To national GOP Chairman Reince Priebus, it must seem like he has the reverse Midas touch. Everything he touches turns to straw.
It’s often the case that party leaders want to rerun the last election instead of focusing on the one they’ve got. But the Republican Party under Priebus has taken this mistaken belief to whole new heights.
And in every case, the beneficiary is Donald Trump, the last person that establishment Republicans say they want to put forward as their 2016 nominee.
Shortly after the 2012 presidential elections, the party misread the mood of Republicans by issuing an autopsy report calling for “comprehensive immigration reform,” alienating conservatives who form the core of a winning Republican coalition. Those who followed that advice, like Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, with his failed “Gang of Eight” bill, continue to be dogged by it. Those who ignored Priebus, like Trump, are soaring.
Then, in order to head off a lengthy battle, the party passed new rules encouraging states to hold more contests where the winner gets all the delegates, instead of a proportion based on vote share, and to hold them earlier. This change allows the front-runner to sew up the nomination early. The irony is that Trump is the early leader with the most to gain.
Finally, by limiting the number of Republican debates to nine, Priebus was trying to avoid the beating that long-shot candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum put on Mitt Romney in their futile drive for the nomination four years ago. By the time the 19th and final debate rolled around, Romney was more worn out than a gopher in packed dirt.
But what no one counted on this time was the biggest Republican field in 100 years, with 17 candidates in the race by the time of the first debate in August. In this crowded environment, Trump possesses what everybody wants — name recognition. It’s an advantage that can only be overcome by heavy exposure for the other candidates. The current situation calls for more debates, not fewer.
To make matters worse, the GOP left decisions on eligibility to the TV sponsors, which nearly resulted in a surging Carly Fiorina missing the main stage at the second debate until a change-of-heart by CNN. For the third and next debate in Colorado on Oct. 28, hosted by CNBC, new problems loom. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has put all his marbles into winning Iowa. This week, a new NBC/Wall Street Journal/Marist poll shows him moving up and tied at 6 percent with Rubio and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas in the first caucus state.
Yet, under CNBC’s debate rules, a candidate’s showing in the national polls is what matters, not the early states. Thus, the little-known Jindal won’t be on the main stage, while Rubio, Cruz, and several other candidates polling below them in Iowa will make the cut.
Some say Jindal doesn’t have a realistic chance of being the nominee. But winning Iowa can catapult a candidate into the spotlight and put him on the road to more victories. Jindal needs his opportunity on the main stage in order for the strategy to work. A lesser-watched debate among the also-rans doesn’t cut it.
Last year, when the new rules governing debates were passed, Priebus said, “the mainstream media is no longer in charge.” But that can’t be true if what’s happening at the grass roots takes a back seat to the media’s arbitrary decrees.
Taking into account what’s actually happening on the ground might be the first step in getting Republicans to focus on the election we’ve got.
Eric Fehrnstrom is a Republican political analyst, media strategist, and former senior adviser to former governor Mitt Romney.