Our view

Shortening the GOP primary season

February 3, 2014 

  • In summary

    South Carolina is right to hold onto its status as site of the first primary in the South, but shortening the primary season might be a mistake.

The Republican Party wisely will maintain South Carolina’s status as the site of the first GOP presidential primary in the South. But the move by national party leaders to shorten the 2016 selection process to prevent intraparty sniping might be a mistake.

Once again, South Carolina will join Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada in holding early primaries. South Carolina’s will be the first contest for prospective GOP candidates in the South.

For South Carolina to have maintained its status as the state that chooses the Republican nominee, Newt Gingrich would have had to have occupied the top of the ticket in 2012. That didn’t happen, and the string was broken.

But the state still is likely to have an outsized influence in helping to determine the next GOP nominee – and possibly the Democratic nominee as well. And that is good news for the state.

For the weeks leading up to a presidential primary, South Carolina will be in the national spotlight. Candidates and their entourages, the national press and hundreds of volunteers will descend on the state,

Hotels and restaurants will fill up. Campaigns will buy ads on TV and in newspapers. Visitors will go shopping.

The economic boomlet will only be temporary, of course. Once the primary is over, just about everyone will disappear, and most won’t return for at least four years. But for awhile it will be a little like political Mardi Gras, and during that time, the nation will get a close-up view of the Palmetto State.

Although South Carolina still will be in the spotlight as the first primary in the South, other states will have to jostle for attention. Under a schedule approved last week by the Republican National Committee, 46 states and territories would vote between early March and mid-May.

The party’s national convention is expected in late June or early July, roughly two months sooner than the norm and much sooner than the Democratic convention. Republican national committeeman Steve Duprey of New Hampshire described the changes as an “effective death penalty for any state that tries to jump the calendar.”

GOP officials are candid about their motives. They want to avoid another protracted, contentious primary season like the one in 2012.

Party Chairman Reince Preibus said the changes would not permit candidates to “slice and dice” each other for six months or schedule “a circus of debates.” In 2012, GOP candidates participated in 27 debates.

But party officials seem to have forgotten that the strung-out primary process and the seemingly endless debates provided a winnowing process for a large field of candidates. That field included: Gingrich; Mitt Romney; Tim Pawlenty; Ron Paul; Herman Cain; Michelle Bachmann; Rick Santorum; Rick Perry; and John Huntsman.

And many of those candidates achieved “flavor of the week” status at some point in the campaign. It is at least uncertain that Romney, who finished second or worse in some of the early primaries, would have been the nominee if the primary season had been significantly shortened.

It’s a gamble for the GOP to do so in 2016. Yes, candidates won’t have as long to chop each other up, and an early nominee can start raising money right away for the general election.

But primaries also help vet the candidates and bring any serious flaws to the surface. They harden candidates and give them a chance to test their messages for the gruelling election ahead when they aren’t just talking to members of their own party.

Republicans could end up with a candidate less battle scarred and better able to raise general election cash months earlier. But they also could end up with a serious case of buyer’s remorse.

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