The GOP's Voting Rules May Empower the Party's Ideologues

Photo Illustration by Newsweek

Every time I look at the economy I think President Obama can’t win. And every time I look at the Republican field I think he can’t lose.

Let’s face it: this is a weak field. A seemingly endless string of polls and debates have produced a series of frontrunners who, as LBJ said of the Republicans of his day, couldn’t pour pee out of a boot if the instructions were on the heel.

Beltway Republican strategists were content to benefit from the prairie fire of right-wing populism, so long as it scorched the Democrats. But now that it threatens to consume their beloved establishment, they may be powerless to stop it. They keep waiting for the kooks to calm down, sober up, and nominate Mitt Romney—whose idea of a Tea Party involves dainty watercress sandwiches on Beacon Hill, not radical revolutionaries in Boston Harbor.

But what if the GOP primary system, which has been changed for this election cycle, continues to propel a right-wing insurgency? Process matters. Rules matter. And campaigns adapt to them. The Electoral College is essentially a winner-take-all system: if you carry California by one vote, you get all 55 Golden State electors. There is thus very little incentive for Barack Obama to run up the score in the biggest blue state—nor for the GOP to campaign hard in Texas. One may not like the Electoral College (I don’t), but I don’t like the fact that a basketball rim is 10 feet off the ground either.

Being generally less sentimental than Democrats, Republicans have traditionally had a primary system that mirrors the Electoral College: winner take all. That’s a very Republican notion: binary, simple, absolute, and pitiless. Democrats, on the other hand, are the party of Mr. Rogers. Their primaries are like the awards ceremony for 5-year-old T-Ballers: Johnny gets a trophy and Billy gets a trophy and Gracie gets a trophy! Everybody’s a winner!

Proportional representation has its merits. It tends to empower devoted supporters: the kind of people who walk precincts and staff phone banks. In the Democratic Party it has been a powerful tool for promoting the inclusion of women and minorities. In the 2008 Democratic primaries, proportional representation required Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to compete in, as Obama famously put it, “57 states.” There was much fretting about a Democratic death march, but instead the process energized the party: Democratic registration surged across the country as voters lined up for the Barack and Hillary Show. The long process also made Obama a stronger nominee, a better debater, and better prepared for the presidency.

I doubt it’s going to be as beneficial for Republicans. Proportional representation for the GOP will likely reward the most committed ideologues and thus the most committed right-wing candidates. Back in mid-August, at the time of the Iowa Straw Poll, it looked like that might be Michele Bachmann. Then it was Rick Perry. And then Herman Cain. And now it’s Newt Gingrich. Three fourths of Republicans are clearly looking for someone other than Romney. And the new GOP rules can give any of the more extreme candidates enough early momentum and delegates to dispel Romney’s aura of inevitability.

The Republicans haven’t gone all the way, however. They have adopted a hybrid structure—early states must allocate their delegates proportionately, but primaries after April 1 will still be winner-take-all. That might lead the party to coalesce around a frontrunner at a late hour. Or it may end up being a scheme that sows maximum confusion.

In the words of veteran GOP strategist and former Romney aide Alex Castellanos, “Proportional representation gives minor-league conservative candidates a reason to stay in the hunt. If they can win a slice here and there, why not stay in the race, pick up a few delegates, and possibly have some sway at the convention, on policy or on the ticket?” The system, Castellanos notes, “keeps Republicans divided longer. That’s what Obama lights candles for at night.” And they say the Democrats aren’t prayerful people.