March 8, 2013

Shortly after the election, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus announced an effort to investigate problems in the Republican nomination process, to avoid a repeat of last year’s debacle, which resulted in a general election nominee who had adopted a range of extreme positions in order to win the nomination.

This morning, in an interview, Priebus elaborated on the difficulties the party faced in 2012, blaming the GOP’s non-competitiveness in states like Delaware and Washington on the narrow geography of the Republican presidential primaries:

“The issue is that in the past, it wasn’t just Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina. It used to be that we fought over states like Washington and California. We actually fought in the Northeast. And we were winning in places like Delaware and New Jersey. Now we’re not winning any of those places.

“So my point is we’re not going to improve as a party if we’re holding a national election in eight states,” he said in an interview with The Des Moines Register.

Here’s the problem with this diagnosis: The 2012 Republican primaries had a fair amount of geographical diversity. Of course, they began in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. But next was Florida — a critical swing state for Republicans — followed by Nevada and Colorado — both of which are important swing states. Of the next five primaries, two were in traditionally Republican states — Arizona and Missouri — and three were in Democratic strongholds: Minnesota, Maine and Michigan. By Super Tuesday, Republicans had voted in eleven primaries, the majority of which were in swing states or places where the GOP was trying to become more competitive.

The problem with the Republican primary process isn’t that there isn’t enough geographical diversity — there’s plenty. The problem is that by their nature, primaries empower the most partisan and most ideological members of a political coalition. And in the case of the current Republican Party, this means voters who are far out of the mainstream on a wide variety of issues, from abortion and same-sex marriage, to immigration and climate change. Even moderate candidates have to appeal to their interests and concerns, which makes it harder to shift to the center in the general election.

Mitt Romney makes for a perfect example of this dynamic. To appeal to Republican primary voters, he moved right on every issue under the sun, endorsing self-deportation, promising to repeal Obamacare, and embracing a balanced budget amendment. This helped win him the nomination, but constrained him during the general election — Latino voters, for example, didn’t take well to a candidate who opposed immigration reform and wanted to end the president’s health care program.

The only way to improve the process for GOP presidential primaries is to minimize the influence of far-right, anti-government Republicans. As it stands, that’s a long-shot, if it’s even possible at all.

Jamelle Bouie is a staff writer at The American Prospect, where he writes a blog.

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