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Florida’s primary is one of the country’s latest. How does that shape campaigns?

Primary dates don’t impact turnout or fundraising much but can still make a difference in races, experts say.
 
A poll worker verifies a vote-by-mail ballot at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center polling station in Miami in 2020.
A poll worker verifies a vote-by-mail ballot at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center polling station in Miami in 2020. [ JOE RAEDLE | Getty Images North America ]
Published July 26, 2022|Updated July 26, 2022

Midterm primary election results from across the country have been rolling in since March. But Floridians won’t get to vote for their party’s candidates until Aug. 23 — making them one of the last states to do so.

Research shows that primary timing doesn’t generally have a sizable impact on broad election trends like turnout or fundraising. Still, experts say the date can shape candidates’ messaging and help tip the scales in some individual races.

The late primary has been a part of Florida politics since the 1970s, when the state Legislature pushed the date back, said Aubrey Jewett, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida who studies state politics. The current date is an outlier among southern states, which typically hold their primaries in late May or June, and is more in line with smaller northeastern states like Massachusetts, Delaware, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, all of which have primaries scheduled for early September.

State law fixes the primary date 11 weeks before the November general election. Since 2000, that number has varied between eight and 12 weeks.

Primary elections often receive less attention than the general elections in November. But for voters who live in uncompetitive districts where Republicans or Democrats win by overwhelming majorities, or where only one party is fielding candidates, primaries are their only chance to decide who represents them in Congress, the Florida Legislature or other state and local seats.

Florida’s primary is closed, meaning that in most cases, voters can only vote for candidates in the party they’re registered with. But all voters, regardless of party, can cast a ballot in the primary for nonpartisan races, such as for judges, school board members and referendums.

Related: What to know about voting in the Florida primary: deadlines, vote-by-mail and more

Some advocacy groups have long debated whether earlier or later primaries can make elections more fair, competitive or affordable, said Robert Boatright, a professor of political science at Clark University. But Boatright said his research into congressional elections has not shown primary dates impact those long-term trends.

Some evidence shows turnout increases in later primaries, Boatright said, but it’s not conclusive that the date is a key factor in getting voters to the polls.

“There’s a slight impact of primary dates, but it’s not nearly as substantial as some might think,” Boatright said.

Still, he and others say primary timing may have a substantial impact on election outcomes in individual races. For instance, Boatright said, campaigns with less funding may face more difficulties budgeting a campaign that stretches out over a longer election season.

Candidates facing a primary challenge in August may also have to respond to different issues than candidates in states with earlier primaries, Jewett said. That was on display during 2020′s primary season, with candidates tailoring their messaging in response to the then-nascent COVID-19 pandemic.

The winner of a divisive late primary might also struggle to pull together their party before the general election, Jewett said. And candidates who win an early primary might lose support, or face new criticism or scandals, in the long window before November.

“If you have a candidate who is less well-known going up against a better-known incumbent, then having a late primary might have an impact,” Jewett said. “That would give you a couple more months to raise money and make your case to the voters.”

Hans Hassell, director of Florida State University’s Institute of Politics, said his research suggests late primaries might result in nominations that are more representative of the parties as a whole.

During early primaries, which are farther removed from the political buzz surrounding the general election, fewer voters are paying attention, Hassell said. As a result, he said, special interests and the committed single-issue voters who support them may play a greater role in which candidates make it to the general election.

“The folks that show up (in early primaries) are more interested and more dedicated than those that would show up in September, when the general election is two months away, and everybody’s talking about the election,” Hassell said.

Hassell noted that a lot can change in politics in a short amount of time, saying that a candidate’s political fortunes can shift during the relatively short window between Florida’s primary and the general election.

“A lot can happen in that period of time,” he said.