet been proposed. Some have advocated regional primaries, but the problem with that is that the large states in each region would dominate -- and large states means campaigns pretty much exclusively waged with big media buys in major markets. In other words, a straight-forward money game.
The “Delaware Plan” would have divided the 50 states into four groups by size and given each group a monthlong period during which they could hold their caucuses or primaries.
The smallest 13 states would be given March, the next 13 states would be given April, the medium states would be given May and the largest states would be given June.
The fourth group of largest states would constitute 52 percent of the nominating votes, ensuring that presidential candidates had to campaign in all the states and the nomination would remain in play through June.
If Wyoming's move to the front of the line (January 5th was chosen because it is even in front of the earliest date being considered by New Hampshire as a back-up plan if the other states start to move their primaries) drives the GOP to consider the Delaware plan or a similar sensible reform, we will be grateful for their temerity.
Much of this comes down to how one views political parties -- or at least political parties as they should be, and can be. Edmund Burke was one of the first to make the argument for the importance of what he called "responsible party," and the critical role that it plays in good government and stable politics.
Montana's GOP has taken a lot of flack for its recent changes to the presidential delegate selection process. It remains to be seen whether the changes will produce the desired effect of simultaneously strengthening the grass-roots party organization and returning some semblence of relevance to Montana's delegate selection process.
Much of this will depend on how seriously those allowed to caucus take their responsibilities. They will need to talk to people in their precincts, have listening sessions, and have their votes reflect the sense of the party.
If it ends up that the caucus move is part of a setup by one candidate's supporters to give him a little extra early boost, it will be a very bad thing, especially if simultaneous polling shows that there is no correlation between caucus results and the preferences of likely primary voters.
And the Montana GOP should persuade independent polling organizations to conduct simultaneous polls of Montana Republicans, as part of the learning process of how to do caucuses -- with an eye toward expanding them to all registered Republicans in the next cycle.
Chancy? Yes. But what better time than now for Montana's party leaders to sweat a little about how much they are in touch with their party members? We want strong parties -- but strong organization and leadership is only a part of that. Being connected with the grassroots is an even bigger part. With all due respect to those who view the Montana caucuses as a disenfranchisement, such caucuses actually have the potential to force party leadership to connect with party members far more than would a June primary.