For Republicans yearning for a less front-loaded, more orderly presidential nominating contest, the long national nightmare may be over.
The Republican National Committee is poised this week to enact its toughest crackdown yet on states that try to infringe on the special, first-in-the-nation status afforded to Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.
Florida, this means you. In the last two presidential elections, the state held its earliest primaries ever in an effort to wield more influence over the nominating process. That led the four states picked to hold the first primaries to schedule them even earlier, turning Christmas into crunch time.
The RNC cut Florida’s prize bounty of 99 delegates in half and relegated its delegates to a far-flung hotel — even for the 2012 convention held in their home state. And while some Florida Republicans counting on better floor seats and shorter bus rides howled, the late-January primary worked as planned. The nation’s largest swing state clinched the deal for John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.
But under the new rules to be voted on by RNC officials meeting in Washington on Thursday and Friday, Florida’s clout would be reduced to only 12 delegates if it scheduled a primary before March 1. Smaller states that break the rules would get only nine delegates.
“This is serious stuff,” said Morton Blackwell, the Republican national committeeman from Virginia who serves on the party’s rules committee. “Florida didn’t seem to care they were cut in half, but I think they will now.”
He’s right. In the closing hours of the 2013 session in May, knowing the stricter rules were coming, Florida lawmakers nixed the January primary as part of a sweeping election-reform measure. The new law says the state contest will be held “on the first Tuesday that the rules of the major political parties provide for state delegations to be allocated without penalty.”
End of nightmare. Iowa and New Hampshire Republicans get to preserve their first-in-the-nation traditions. Florida Republicans get to dream of front-row convention seats in 2016.
“We are all singing the same tune,” said Florida Republican Chairman Lenny Curry. “The 2012 rules issue is in the rearview mirror.”
Hold on. There’s also an interesting subplot involving Marco Rubio and presidential politics.
Rubio spearheaded the early-primary law as a legislative leader in Florida, arguing that nominees needed to be vetted in a big, diverse state. ”With all due respect to New Hampshire and Iowa, nowhere are you going to be on a national stage like Florida,” Rubio said back in 2006. “You’re going to get questions about Israel, Latin America, immigration. It’s the old South, it’s Latin, it’s Midwestern, it’s rural and urban.”
The law passed in 2007 with great fanfare. But Rubio, now a U.S. senator eyeing a possible presidential bid in 2016, quietly lobbied legislative leaders back home in the spring to do away with the January primary. Politifact rated the change of heart a “full flip-flop.” Asked to explain, Rubio spokesman Alex Conant asked, “Isn’t it obvious?”
“The RNC passed new rules and is now imposing the equivalent of the death penalty on states who go early,” Conant added. “Which means candidates will just skip Florida instead of spending money on a state that awards them no delegates. So the whole reason for moving up in the first place has been negated.”
That Rubio himself might be on the ballot in 2016 and would need to curry favor with tradition-loving Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire goes without saying.
“People in Iowa were really mad about what Florida did, from the party leadership to the grassroots, and it wreaked havoc with the campaigns,” said Robert Haus, a longtime Republican consultant based in Des Moines. “The RNC and Rubio should be commended for helping to bring sanity to the schedule.”
Republican officials are also exploring new guidelines to cut down on the number of primary debates and to move up their convention to early summer. In the view of many activists, Romney suffered some bruises during the roughly 20 debates in 2011 and 2012 and didn’t have enough time to prepare for the general election against President Obama.
“We wants a nominating process that’s long enough so that we know we get a good candidates that’s been vetted, but we don’t want it to be dragged out as much as it was last time,” said Mississippi committeeman Henry Barbour, another rules-committee member. “I think it will make for a level playing field.”