You might get what you're after.
-- Talking Heads, "Burning Down The House"
You might not know it from the extended bouts of hair-pulling-and-garment-rending anguish emanating from the Republican Party establishment these days (see: any recent GOP commentary by a party elder or deep thinker which uses the phrase "brokered convention"), but the Republican Party is getting exactly what they asked for. Not just asked for, in fact, but specifically planned on.
Ever since the 2008 presidential primary season, the Republican Party as a whole came down with a serious case of Democrat envy. The GOP took a look at their own primary process, and then they took a look at what had gone on between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and they decided they liked the Democratic plan better. Obama hadn't been destroyed by the months-long primary fight (as many at the time predicted), he was in fact toughened up by the experience and a better candidate when the general election started -- as a direct result of the long primary calendar. This is the root cause of the Republicans' envy.
Of course, even individual Republican presidential candidates are also showing their envy of Obama's primary run. Ron Paul, in particular, is working from Obama's playbook in concentrating on caucus states the other candidates have ignored. Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich both hold dreams of knocking off their party's frontrunner and achieving what Obama did against Clinton. The only one with no Democrat envy at all is Mitt Romney, because he would have been just fine with the tried-and-true Republican way of doing things -- wrapping things up early, with a "coronation" for the nominee, usually the "next guy in line" from the last time around. Romney's the only one who can truly claim disappointment (and not envy), looking back at 2008.
The Republican Party establishment decided upon radical changes to their primary calendar this time around. The blueprint was to draw the race out, and extend it until roughly mid-April, rather than wrapping things up so early. In 2008, Super Tuesday was held on the fifth of February, when John McCain essentially wrapped up the nomination and Mitt Romney dropped out (Mike Huckabee would keep campaigning, for some unfathomable reason, but no one paid much attention). To put it another way, four years ago, the Republican race was really over at this point in time, and had been for two weeks.
This was not to be in 2012, the Republican Party decreed. Their plan was to extend the early primary season considerably, but then encourage the states to wrap things up by mid-April (nobody was envious of watching the Clinton/Obama contest go all the way to June). They did this with two deadlines. After the initial four states voted (starting in January), no state was supposed to hold their contest before Super Tuesday, the first Tuesday in March. This would allow all of February for real competition, and would allow the candidates to toughen each other up while the public was actually focused on the campaigning. Super Tuesday would likely narrow the race down to two (or, at the most, possibly three) viable candidates.
The second deadline the Republican Party laid down was that all states which voted before April Fool's Day (insert your own joke, here) were not allowed to award their delegates in the traditional "winner-takes-all" Republican method, but instead use the Democrats' "proportional" delegate system. This would allow second-place (and even third-place) winners to also build up delegates, and would avoid having the race be called too early -- before the candidates had the chance to season each other up a bit on the campaign trail.
Of course, the Republican Party also has the same "herding cats problem" when it comes to the 50 states following the plan as the Democratic Party always does -- some states want to go earlier than allowed. This is why states like Michigan and Arizona are in the mix before Super Tuesday. Theoretically, any state with an actual binding vote which votes too early is supposed to lose half their delegates to the convention as a penalty. If this race stays even slightly close, look for this to become an absolutely enormous issue within the Republican Party for the next few months. The Republicans' Democrat envy may lead them to the ugliest phase of the 2008 Democratic primary race -- the question of what was to be done about Michigan and Florida. Imagine what the intraparty fight in the Republican Party will be like if awarding the early states their full delegate slate would actually change the outcome of the race. The Democrats had a huge fight over it even though it wound up not being a deciding factor for Obama in the end -- so the fight would be even more intense if it meant the difference of whether Romney held the magic number of delegates for the nomination, or whether it was denied to him (to pick just one scenario).
Convention speculation aside, though, if the Republican Party had followed their initial template perfectly, the race would be pretty close to exactly where it stands today -- a muddied candidate field, in more ways than one. Nobody's wrapped anything up yet, there are still four candidates in the race, and they are all out there swinging at each other just about as hard as they can. All by design. In fact, the plan was for Super Tuesday not even to be the deciding factor. It wouldn't be until April that one candidate could easily amass so many convention delegates as to absolutely put the nomination out of everyone else's reach.
The Republican Party didn't just plan for where we are today, they planned on more than another month of muddying the field.
Watch out. You might get what you're after.
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant