Will the RNC Push for 'Closed' Presidential Primaries?

Dr. Marni Ezra, who teaches political science at Maryland’s Hood College, has proven and written that “closed primaries” — ones in which only a party’s registered Republicans or Democrats are allowed to vote in their respective primaries — produce winners more true to the ideology of their respective bases. Closed Republican primaries tend to produce more conservative nominees and Republican “open primaries” — ones in which independents and/or Democrats can vote — produce more moderate nominees.

It makes sense: A more moderate group of voters is going to give you more moderate, less conservative, nominees. Indeed, more moderate candidates will be drawn to such races in the first place.

Recent proof: In the 2008 presidential primaries, exit polls prove John McCain failed to win a single race among registered Republican voters in open primaries up to Super Tuesday, yet during that same period he went from also-ran to front runner because most non-Republicans who crossed over voted for him. In New Hampshire, Romney won among registered Republicans, but McCain won overall. Likewise, in South Carolina, Huckabee won among registered Republicans, but McCain won the state.

Further proof of the potentially decisive power of primary interlopers is to be found in Rush Limbaugh’s “Operation Chaos,” which persuaded registered Republicans to cross over in various states’ open primaries to vote for Clinton. They did so, helping contribute to Clinton’s impressive wins in many of the late open primaries once Operation Chaos got into full swing.

Does the GOP, going forward, want Democrats to continue to help pick their presidential nominees? Do Rotarians tolerate Kiwanians showing up and voting at their officers’ elections?

In the aftermath of McCain’s and other GOP losses on November 4, Republicans have been asking, “What must we do to win in the future?” The answer to that question from most at the Republican Governors Association Conference in Miami earlier this month was “return to our conservative roots.”

Since closed Republican primaries produce more conservative nominees, I asked two of the leading candidates for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele and Katon Dawson, what they think about open versus closed presidential primaries. Another leading candidate, Saul Anuzis, Chairman of the Michigan GOP, did not yet, at the time this story went to press, respond to an interview request.

First, Katon Dawson, Chairman of the South Carolina GOP: “I have been supportive of the registration of voters by party, even though that is not the law in South Carolina. It would be appropriate for the RNC to entertain a resolution on open versus closed presidential primaries. I would not force my view upon the Committee, but I would favor a debate on that issue, and if the members want to tackle that issue, I would welcome it and facilitate it. That’s what a good Chairman should do.”

Next, Michael Steele, GOPAC Chairman, former Maryland Lt. Gov., and former Maryland GOP Chairman: “Maryland has had a closed primary system. My first year as Chairman, I floated the idea of opening our primary to independents. We gave it a one-time trial. The result was mixed at best, so my view on that is colored by that experience. I have seen some devilishness in open primaries, with Democrats voting. Given some of the shenanigans that we have seen, we should take a very hard and a close look at the very process by which we nominate our candidates for national office. There has been enough anecdotal evidence to warrant a closer look, and if I were Chairman I think the debate over open versus closed primaries would be worth the time we would spend on it. I would like to see the evidence of how open versus closed primaries have affected the strength of the candidates nominated.”

If the RNC were to address the issue of the various states’ open versus closed presidential primaries, could it actually do more than pass a non-binding resolution merely expressive of its desires? The answer may surprise some. The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that political parties can dictate whether their nominees are to be chosen through open or closed primaries. An excellent recounting of the case authority on this issue is found in Miller v. Brown, a 2007 case in which the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Republican Party of Virginia could reject that state’s open primary system.

The power of a political party to do just that resides, the Supreme Court says, in the First Amendment right of association. Specifically, a political party has a right not to associate with members of another party and thus the absolute right not to have them participate in choosing their party’s nominees.

If push came to shove, the RNC could tell the various states with open presidential primaries the following: You can hold your open primaries, but we don’t have to seat the delegates you send us at our quadrennial convention. Both Watson and Steele cringe at that prospect, but the RNC’s 168 members do have that power. They also have the power and the right to pass a resolution making it clear which way — open or closed — they want the states’ presidential primaries to be.

One thing is fairly certain: If the Republican Party decides it wants to maximize the prospect of a conservative presidential nominee in 2012 and beyond, closed primaries are the way to go. Common sense suggests it, and the research proves it.

Richard Nixon said that a Republican wins the White House by running to the right in the primaries and then to the center in the general election. Some suggest that open primaries allow a GOP candidate to avoid the Nixonian shift by running to the center in the primaries, and staying there, without flip-flopping. Free Congress’ Paul Weyrich in July of this year wrote, “Those who disagree with Nixon often point to President Ronald W. Reagan who ran to the right to win the nomination in Detroit in 1980 but did not move to the center for the general election and yet crushed the incumbent Jimmy Carter.”

Reagan is much on Republican leaders’ minds these days, because ideas matter. So do procedures.


–Update to Open v. Closed Primary Story–

I received a return call this morning from Saul Anuzis, Chairman of the Michigan GOP, as the Thanksgiving holiday conspired to thwart my interview of him for this story.  Mr. Anuzis, one of the three leading candidates for RNC Chairman, was helpful in noting the following:

1.  The Republican Party is moving inexorably toward closing rather than opening its presidential primaries, for the very reasons cited in this article:  The Party needs to pick its candidates rather than allowing others to do so. 

2.  As Chairman, he would facilitate and encourage the increasingly closed primary process, which could not be formally adopted as a nationwide mandate until the Republican National Convention in 2012.  However, the RNC could indeed pass a Resolution in the meantime encouraging the states to close their primaries in the interim in the run-up to 2012.