TOPICS > Politics

Florida to Test Frontloaded Primary Calendar

BY Admin  January 29, 2008 at 2:45 PM EDT

Voters in Coral Gables, Fla.; AP photo

The primary also stands as the last real test for the GOP
before the mammoth Feb. 5 round of voting in which voters in some 22 states
will head to the polls.

Last May, the Florida Legislature voted to move the state’s
Democratic and Republican primaries to Jan. 29 from their traditional spot in
March. Florida
is one of many states to move up the date of their primaries or caucuses in a
bid to gain a more influential role in choosing presidential nominees.

While states of all sizes have bumped up their primary
dates, many analysts have attributed this year’s condensed calendar to the
desire of large, socially diverse states to gain more prominence within the
nominating process.

“For a number of years, the larger states — places
like California, New Jersey — have essentially been
afterthoughts in the nominating process,” Karen Tumulty of Time Magazine
told the NewsHour last year. “They’ve looked at themselves and they’ve
thought, ‘You know, here we are, big, diverse states where a lot of voters
live, where a lot of politicians come to raise money, and yet by the time our
states get around to voting, the nominations are essentially a lock.’”

And so Florida,
and earlier Michigan,
was stripped of half their delegates on the Republican side and all of their
delegates on the Democratic side to have more of a say in the nominating
contest.

Former Mass.
Gov. Mitt Romney saw a boost to his campaign for the GOP nomination for winning
in Michigan
on Jan. 15. In Florida,
no candidate has more riding on the result than Republican Rudy Giuliani. His
campaign deliberately shifted resources away from the first six nominating
states to place greater attention on Florida
and Feb. 5′s Super Tuesday.

“We’ve been in Florida probably as much or more than any state in the
last year because we decided way back in January that the early primaries were
going to include a lot of other primaries, not just Iowa
and New Hampshire,”
Giuliani told the editorial board of the Tampa Tribune earlier this month.

Erin VanSickle, a spokeswoman for the Florida Republican
Party, cited the focus of the Giuliani campaign and the three nationally
televised Republican debates that have taken place in Florida
since the end of November as evidence that the primary change has finally
brought Florida
attention commensurate with its status as a bellwether state in the general
election.

“Florida’s the first
truly big state to vote after these smaller states, and they’re relatively
homogeneous compared to Florida’s
diversity,” she said. “You have to win over the ‘condo commandos’
among the state’s elderly voting bloc, Cuban voters in Little Havana and
conservative northwest Florida.
If you can do that, you’ve mastered retail politicking, you’ve proved to pundits
you can compete nationally.”

Although the move has increased the state’s visibility in a
crowded election calendar, the fate of the Florida Republican and Democratic
delegations to the national conventions remain in doubt. Where Florida’s 114 delegates to the Republican convention once
made it the fourth-largest voting bloc in the nation, the Republican National
Committee punished Florida alongside Michigan, New Hampshire,
South Carolina and Wyoming for holding primaries before Feb. 5,
the earliest primary date allowed under party rules. The number of Florida’s delegates to
the national convention has been halved to 57.

Though Democrats Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama,
John Edwards and Mike Gravel will appear on the Jan. 29 Florida
ballot, the Democratic National Committee has taken even more stringent
measures by depriving both Florida and Michigan of
all of their delegates to the party’s August convention in Denver.

The Florida wings of both parties have expressed hope that
each party’s nominee will intercede and allow all Florida delegates to be counted at the national
convention.

“We feel very
confident we’ll send a full delegation to the convention,” said Florida
Democratic Party Communications Director Mark Bubriski.

Regardless of whether this holds true, electoral analysts
see the frontloading of the nominating calendar by states such as Florida as a phenomenon
with national ramifications.

According to Michael Traugott, a senior research scientist
at the University
of Michigan’s Center for
Political Studies, the biggest impact is on the importance of fundraising.
There have been fewer opportunities for less-funded candidates to turn early
successes into fundraising dollars for use in later contests, he said, listing
Clinton and Obama as examples of well-funded candidates who have enjoyed
success thus far.

“It’s still a truism in American politics that money is
the mother’s milk of political campaigns,” he said. But with such a tight
schedule, “the candidates who are best funded generally are the candidates
who benefit overall, because they can start early, advertise often, build up
visibility and positive name recognition.”

Of course in the influence game, there will be states that
made the right move and, punished or not, will impact this year’s campaigns and
there will be those who gamble and lose. John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University, points out a lot of smaller
states that moved their primary dates up to Feb. 5 in an effort to become more
influential, may come to regret the move. Tennessee
has “ironically, along with a couple other states, lost influence because
it’s going to be washed out in all the discussion of California,
New York and
other states,” Geer said of his home state.

“There’s so many states at play that the news media are
going to settle on a couple based on what the candidates themselves are doing
and what they deem are the key battlegrounds.”

Perhaps the fear of being lost in the shuffle or simply the
costs associated with moving the primary has kept some states later in the
process. Kentucky,
for example, decided to maintain its May 20 primary because of the hassle and
the possible diluted clout, said Trey Grayson, the Republican Secretary of
State. The state hosts one of the very last primary contests in the nation.

“Using the ‘Field of Dreams’ analogy, if you move up, they
may not come,” he said. “If you’re a state that’s looking to become
more relevant, to justify the cost, to enfranchise the voters, you have to move
far enough up.”

The entire calendar has prompted some, like Grayson, to
reconsider the process. As the co-chair of the Subcommittee on Presidential
Primaries for the National Association of Secretaries of State, Grayson
advocates the NASS Rotating Regional Presidential Plan, which would establish
regional primaries and rotate the order to give all states a chance to play an
early role in the nominating process.

He admits that such a plan faces numerous obstacles and he foresees
debate over how the country nominates its presidential candidates continuing
well into the future.

“This is kind of a procedural issue, it’s not about
jobs, it’s not about health care or the war in Iraq, so it’s difficult to get Congress
or a stage legislature to really sink their teeth into it,” he said. “I
don’t think anyone’s going to win or lose an election on this issue, so it’s
difficult to find the political will to change an issue like this.”

For Giuliani and the other candidates, the more immediate
concern is how Florida
and the Super Tuesday states will make or break their political fortunes.