How Florida Screwed Up U.S. Politics Again

After Florida moved its primary date to January 31, it destroyed a carefully-coordinated Republican nomination calendar.  So what’s the new schedule?  And why does it matter?

Florida, home to favorable bankruptcy laws, tax-haven-seeking retirees, Disney’s version of the Vatican, and the ridiculous 2000 election drama (including but not limited to: butterfly ballots, hanging chads, Katherine Harris, the Brooks Brothers Riot, and an opinion the Supreme Court had to beg people not to take seriously going forward), has once again caused its fellow states an immense amount of grief.

This summer I wrote a series of articles detailing how the Republican nomination process works.  The calendar for actual contests was all set to go back then: the first four states (Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina) would hold their votes in February, with some breathing room between them, and then states who wanted to give out their delegates proportionally could go any time on or after “Super Tuesday” in early March.  However, states get to set their own dates for primaries and caucuses, and the penalty for breaking the national party’s rules wasn’t much more than a slap on the wrist: half of the state’s delegates to the Republican Convention would be taken away if they went ahead of their assigned time.

Enter Florida, with 99 delegates to the Republican convention, the least popular governor in America, and a major chip on its shoulder.  ”We were big in 2000, remember?” Florida seemed to cry.  ”None of the small states voting early seem to be as big to us, so we’re just going to go earlier in the process, all right, guys?”  Never mind that the reason why large states do not go earlier in the process is because they can propel a nominee over the top right at the outset.   That’s just Florida being Florida.  And Florida, with 99 delegates, can afford to lose half of them, especially since anyone else who cuts in front of the February starting gun, even the small states who were given clearance to be there, will also lose half their delegates.

“But wait,” you may well now say.  ”You’re lapsing into political proceduralism faster than Tom Brady lapses into post-season disaster these days.  Isn’t there an easier way to explain this?”  Well, we might as well go back to the rhetorical device used to explain the basics of the Republican nomination process: the QA.

Right, so, I don’t want any nonsense out of you, politics-hack.  Tell me when everything important is going to happen.
Okay.  Here’re the dates of the Republican nomination contests as we currently know them:

  • Iowa caucuses: January 3
  • New Hampshire primary: January 10 [not yet confirmed but pretty likely]
  • South Carolina primary: January 21
  • Florida primary: January 31
  • Nevada caucuses: February 4
  • Maine “non-binding” caucuses: February 4
  • Colorado Caucuses: February 7
  • Minnesota “non-binding” caucuses: February 7
  • Arizona Primary: February 28
  • Michigan Primary: February 28
  • “Super Tuesday”: March 6

That was simultaneously less and more confusing than what I’d wanted.

Let’s start with the basics.  What happened here?  You promised that this would be a leisurely week-by-week thing in February before “Super Tuesday.”
Well, as I said above, Florida came in and screwed things up by moving their primary to January 31.  This made all the states who usually go first retaliate by moving their dates up.

But why didn’t Nevada jump ahead?  Wasn’t it one of the four “early” states?
Because New Hampshire are a bunch of jerks when it comes to their primary and say that “no other similar contest” can be at less than a week after it.

So… what?
So originally Nevada wanted to go on January 14.  New Hampshire has to have its primary on a Tuesday for some reason, and the only Tuesday between the 14th and the Iowa Caucuses on the 3rd was the 10th.  Four days is not a week.

But the Iowa Caucuses get to go before New Hampshire… and Nevada holds caucuses, too, right?  So that’s not a primary, and… why did New Hampshire do that?
Like I said.  Bunch of jerks.  That’s not even the worst of it.  First they threatened to move their primary to December.

Yeah.  This was a totally empty threat, since scheduling the vote in December would probably be illegal (due to them not being able to get their ballots out in time to military voters overseas).  But then the major Republican candidates, desperate to curry favor in New “We’re Going First Gorrdarnit” Hampshire, started ragging on and threatening to boycott Nevada.  Jon Huntsman even didn’t show up for a debate there, though that was probably due to him being pretty much broke more than principle.

So Nevada caved.  Why’d they cave so strongly and move behind Florida?
Because the rules still apply: any state that goes before February 1 loses half of its delegates.  Any state that isn’t IA-NH-NV-SC that goes before March 6 also loses half of its delegates.  So Nevada gets to keep all of its delegates this way, no small thing when you consider how tiny the state is otherwise (Republicans allocate delegates based on electoral vote of the state and some “bonus delegates” depending on how Republican it is, and since Nevada went for Obama in ’08 it doesn’t have quite as many “bonus delegates” to throw around).

But wait… stop talking about bonus delegates and crazy things like that.  So Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina are also going to lose half their delegates?
You betcha.

That doesn’t sound fair.
Nope.  The party can undo this, like the Democrats did in 2008, but they’ll have to wait.  In an ideal world for them, there’ll  be a runaway winner and however many delegates there are won’t matter.

And if there isn’t a runaway winner?
Then there’ll be drama, just like there was between the Clinton and Obama campaigns in 2008 when Michigan and Florida were reinstated after being stripped of all their delegates.

Okay.  So all those states you’re listing that are going before “Super Tuesday,” they’re gonna lose delegates too?
Well, almost all of them.

Am I going to regret asking you for an explanation?
Probably, but here goes: see the caucuses that’re listed as “non-binding”?  Those states have come up with a sneaky nominating process by which their state parties send “officially-unpledged” delegates to the national convention, but since those people are elected by partisan supporters who show up to these “non-binding caucuses,” it’s pretty clear who they’re supporting.  It’s kind of like how we don’t actually vote for President, but rather a slate of that candidate’s choices for the Electoral College in every state… ostensibly they could vote for whoever they wanted to.

Wait… that’s how voting for President works?
Yes.  Doesn’t the Electoral College suck?

Yes.  But that still doesn’t make the present situation any less confusing.  So what happens between the “non-binding” caucuses in Minnesota on February 7 and the AZ/MI primaries on February 28?
Hopefully to whichever candidates are left in the race and want to “regain steam” (and people like me who will be covering them), nothing.   A few weeks of respite before two moderate-to-large battleground states vote.  But now that so many states have “jumped in front,” you might see more of them try to jam up those now-open weeks.

Won’t that make “Super Tuesday” not-so-super?
Yep.  Right now only Tennessee, Idaho, North Dakota, Virginia, and Alaska are confirmed for Super Tuesday.  Not a bad haul (especially Virginia and Tennessee), but not much of one either.  Texas and a few others might head up to that date, too, but it’s not confirmed.

Oh, is that why Herman Cain is campaigning in Tennessee instead of building an organization in the states that’re actually voting first?
You would have to ask Herman Cain that question, but my guess there would be that Herman Cain does what he does because he is all snappy slogan and no actual strategy.

So ultimately what’s happened is: Florida screwed everyone up, the primary dates have moved forward, the official voting will begin in early January, and some states will be punished by losing delegates.  But it might not matter if a clear winner emerges by Super Tuesday.
You’re good at this, rhetorical device.  Yes, that’s exactly right, and in addition, this “jumping in front” likely scared potential late-entry candidates like Chris Christie and Sarah Palin away for good.

Small mercies?
Small mercies.

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Chas Carey was born between Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns and raised in a loving New England Republican household that took a brief California detour.  He’s written about politics off and on since 2006.  His other work has shown up in places like NANO Fiction, …

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