Why Republican Presidential Candidates May Pass on Florida’s Primary

Ninety-nine delegates are at stake, but the price paid for chasing them is extremely high.

Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio at the Republican presidential debate in Milwaukee on Tuesday.
AP Photo/Morry Gash
S.V. Dáte
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S.V. Dáte
Nov. 12, 2015, 1:26 p.m.

NAPLES, Fla.—Florida Republicans get their moment in the sunshine this weekend, as the presidential field visits Orlando for a gathering of state party leaders.

They should probably enjoy the attention while it lasts.

There are 99 delegates at stake in the March 15 primary, nearly one-twelfth of what’s needed to secure the nomination. And this time around, the Florida party decided to ditch a system that divvied them up proportionally and instead adopt a winner-take-all model. The decision was made, in part, to make the primary more crucial and win the state a larger share of presidential candidates’ attention.

Instead, it may now be more likely that campaigns will write it off entirely.

“There’s a finite amount of money,” said Priscilla Grannis, the vice chair of the Collier County Republican Party. “It’s a simple matter of mathematics.”

Campaigning statewide in Florida is both unwieldy and expensive. The state stretches 832 miles from Pensacola to Key West and includes 67 counties, making an effective voter-turnout operation a logistical nightmare. The state also has 10 different media markets, meaning that a serious TV ad campaign costs nearly $2 million a week.

Prior to the change, Florida had a delegate-allocation scheme similar to that in other states, in which the winner of a particular congressional district would win two delegates from that district, with the overall statewide winner receiving 45 bonus delegates. Under that arrangement, a candidate who had a strong following in a few geographic areas could focus time and money there, in the hopes of scoring a handful of delegates.

The winner-take-all rule means that unless a campaign has a reasonable chance of coming in first in the balloting, every dollar and every hour of staff time spent on Florida will likely go to waste.

“The theory with the [state party] was they thought it would draw people here and make people try harder. But maybe it will make people shy away,” said Jonathan Martin, the chairman of Fort Myers’s Lee County Republican Party. “That’s what I would think, and that’s common sense.”

Lee County and neighboring Collier in southwest Florida are a Republican stronghold, home to hundreds of thousands of retired Midwesterners. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 2-to-1 in those two counties, in a state where Democrats still hold an overall registration advantage.

Mike Lyster, chairman of Naples’s Collier County party, said that prior to the rules change this spring, four candidates had come to events in his county. “Since that change, nobody’s come,” he said.

That the candidates are even coming to Florida this week is the result of a different rule adopted by the state party earlier this year: To make the Florida ballot in March, candidates could either pay $25,000, find volunteers to collect at least 125 Republican signatures in each of the state’s 27 congressional districts, or show up at the so-called Sunshine Summit. All 14 of the remaining candidates decided to show up. Seven are scheduled to speak Friday, seven on Saturday.

But as to making a serious financial commitment to winning the Florida primary, only Bush, the former two-term governor, has a significant staff presence in the state, with his national headquarters and a separate field office in Miami plus a state headquarters in Tampa. Celebrity businessman Donald Trump only this month opened a field office in Sarasota. Marco Rubio, the state’s junior senator, has his national headquarters in Washington, D.C., but no campaign offices in Florida.

The effect of having or not having on-the-ground staff at this stage, though, is unclear. Bush, with the biggest operation, for example, appeared to have little support, at least at this week’s debate watch party hosted by the Collier County Republican Executive Committee.

The Tiburon Golf Club in North Naples features two courses designed by golfer Greg Norman. On Tuesday evening, it drew several dozen Republicans who watched the Fox Business broadcast on large-screen televisions set up in the club’s restaurant. Most said they favored Trump, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, or Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. During the debate itself, most of the cheers and boos involved discussions of illegal immigration—with the audience coming down on the side of Trump and against Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

In fact, not a single Republican in attendance named Bush as a first choice. Some were recent transplants to Florida and had never seen his name on a ballot. Cruz supporter Brad Heiges retired to Naples a dozen years ago, after Bush’s 2002 reelection. “He’s not doing so well in his home state, unfortunately. That doesn’t bode well for him,” said Heiges. “He just doesn’t have the pizazz.”

Even some longtime Floridians said Bush was not the party’s best option. “I voted for him three times. Even when he lost to Lawton Chiles, I voted for him…. I think he was one of the most conservative governors in the country,” said Lee Light, a physician and 40-year Naples resident. “I’m not supporting him now.”

Light said he is currently backing Rubio, and that Bush seems to have lost the self-confidence and strength he had as governor. “I don’t know if he can get it back.”

How much this sentiment will ultimately matter, of course, is even less clear. By the time Florida Republicans go to the polls on March 15, four states will have voted in February and nearly a dozen more on March 1. A field that currently includes 14 Republicans will almost have certainly shrunk, as money dries up for all but the best-funded campaigns. Even more important, Florida voters have historically taken their cues from voters in the earlier states.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who banked his entire campaign on Florida in the 2008 primaries, finished a distant third after failing to do well in any of the first four states. In early December 2011, eventual 2012 nominee Mitt Romney fell far behind Newt Gingrich and into a tie with Herman Cain in Florida polls. Yet the Florida winner eight weeks later was Romney, who had won New Hampshire handily and finished a respectable second in South Carolina.

This is the first time in three presidential elections that Florida has not created chaos in the primary calendar by insisting on a January election date. In 2008, then-state House Speaker Marco Rubio and Gov. Charlie Crist argued that Florida’s size and diverse population made it a better microcosm of the country as a whole than Iowa or New Hampshire, and they pushed through a law setting a Jan. 29 primary. The traditional early states then moved their elections ahead to retain their respective positions. The same thing happened in 2012.

The Republican National Committee responded in both years by stripping Florida of half of its delegates. This time around, a new RNC rule would have taken away all of Florida’s delegates if it jumped ahead in the calendar, and the state responded by moving its primary to March 15, the first day that the RNC allows a winner-take-all contest.

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