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The Inconsequential Parties

The Florida flap over its primary again shows that the national parties hardly maintain control over their own presidential nominating contests.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney arrives onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla., on Sept. 23.(AP Photo/Joe Burbank, Pool)

photo of Reid Wilson
September 29, 2011

Wielding authority usually requires buy-in from the subjects of that authority. If the subjects decide they no longer wish to abide by the rules, no amount of protest to the contrary will reassert the lost authority. And as both the Republican and Democratic National Committees are finding out, states intent on influencing the presidential nominating system have decided they no longer wish to be bound by party rules, regardless of the sanctions.

On Friday, a panel of top Florida officials will meet in Tallahassee to determine when to hold the state's presidential primary, a key contest that could leave one candidate well ahead of the rest. Officials have said they are likely to leave their current plan, to hold a primary on Jan. 31, untouched.

That pronouncement has set off a scramble that will undermine years of delicate negotiations between senior officials within the Republican and Democratic committees. And it will once again expose the fact that the national parties hardly maintain control over their own presidential nominating contests, demonstrating each party's diminished place within the American political landscape.


It wasn't supposed to be this way. Each side has been content to allow Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina to hold the first three nominating contests, so long as they did so during a manageable window.

But the primaries turned into a business worth tens of millions of dollars to early states. Some states wanted a piece of the economic pie; others, lured by the attention lavished on early-state politicians, wanted a more prominent role in the process. That led more states to try for early primaries to compete with Iowa and New Hampshire. And every time one state moved up, Iowa and New Hampshire moved their contests earlier.

By 2007, the chaotic sprint to the front of the line reached a tipping point: Iowa and New Hampshire were under such pressure from other states that they openly threatened to hold their contests in December, the year before Americans elected a new president.

In order to bring some order to the process, senior members of both parties -- most notably former New Jersey Republican national committeeman David Norcross and Massachusetts Democratic national committeeman James Roosevelt -- came together to form a compromise that could pass both national committees: Early states would begin holding their primaries in February, and every other state could hold contests beginning on the first Tuesday in March.

Earlier proposals had fizzled as state-based party coalitions voiced displeasure over their place in the field. Other plans that proposed rotating which states got to go first, or prioritizing little states over big states, were dead on arrival. But by enshrining four early states in February and forcing everyone backwards, armed with the threat of a repeat of the 2008 near-debacle, both parties built internal coalitions that could support a solution.

Republicans went farther in their tweaks, allowing states that hold their contests in April to award delegates on a winner-take-all basis; any state that held elections before April would have to award convention delegates on a proportional basis. That system was designed to ensure the nominating contest would extend beyond the early states but would conclude in plenty of time for an eventual nominee to recover from a bruising primary.

And the penalties were harsh: Any state that violates the so-called "window" and holds a contest before March would lose half its delegates to the Republican convention. What's more, Republican officials have made clear to states considering jumping to the front of the line that the other aspects of their convention life -- hotel placement, spots on the convention floor, and invitations to fancy parties -- would be made unpleasant.

But the best-laid plans of Norcross and Roosevelt went awry. Florida got a taste of the presidential primary spotlight in 2008, and the state shows no interest in giving it up. And Republicans have hurt themselves by giving the Sunshine State a key bargaining chip: The Republican convention will be held next year in Tampa, and RNC officials have been clear there are no plans to move it regardless of when Florida holds its primary.

Florida could then justify holding its primary early. The economic impact of the nominating process in the state will be greater than it was last cycle, and the state will guarantee itself significant influence on the contest; the cost of losing a few delegates is marginal compared with the benefit of holding so much sway. Michigan and Arizona, both of which will hold their primaries on Feb. 28, before the window opens, have made the same calculation.

The other early states will not give up their prime positions in order to bolster a national party's rules. South Carolina is expected to announce later this week that it will hold its own primary before Jan. 31; the state is likely to hold its contest on January 21, a Saturday, according to insiders.

A New Hampshire statute requires at least a full week between its contest and the next primary; if New Hampshire keeps its primary on a Tuesday, it's likely to be Jan. 10. Iowa, which determines when its caucuses will take place at the sole discretion of state party chairman Matt Strawn, would hold that contest during the first week of the year, making Monday, Jan. 2 or Thursday, Jan. 5 the most likely dates.

Despite the best efforts of both the RNC and DNC, the 2012 calendar remains in largely the same situation as the 2008 calendar, with a host of states rushing toward the front of the line, disrupting holidays and threatening to bleed over into the previous year. The harsh threats of stiff sanctions against wayward states have deterred no one.

In fact, the only harm to come from the whole squabble has been to the parties themselves. Their grasp over the presidential nominating system has been shown to be weak, and their threats cast aside as inconsequential. The constituent states the parties represent, in effect, have cast off party leadership. Governing requires the consent of the governed, and the governed no longer follow the governors.

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