Executive Summary: A Republican Nomination Process

The Republican Party’s presidential-nomination process was never designed with conservative goals in mind. To the contrary, in a peculiar historical turn some four decades ago, the Republican Party adopted a presidential-nomination process that was designed for the Democratic Party by its most liberal activists.

Instead of preserving a primary process designed for its political rival, the Republican Party should draw on its own principles to create a better method of choosing presidential nominees. By crafting a new nomination process modeled after the process that ratified the Constitution, Republicans could provide themselves with a more dignified, more representative, and more effective means of selecting a candidate.

Today’s process takes too long and costs too much, deters good leaders from running, and diminishes those who do run. Moreover, the scope of citizen participation is exceedingly narrow. In 2012, the Republican nomination battle effectively ended with the Wisconsin primary, even though Mitt Romney won less than half the vote there. States whose contests were held afterward—including Texas, California, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania—did not have competitive primaries and thus had no real say in the selection of the nominee.

Even worse, inordinate amounts of power are currently held by a handful of groups that do not represent the broader party or its interests: elite donors; the media; a handful of state governments that have positioned themselves at the beginning of the primary process; professional campaign consultants; and “low-information voters.”

Any successful reform effort must therefore shift the balance of power to the party’s grassroots. The ultimate goal should be to democratize, in a meaningful sense, the nomination process, so that Republicans all across the country feel as though they have a real voice in the process and that their nominee represents them.

The framers of the Constitution realized the importance of citizen participation in the establishment of our government. Today’s Republicans should learn from the framers’ republican example. If locally selected delegates decided something as weighty as whether to adopt the Constitution, wouldn’t a similar process be fitting for determining the Republican Party’s presidential candidate? It is in this spirit that we propose the following procedure for selecting the GOP presidential nominee.

During the week of Lincoln’s birthday (February 12), the Republican Party would hold a Republican Nomination Convention that would borrow from the process by which the Constitution was ratified. Delegates to the convention—about 3,000 in total, 2,000 to 2,500 of whom would be selected by rank-and-file Republican voters in their local communities in elections put on by local chapters of the Republican Party—would meet, deliberate, and ultimately nominate five people who (if willing) would each be named as one of the party’s officially sanctioned finalists for its presidential nomination. Those five would subsequently debate one another a half-dozen times (preferably with the questions being asked by conservative journalists or conservative audience members). Their fate would ultimately be decided by Republican voters through the primary process.

Thus, GOP voters across the country would finally have a say not only in who would ultimately become the nominee, but also in selecting the candidates among whom they would get to choose.

The benefits of this proposed alternative would be enormous. The shortened campaign would reduce the importance of the moneyed interests and the political consultants. It would also reduce the influence of the press corps—because, with every Republican from coast to coast being invited to cast a ballot within a five-week span, there would be mercifully little opportunity for assignments of “momentum” to hold sway. It would noticeably broaden the field of potential candidates to include those whose positions (governors, cabinet officials, etc.) aren’t conducive to spending two years raising money. And it would encourage Republicans to organize on a grassroots level—as state and local party organizations would, for the first time in nearly half a century, possess real political power.

Republicans today are deeply concerned about the advantages that Democrats possess in “get out the vote” operations. What better way to counter this Democratic edge than to bring millions of people directly into the party organization itself? Additionally, the money that this proposal would save—namely, most of the tens of millions of dollars that are spent every four years on the nomination contest—could be redirected to the general election, where Democrats now regularly outraise Republicans.

Republicans need to understand just how perilous their political situation is. It is not simply that the GOP has been having trouble winning national elections or has repeatedly failed to achieve its policy aims. The problem is that a multitude of sympathetic voters who are the foundation of any party in a representative democracy correctly perceive that they don’t have a meaningful role in the Republican organization. This is a recipe for a massive political unraveling.

To prevent that unraveling, Republicans cannot be content with tinkering around the edges. The GOP’s problems will not be solved merely by adjusting the calendar, having more or fewer debates, moving some states forward and others backward in the voting order, or toggling between winner-take-all and proportional allocations of delegates.

It is well past time for the Grand Old Party to institute a nomination process of its own design, one inspired by the framers rather than copied from the left. A process like the one outlined here would be more cost-effective, more deliberative, more consensus based, more republican, and more conducive to victory. Most important, it would place the power to determine the GOP’s presidential nomination back where it belongs: in the hands of rank-and-file Republicans.