Florida leaders are meeting today to set the state's 2012 presidential primary for Jan. 31. The move would put Florida in position to be among the first primaries in the nation, giving it more influence in picking the presidential nominee for the Republican Party. But it also violates the party's scheduling rules, and it will result in a loss of delegates at the national convention next year in Tampa. There is no good answer to this quadrennial quandary, except to say that this elbow-throwing gamesmanship is no way to pick a nominee for president.
According to Republican National Committee rules, only four states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — may schedule a presidential preference primary or caucus vote before March 6. Any state that schedules an earlier vote would lose half its delegates to the Republican National Convention. But states are not particularly concerned about this sanction. Arizona has set its primary date for Feb. 28, Missouri has jumped to Feb. 7, and Colorado scheduled its caucuses for the same date. Florida's special committee postponed its decision until today to make last-minute adjustments that would keep Florida among the earliest. States have until Oct. 1 to finalize their primary calendar.
Democrats have similar rules, but with President Barack Obama as the inevitable nominee Florida Democrats can bow out of the primary and choose their delegates through county caucuses in June 2012. That is lucky considering that Democrats have been frozen out of the decision-making process by the state's Republican leaders. There is nothing fair about that, either.
Florida has been in this fix before. In 2008, the state set its primary for Jan. 29, which virtually guaranteed its influence in the contest would reflect the state's importance in presidential contests. The primary helped launch Sen. John McCain toward his party's nomination. But it also meant Florida lost half of its Republican delegates. Ultimately, all of Florida's delegates were seated, with half designated as nonvoting "honored guests." But this time the RNC may not be so forgiving. And if the nomination is still in flux by the time of the convention, giving up half of Florida's 116 or so Republican delegates would have its own negative repercussions.
All this uncertainty and maneuvering adds to the cynicism of voters and their sense that our electoral system is broken. Florida has unique qualifications to be an early primary state. It is the nation's largest swing state, with over 12 million registered voters, 29 electoral votes and a highly diverse population that largely reflects the demographics of America. If there were a reasonable primary process in place, such as a rotating series of regional primary dates, Florida would not have to play games to be among the first.