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In a move that could significantly alter the rhythm and pace of the 2016 election, Republican leaders have made key changes to the way its presidential nominees are selected.
First, the GOP is poised to hold its national convention in June or July – earlier than they did in 2008 (September) and 2012 (August) – creating a faster start for the general election. Second, the 2016 primary calendar would be shortened, ending the nominating contests in May, rather than stretching the process through the early summer.
These changes, approved at the Republican National Committee winter meeting on Friday, are seen as a response to the long primary season which appeared to hurt Mitt Romney in 2012, especially when it came to spending money earmarked for the general election campaign.
The intention is to speed-up the overall contest, with the possibly quicker selection of a presidential nominee and a running mate.
The plan offers upsides and downsides for the party looking to win back the White House in 2016.
Perhaps the biggest advantage for Republicans will be the earlier access to general election funds. In 2012, Romney – despite raising a tremendous amount of campaign money – was unable, by law, to tap into his general election cash until after the late August convention. That enabled incumbent President Barack Obama’s campaign, which didn’t face a primary challenge, to outspend and out-advertise Romney in the summer months.
It does seem like we’re fighting the last war
A convention in late June or July would give the eventual nominee faster access to that money.
“Earlier general funds trump post-Labor Day bounce,” said GOP strategist Brian Jones, who worked on the 2012 Romney campaign. “The impact … of that early money will allow you to do so much more with your ad budget, the ground game for the campaign and digital.”
Indeed, late conventions appear to be more of a relic of past presidential contests, when the nominees used federal matching funds for the general election. (If you were to receive $80 million to spend after your convention, you’d prefer to spend that money over the course of two months rather than three.) But after the hundreds of millions Obama and Romney raised and spent in 2008 and 2012, the days of matching funds are long gone.
Another advantage of the changes is that Republicans will ensure their nominee is selected, at the latest, by May. That means an earlier transition from the primary to the general election campaign.
A third advantage will be the earlier selection of the vice presidential running mate – to coincide with the earlier convention. Having the veep announced in, say, May or June, would enable the nominee-in-waiting to have an early high-profile surrogate on the campaign trail and fundraising circuit.
But these changes also come with potential disadvantages. For one thing, it appears that Republicans are fighting the last campaign (when they faced an incumbent president without a primary challenger) instead of the situation in 2016 (when it’s an open contest for both parties).
“It does seem like we’re fighting the last war,” admitted one GOP observer.
Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., echoed that point to National Journal. "I think that there is a tendency to always look at the last loss and make changes based on that,” he said. "Sometimes that brings a good result, sometimes it doesn't."
Another possible downside is that a shorter primary calendar – beginning in February and ending in May – could produce less exposure for the presidential candidates.
And then there are the unintended consequences. Will an earlier VP pick produce additional scrutiny for the running mate? (Would Sarah Palin have been John McCain’s pick if he selected his veep in May or June instead of August?) Are political pros ready for a potentially longer general election than in 2008 and 2012?
And how do Democrats respond?
Then there are the consequences for Democrats, who say they’re just beginning their convention process for 2016.
The smart money would be that they hold their convention in August – that was the situation in both 2000 (when Republicans held their convention in July and Democrats went in August) and 2004 (when Democrats went in July and Republicans in September).
As one RNC official told NBC News, “We have made it a lot easier for them to go last.”