Sunday, October 2, 2011

Florida's January Primary Date Pushes the Calendar

The Florida state Republican Party has decided to schedule its primary for January 31, 2012. As with the 2008 primary, this move places Florida among the ranks of the early primary states--the others being Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina. The dates of the primaries and caucuses are determined by the Republican Party in each state. But the national Republican Party sets certain guidelines to ensure that the states hold their contests in an orderly manner.

Originally, the first contest was supposed to be the Iowa Caucus, scheduled for February 6th. The national Republican Party's rules provide that if a state like Florida holds its primary before then, the state is punished by having its primary delegates reduced by half. To illustrate the concept, recall that during presidential elections, each state has a certain number of electoral votes based on the state's population size. During the Republican nomination process, each state has a certain number of delegates, also based on state population. Florida's punishment will reduce its delegate count, making the state less valuable to win--in theory.

The reality is different. Unlike the general election, in which all states vote simultaneously, the Republican primary is conducted over a period of months, with some states voting much earlier than others. The earliest states are the most important to win, because they allow a candidate to display his ability to win, gain media attention, and gain momentum. If a candidate fails to win in early primary states, his candidacy will lose steam. By the time the later states begin holding their contests, the nomination is usually wrapped up.

Thus, even though Florida loses half its delegates, it is far more valuable to win now because its contest will take place early in the calendar. That having been said, Florida will probably be the fifth contest, as the traditional early primaries (IA, NH, NV, SC) will move up their own primary dates earlier in the calendar.

Florida will be early, but it will be last among the early states. In 2008, Rudy Giuliani put all of his resources into Florida. By the time the Florida Primary rolled around, he was already out of the race. Florida's role is that of a tie-breaker: If one candidate wins IA and SC while another candidate wins NH and NV, the winner of Florida will have the edge going forward.

What is the effect of this? Since the early primaries will move up their contests to January, the order will not change. The primary season will be one month shorter, but that probably will not have much of an impact, even upon a late entrant like Chris Christie. It may be frustrating for minor candidates like Rick Santorum or Herman Cain, who will take awhile to pick up steam (if they can at all).

Instead, the biggest impact is on the primary debates. There are three primary debates already scheduled for January. Under the original calendar, all three would have taken place before the Iowa Caucus. Now, it's possible that two or three of those debates will take place only after Iowa has voted. A candidate like Rick Perry might breathe a sigh of relief. But there are still many debates to be held.

Finally, Elephant Watcher has added the Florida primary polls to the Primaries page. Florida's polls should always be taken with a grain of salt. One must remember that by the time Florida votes, the voters will be heavily influenced by the outcome of the previous four contests. Elephant Watcher does not compile the state polls for contests taking place after Florida, since polls of those states are rare, and because they will be even more influenced by the outcome of earlier contests. Florida's polls are included because it is at least somewhat useful to see the early shape of the field.