Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Is Florida Culpable in a Potential 2012 Primary Mess?

It has become clearer and clearer that Florida Republicans in the leadership in the state legislature are resistant to moving the Sunshine state's presidential primary into compliance with the national parties' rules on delegate selection. What has struck FHQ over the last week or so is the amount and type of coverage this has been getting. There have been headlines or comments about Florida "shredding", "blowing up" and "wreaking havoc" with the 2012 presidential primary calendar. That may be the case, but I think it overstates the extent to which that is true by falling back on the example of the delegate battle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama over the state in 2008. It is easy to link up the negative implications from 2008 with the same sort of potential state versus national party conflicts in 2012.

But it unfairly heaps all of the blame for the situation on the state of Florida. And there is more than enough blame to go around here.

As a starting point, I should probably go ahead and say that I've been pointing to the Florida conundrum since December 2008. I don't say that to boast, but merely as a means of highlighting the fact that this is not and should not have been news. Now, to people who tune in and out of the presidential nomination/election process it may be news, but it should not have been to the national parties. Both parties should have been mindful of Florida's position on the primary calendar in 2012 and should have devised rules or more to the point, penalties with Florida and the other non-compliant states in mind.

The Republicans did alter their delegate selection rules, but did not change the 50% penalty it places on delegations from states that violate the rules on timing. It could be argued that the shift from state parties deciding how they allocate their convention delegates to the proportionality requirement for all pre-April states is something of a penalty, but I'm not convinced that is the case. Yes, it is still early in terms of presidential primary movement -- early in state legislative sessions in a period that sees the most movement -- but there is no evidence that states are actively moving away from the proportional window (pre-April) and to the winner-take-all window (April and after).

One could make the point that with fewer states seemingly moving forward, the proportionality requirement is working as a deterrent. However, that too, is a rather thin argument. The states that were left behind in March, April, May and June in 2008 are states that are not frequent movers or traditionally have not been. That they didn't move during the 2008 cycle when so many other states were frontloading their contests should at least be some indication of that. The states that have had the most freedom to move in the past, then, are the states that are scheduled in February or earlier and have to move back to comply with the national party rules. Some are moving back, but they aren't moving back to take advantage of bonus delegates or to gain the freedom to decide how to allocate their convention delegates. No, those states moving back to comply with national party rules, but are opting for the most part to position themselves on the earliest possible date; a date that places them in the proportionality window.

So while the Republican National Committee made what could arguably be described as fundamental changes to the party's delegate selection rule, they essentially did nothing to prevent rogue states from challenging the primacy of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. To be fair, the Democrats did not change their delegate selection rules much either, but because the party is unlikely to see a contested nomination race next year, observers are deprived of seeing whether the DNC having caved to the seating of Florida and Michigan delegates at the 2008 convention -- after the kerfuffle that stretched through primary season and into the summer -- will impact the future application of the state- and candidate-specific penalties the Democrats utilize. It should be noted that the 2008 Democrats largely steered clear of Florida and Michigan while their Republican counterparts did not.

The other irksome thing about the treatment of Florida in the wake of the legislative leadership's apparent defiance is that the decision makers are being portrayed as actively doing something to mar the 2012 primary calendar. In actuality, it is the state's potential inaction that is the story. No states are actively moving forward in 2012. Instead, because the national parties shifted the earliest date to hold nominating contests back to March, the question is one of states moving back or not moving back. Rogue states in 2012 are not like rogue states in 2008. The 2012 version is the state that ignores the national parties' desires and does nothing.

And on that point, Florida is but one of twenty states or districts that have to make a change. Seven states and the District of Columbia have legislation to move back, but twelve other states have yet to make any move at the state legislative or state party level. Florida just happens to be the earliest of those states and is necessarily the first domino that will have to drop. But there are others -- Arizona, Georgia, Michigan and New York most prominently -- that are also in violation of the national party rules, that have to this point in the cycle been quiet in terms of moving their delegate selection events and that could also threaten the scheduling of contests that the RNC and DNC had in mind when they finalized their respective delegate selection plans last summer.

Florida can take some blame, but there are other, later states that are also in violation of the rules that the national parties did not have the foresight to alter knowing this could or would be an issue. But the bottom line is that there is enough blame to go around for this situation. It stretches beyond just what is happening -- or not happening -- in Tallahassee.

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