As noted in these pages in 2008, there is a problem with the Montana GOP’s rules that make it possible for Montana Republican voters to cast their ballots one way, only to have a determined minority take control of the convention and award Montana’s delegates to a different candidate. It was our hope at that time that the GOP would see this flaw and fix it in their bylaws, avoiding even the possibility of the public-relations disaster that would ensue from having our non-binding presidential primary be completely ignored by the party.
Alas, unless something has happened that we are unaware of, the Montana GOP has done nothing to fix this. Reviewing state party bylaws, it is clear that the primary is still non-binding and that delegates are still elected by the same system of county conventions sending delegates to the state convention, which selects delegates. By contrast, the Montana Democratic Party’s bylaws are quite clear and specific about the binding nature of the Democratic side of the presidential primary.
The situation in 2012 is still unknown. Some factors are different, to be sure. With Romney leading the pack, one assumes that his organization is engaged and organized here in Montana. Whether he has as many supporters as he did in 2008 is difficult to predict, since unlike then, Romney this year is clearly perceived as the liberal to moderate candidate, whereas in 2008 he was still able to pull off the legerdemain of casting himself as the conservative alternative to McCain. In short, Romney is the McCain of 2012, and Santorum is a combination of what Huckabee and Romney were in 2008.
We can assume that Ron Paul’s supporters are likewise engaged and organized, and it would be difficult to assess the relative strength of the two camps when it comes to on-the-ground organization. One thing is certain, however, and that is that Rick Santorum likely does not have a good field organization in Montana, since his resources -- like Huckabee’s in 2008 -- have to be trained on wherever the next competitive contest on the calendar is being held.
Mike Huckabee had dropped out in 2008 before the June Montana primary, so the field was left to McCain and Ron Paul. But it is entirely possible that Santorum could still be in the race in June, setting up a primary in Montana where there is a choice between a liberal/moderate Romney and conservative Santorum -- a head-to-head that Santorum could very possibly win with the Republican voters of Montana, only to have the delegates be awarded to Romney or Paul on the strength of their organization at the convention level.
Alternatively, if Santorum drops out, we could again see a presumptive nominee for whom enthusiasm is lagging (Romney this time) left alone on the ballot with Ron Paul. Romney would overwhelmingly win that primary vote, but again, depending on how carefully the Paul forces have laid their groundwork, Ron Paul supporters could this year succeed in capturing the convention and electing a Ron Paul slate of delegates to send to the national convention.
We are old-fashioned traditionalists around here, with more than our share of reverence for ways of old (Edmund Burke’s writings on prescription and all that sort of thing.) But it is high time for the Montana GOP to change its bylaws and make the presidential primary binding on delegates on the first ballot at the Republican National Convention -- winner-take-all, proportional... doesn’t matter.
The idea that preserving our current system somehow strengthens the party apparatus in a healthy direction by encouraging more participation in county and state meetings is a misguided one. The reality is that politics has for years, decades even, been candidate driven, not party driven, and when not built around candidates, people’s involvement in politics tends to be built around membership in issue-driven organizations rather than party organizations.
The party system (admittedly mandated by state law) of precinct committee members who will theoretically work in their neighborhoods to get out the vote for the party come election time hasn’t worked as designed for a very, very long time, mainly because people’s social networks and communities are today built around their places of work, worship, and recreation -- not their physical neighborhood.
As the political world has changed, so do political parties need to change. To paraphrase slightly Edmund Burke himself, a party without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. Let’s hope it doesn’t take a public relations disaster to convince the Montana GOP that it is time for some change.