Election 2012: Whose Rules Rule?

On February 28th, the 2012 race for the Republican presidential nomination could experience its biggest twist yet.

On that day, Michigan and Arizona will hold their primaries. Twelve years ago, the two states threw a curve ball to George W. Bush’s bid for the party nod.

Prior to those contests, Bush had just recovered from a major setback in New Hampshire, where Arizona US Senator John McCain drubbed him by 18 points, with big wins in Delaware and the media-mega-hyped state of South Carolina.

Bush had hoped to finish off McCain by embarrassing the party maverick in his home state, where the Texas governor had the backing of Governor Jane Dee Hull and in Michigan, where his campaign was led by popular governor John Engler.

Engler was motivated by more than just “team spirit” in his quest to deliver his state to Bush as he was anxiously hoping to increase his odds of landing the bottom spot of the GOP ticket.

But the best laid plans went awry for Bush that evening.

McCain won Arizona with 60% of the vote and carried Michigan by seven points.

Karl Rove, the architect of George W. Bush’s political life, considered the Michigan setback a “problem” in particular.

However, Bush survived the tandem embarrassments, won the next few contests and forced McCain out of the race by Super Tuesday.

Oh, Engler did not become vice-president.

The question in 2012 is can Mitt Romney survive the indignity of losing in one of his several “home” states?

That the former Massachusetts governor has a Michigan problem is surprising. But maybe not so much after his Iowa, South Carolina, Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota problems.

The most recent polling data paint a bleak picture for the son of one of the state’s past governors.

Former Pennsylvania US Senator Rick Santorum has leads ranging between 3 and 15 points over Romney in recent Michigan polls. While Romney’s unofficial “fan club” will try their damndest to move the numbers, the Cain Capital executive is looking at no better than a weak plurality over Santorum in Michigan as a best-case Pyrrhic scenario.

Things are looking relatively rosier for Romney in the southwest, where he has an eight-point lead on Santurom in the latest Rasmussen poll. The bad news for Team Romney is that their candidate enjoyed a 24 point lead only a few weeks ago. Like the racehorse Seabiscuit, Santorum is charging quickly from the back…much like he did in every other state he has thus far won.

Now let’s assume for a moment that February 28th is a split decision, with Santorum winning Michigan while Romney sneaks out with a modest lead.

That might still be enough to cripple the viability of Romney’s campaign. But beyond that discussion, there’s a story being lost in the shuffle that could be more important than the public relations victory of “winning” a state.

Delegates.

Arizona has declared itself to be a “winner take all state”, meaning all of their 29 delegates will be awarded to the candidate who comes out on top. The reason why a large growing state like Arizona has so few delegates is that they opted to hold their primary in February, before the date allowed per the Republican National Committee’s rules and were thus penalized half of their delegates.

RNC Rule 15 Section B Subsection 1 lays out that “no primary, caucus, or convention to elect, select, allocate, or bind delegates shall occur prior to the first Tuesday in March in the year in which a national convention is held.” The rule exempts Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, the latter state being the only one that was in compliance.

Subsection 2 of RNC Rule 15 Section B states “Any presidential primary, caucus, convention, or other meeting held for the purpose of selecting delegates to the national convention which occurs prior to the first day of April in the year which the national convention is held, shall provide for the allocation of delegates on a proportional basis.”

Pretty straightforward.

Former US House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich announced he would challenge Florida’s “winner take all” policy after Romney comfortably triumphed in the Sunshine State. Under the Florida GOP’s interpretation, Romney would receive all 50 delegates though under the RNC’s proportional mandate, he would garner just under half while Gingrich and the other candidates would receive a share.

Expect Arizona’s flagrant double violations of RNC rules to be brought up no matter who receives a plurality in that contest.

Unlike the “leap frogging” matter, which comes with a stated penalty, the allocation controversy will be settled by simply forcing the states in violation to bend to the national party’s rules. The states in violation are under the assumption that the “half off penalty” gives them immunity to award their discounted delegates in any way they see fit.

It doesn’t.

If a candidate wraps up the party nomination before May by either forcing out the other candidates sans Texas US Representative Ron Paul or racking up an insurmountable delegate lead, the matter will be resolved within the boring and mundane confines of rules committee hearings with the net result not even causing a ripple in the final delegate count.

However, if the brokered convention scenario gets played out, the delegate allocation scofflaws will find themselves front and center in the middle of an internationally broadcast legal battle.

And when considering the Republican Party has already endured three caucus vote-counting controversies before Super Tuesday, closing the delegate selection process on that note won’t leave a good taste in the mouths of the November electorate.

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