ORLANDO—For nearly three decades, the Republican presidential nomination process unfolded in a predictable pattern: One candidate won Iowa, another won New Hampshire, and one of the two captured South Carolina—and became the nominee.
Then along came Florida.
This behemoth of a state, boasting as many delegates as the three earliest voting states combined, barreled its way to the front of the primary calendar in 2008. In the earliest primary in the state’s history, Florida Republicans cast their votes for John McCain, echoing New Hampshire and South Carolina and all but sealing the nomination for the Arizona Republican.
As the 2012 GOP field heads south to Orlando next week for a nationally televised debate and straw poll, Florida is again jockeying for position right behind the Palmetto State. Emerging is a new rite of passage for primary candidates in which they are forced to juggle grassroots politicking in the earliest-voting, smaller states with the challenges of campaigning in the nation’s fourth largest.
How the GOP hopefuls handle this balancing act will be one of the more fascinating—and potentially consequential—subplots of the primary campaign, affecting their day-to-day schedules, fundraising, and even their message. Paying too little attention to Florida risks the possibility that its larger and more diverse electorate will reject the consensus of the earlier-voting states. Paying too little attention to the early-voting states, however, can leave a candidate limping into Florida too wounded to recover, as Rudy Giuliani found in 2008. The former New York mayor hunkered down in Florida after concluding that he was unlikely to do well in the earlier-voting states. But Giuliani’s lead in the Florida polls evaporated after he bombed in Iowa and New Hampshire. He finished a distant third in Florida and bowed out of the race the following day.
It’s easy to forget how quickly Giuliani fell in Florida. In early December 2007, 30 percent of Republicans named him as their choice, according to the Quinnipiac University poll, putting him 18 points ahead of his closest rival. After he finished a distant sixth in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire, 20 percent of Florida Republicans still backed Giuliani, leaving him in a dead heat with three other candidates. But after the New Yorker’s dismal sixth-place finish in South Carolina, Giuliani’s support dropped to 14 percent in Florida, Quinnipiac found, just shy of the 15 percent of the vote he garnered on primary day, well behind McCain and Mitt Romney.
Rudy Giuliani thought Florida would be his savior in 2008. He was wrong.
Lesson learned. See Jon Huntsman’s announcement last week that he is relocating some of his staff from his Orlando headquarters to New Hampshire, a tacit acknowldgement that the Florida primary will be irrelevant to his campaign if he doesn’t deliver in New England. “You have to have momentum and victory under your belt before you get to Florida,” said Danny Diaz, who worked for McCain and the Republican National Committee in the 2008 election. “You have to have a head of steam.”
But does that mean a candidate has to win South Carolina, the traditional kingmaker in Republican presidential primary politics, to carry Florida and cinch the nomination? Perhaps not. Or at least that’s what Romney and other candidates are contemplating in this highly unpredictable race. The timeworn South Carolina-as-tiebreaker-model may not hold up in 2012.
Consider this scenario: Fueled by his support among evangelical Christians, Texas Gov. Rick Perry wins the Iowa caucuses but then loses to Romney in New Hampshire, where the former Massachusetts governor’s brand of Main Street conservatism plays well. Perry recovers in South Carolina, where social conservatives—as in Iowa—play a prominent role. Next up, Florida. If Perry wins there, it’s hard to envision a plot in which he doesn’t become the Republican presidential nominee.
But if Romney comes back to win Florida after losing South Carolina, Republicans could be in for a very long race, perhaps their own version of the protracted battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. In this scenario, Romney’s loss in South Carolina could be tempered by wins in two other states that might vote before Florida—Nevada and Michigan.
“Whoever wins in Florida will be in a commanding position, but I never say ‘never’ or ‘can’t,’ ’’ said Republican consultant Mike Murphy, who had advised McCain and Romney. “I would say bookies in Vegas would will want 5-1 or better odds against the winner of the Florida primary.’’
Whether Perry (or any other candidate) could stay in the race even after losing Florida would depend on how close he came to winning, his ability to persuade donors to keep the faith, and his prospects in the states voting next. Romney’s team from 2008 acknowledges that his second-place finish in Florida virtually ended his campaign by sapping his fundraising and momentum.
This article appears in the September 17, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.