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GOP Crafts New Rules To Shorten 2016 Primary Season

A year after losing the popular vote for the fifth time in the past six presidential elections, the Republican Party has crafted a series of rules tweaks designed to regain control of — and dramatically shorten — its presidential nominating process.

The subcommittee charged with looking for fixes has approved five proposed changes for review by the Republican National Committee's rules committee at its January meeting. The full RNC would then need to pass the changes by a three-quarters supermajority.

"I think this strikes a good balance," said John Ryder, the RNC's general counsel.

February 2016 would be set aside for the traditional early states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. The other states could start as soon as March 1, but could not hold winner-take-all contests before March 15. Larger states that violate either of those rules would lose all but nine of their delegates to the summer nominating convention, not counting their three RNC members who are automatic delegates. Smaller states would lose two-thirds of their delegates, not including the three RNC members.

At the back end of the calendar, state parties would have to submit their slates of convention delegates 45 days prior to the convention, rather than 35 days. With RNC leaders hoping to schedule the convention in late June, rather than late August, this would mean the last primaries and caucuses would have to be set for mid-May — thereby cutting what was a six-month-long process in 2012 down to 3 1/2 months.

The balancing act, Ryder said, was to compress the calendar without giving an insurmountable advantage to a candidate who has "$200 million on day one."

The weeks and months leading up to Iowa and New Hampshire, in particular, would still be the time for low-budget candidates to make their case directly to the voters. Success in those contests could be parlayed into stronger fundraising heading into the first half of March, when the proportional-only mandate would mean that second- and third-place finishers could continue to win significant numbers of delegates.

"It gives a six-week period for a retail candidacy to take hold, if it's going to take hold," Ryder said.

If this thinking sounds familiar, it should. The RNC tried to accomplish similar goals heading into 2012. The four early states were given the month of February. Other states could start holding contests on March 1 if they allocated delegates proportionally, and on April 1 if they awarded all the delegates to the top vote-getter. A state that violated either rule faced a 50-percent loss of delegates.

That plan, though, was thwarted by Florida — which also violated the rules in 2008 — prompting the official early states to move even earlier. (Iowa held its caucuses on Jan. 3 in both 2008 and 2012.)

In 2012, the new rules were silent on how to deal with states like Florida that violated both calendar and proportionality rules. Only the single, 50 percent penalty ended up being levied, and 100 percent of the remaining delegates went to Mitt Romney, letting him get back on track after losing South Carolina to Newt Gingrich.

The new, harsher penalty appears to have solved the Florida-going-early problem. But whether it maintains a lane for a little-known, low-budget candidate remains to be seen.

After the "all-but-nine" delegate penalty was first imposed at the Tampa convention last year, the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature passed a law setting the presidential primary on the first Tuesday permitted by party rules that didn't involve a penalty.

In 2016, that Tuesday would be March 1 — the same date that Texas is planning to hold its presidential primary. Which means the first allowable day for contests in the non-"carve-out" states will feature primaries in two of the four largest states. Both have lots of big media markets and are extremely expensive to run in; the two states will, between them, award nearly a quarter of the delegates needed to win the nomination.

In other words, it would be just the sort of day best suited for a candidate with, say, $200 million.

S.V. Dáte edits politics and campaign finance coverage for NPR's Washington Desk.

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