What Romney's Run Can Still Teach Republicans

The GOP should change the way it nominates candidates if it wants to find success in 2016.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses supporters during his election night rally, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Boston. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney addresses supporters during his election night rally, Wednesday, Nov. 7, 2012, in Boston. 

By + More

Have you seen the new documentary “Mitt” on Netflix? Say what you want about Mitt Romney, but here was a good and thoroughly decent man who, after losing a tough election, was left with his family and his integrity intact. Not every politician can say that. And the film has many funny moments – Romney ironing his own sleeve while wearing his white-tie-and-tails before a great performance at the annual Al Smith charity dinner in New York City in 2012 was one – but many poignant moments too. We saw Ann Romney and their sons tear up many times, watched more than once as the entire family got on their knees to pray, listened as they decided to pull out of the 2008 race. Watching the replay of election night 2012, and the way that Romney reacted so graciously, proved true Ann Romney’s later sentiment that “we lost, but truly the country lost by not having Mitt as president.”

At one point, Romney admits he may have been a flawed candidate, but a lot of what happened to him was also caused by a flawed system. As Ron Kaufman, a GOP national committeeman from Massachusetts, told me, “Everyone agrees that the process hurt our nominee last time.”

A bit of history: In 1976, the presidential nominating process changed in two ways as a result of post-Watergate amendments to federal campaign finance laws. Public financing of federal elections began, and contribution limits for presidential candidates – $1,000 during the primaries and $1,000 for the general election – were set into law. In 2008, Barack Obama was the first candidate in history to opt out of public financing, and his massive fundraising edge in that race guaranteed that there would probably never be another publicly financed Republican nominee. No one wants his or her hands to be tied. 

[Check out U.S. News Weekly, an insider's guide to politics and policy.]

Meanwhile, inflation and the rise of super PACs have distorted spending, and campaign costs have skyrocketed. Salaries, technology and travel all cost more than they used to, but the biggest jump has been in television ad rates over the last four decades. During the Ford administration, the average 30-second network television ad generally cost under $33,000; today it averages about $110,000. Yet the rules remain the same.

Under the current system, a candidate (whether publicly or privately financed) cannot spend general election money during the primary season. So the later the nominating convention, the longer the candidate goes without general election funds. In 2012, Mitt Romney won enough delegates for the nomination on April 25, yet could not spend general election money until after the GOP nominating convention ended in late August. Meanwhile, by not competing in a single primary, Obama was rich with unspent primary funds. During those same four summer months, he launched a devastating ad blitz that negatively defined Romney for voters. 

The GOP voted last month to shorten the nominating process to about three and a half months. Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada will all hold their primaries and caucuses no later than March 1. In 2016, if any other state schedules its primary prior to this date (as Florida did this cycle, pushing those other four states into January), then the hammer will drop. Depending on its size, the state will be allowed no more than nine delegates (plus RNC committee members) at the nominating convention. The tough new penalties have had a quick effect. The Florida state legislature has already moved its 2016 primary back.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

In addition, any primaries taking place in the first two weeks of March will award delegates proportionately. This allows lesser-funded and lesser-known candidates to get their foot in the door. Then, after March 14, states will have the option of awarding delegates winner-take-all. The result: Front-runners build momentum, and the field narrows. Republicans will have a nominee earlier in the process. One more change: Now all delegates must be selected by 45 days prior to the convention, rather than the previous 35 days. The new system gives any candidate the chance to do well in the early states and to pick up some momentum without a long, drawn-out process exhausting them both physically and financially.

But the RNC shouldn’t stop there. First, it should move the convention earlier in the summer. Back in the day, a shorter general election cycle would compensate for inadequate public funding for the general election, so the parties moved the conventions later and later. The conventional wisdom was that holding the convention as late as possible gave the biggest polling “bump” right before the election. But now that public financing is kaput and cash-strapped candidates can’t compete through the long summer, it makes more sense to move the convention up. “If the Republican convention in 2012 had been held on July 1 instead of [in late August], Mitt’s chances of winning would have been exponentially higher,” Kaufman says. 

Second, it’s time to cut down the number of Republican primary debates. In the 2011-12 cycle, there were more than two dozen of them, which did nothing but make the entire Republican field look bad. (Remember the 2011 Republican primary debate held on Twitter? Let’s not go there.) Seven to 10 debates would be fine, and while we’re at it, let’s have the locations and moderators chosen by the party. It’s time to stop the madness of dozens of debates – for the sake of the campaigns, for those of us who cover them, and for the voters we’d like to keep tuned in. Most of all, let’s make the system friendlier to the good and thoroughly decent people whom we need to run for office.