Monday, February 28, 2011

A Potential Florida Primary Compromise?

William March at the Tampa Tribune has put together a nice piece on the back and forth among early state GOP chairs, the RNC and the various actors/decision-makers in Florida over the timing of the Sunshine state's 2012 presidential primary. It isn't or shouldn't come as a surprise that the powers-that-be in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina are up in arms over the potential for Florida -- or Florida's state legislature -- to stand pat with a January 31 primary that would disrupt the national parties' plans for a later start to the vote-casting portion of the nomination process in 2012.

In fact, it appears that South Carolina Republican Party chairwoman, Karen Floyd is picking up right where her predecessor, Katon Dawson did in 2008: making outlandish claims that don't necessarily jibe well with the reality of the situation. Dawson threatened move South Carolina's 2008 primary to before Halloween to protect the Palmetto state's first-in-the-South status in the face of Florida's defiance of the 2008 delegate selection rules. Now Karen Floyd is saying that all options should be considered including:
"I would not be averse to pulling the convention if Florida doesn't follow the parameter of the rules," said Karen Floyd, party chairman in South Carolina, one of four states approved by both parties to hold early primaries.
...but also:
"There's nothing off the table," Floyd said.
Presumably that would include severely cutting back the size of Florida's delegation to the 2012 Republican convention or refusing to seat them at all. Now, my previous statement about these statements not reflecting the reality of what is possible is probably not entirely fair. This process has some give and take and the early states have to pull out everything they can to protect their position whether it will or can actually happen or not. It is a PR battle to ramp of the urgency of the situation and dispatch Florida and other rule-breaking states with as little public infighting as possible (or at least to do it now when fewer people are paying attention compared to the fight occurring during primary and caucus season next year).

On the Florida side of the matter, Florida Republican Party chair, David Bitner is suggesting an alternative:
Bitner said he hopes for a compromise in which Florida would get the fifth spot, immediately after the four early states.
This is really all Florida Republicans -- those within the state legislature and elsewhere anyway -- want: to be that all-important second round behind the early states, but before Super Tuesday on the first Tuesday in March (assuming all the other non-compliant states cooperate). Of course, Bitner is between a rock and a hard place on this issue. Despite wanting to avoid sanctions and a potentially damaging public dispute with the national party, he is powerless to compel state legislators to move the primary back into compliance. Bitner is, however, well-positioned to serve as a middleman on a potential compromise between the RNC and state legislators.

What would Bitner have before him in that capacity? The Republican National Committee desires a later start to the primary season and has enacted rules to that effect. Florida legislators and others want the Sunshine state to have an influence over who is ultimately chosen as the Republican nominee and they have come up with several good arguments as to why. First of all, those Florida Republicans in favor of keeping the primary where it is have maintained all along that it is not their wish to jump in front of the party-designated early states (They aren't really jumping at all.). They seemingly want to establish Florida as an early state; not the earliest among them, but the latest of the earliest states. Proponents of the January primary also astutely point out Florida's position as a swing state in the general election. In other words, pick a nominee Florida Republicans like and increase the chances building an organization there in the winter/spring and of winning the state in the fall.

But can that compromise work? In a vacuum where only the Republican National Committee and Florida state legislators are party to this decision, perhaps. But that simply isn't the reality of the situation. Let's assume that the two sides agree on this compromise and Florida is able to pass a law that moves the state's presidential primary to the last Tuesday in February. This also assumes that the RNC has issued a waiver of some sort to the state (a process that exists on the Democratic side, but I'm unsure of for Republicans). That solves the Florida problem, sure, but there are still six states scheduled just a week later than where Florida is now that have yet to propose or advance legislation to shift the dates on which their primaries are scheduled to be held next year.

A compromise would then have to be made with those states. How would the national party deal with them? It would seem that those states would want a position similar to Florida's -- Why Florida and not us! -- and if those states shifted their contests back to that last Tuesday in February date with Florida, the Sunshine state's influence would be diminished in the process. And decision-makers in Florida don't want that. To top it off, those in the state legislative leadership know this already, so they aren't going to budge. Now, the national party could make the same Florida's-importance-in-the-general-election argument to other currently non-compliant states, but that is likely to fall on deaf ears in a scenario where state actors are compelled to maximize their state's influence or barring that ensure that the state's, in this case, Republican voters at least have a say in determining who the nominee is (by holding a contest that comes on or before the time in which the nomination is effectively over).

Sequence and process matter in all of this, too. Florida is not going to unilaterally move with several other non-compliant states still scheduled in February and with no signs of moving their 2012 contests. Florida is also limited in that regard in terms of when the state can act to move the primary. The state legislature there convenes on March 8 and will wrap up its business in May. There will still be non-compliant states that will not have adjourned their state legislative sessions at that point in May. Those states could still move, but those other states where legislatures have adjourned will not have that option and thus cannot guarantee that Florida, by moving to late February, will be able to serve as the second round after the exempt states and before Super Tuesday.

The bottom line is that Florida holds all the cards and can hold their ground and let the RNC come to them with a solution or simply let Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina jump them to "resolve" the issue. In the end, the RNC will have to cave because they don't want to do anything to hurt the GOP's chances in a state that is likely going to be a valuable part of either party's electoral vote calculus in 2012.

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