Florida GOP unlikely to flout RNC rules on 2016's presidential primary

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is expected to decide early next year if he will run for president in 2016.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio is expected to decide early next year if he will run for president in 2016.
Published Dec. 14, 2014

When it comes to picking the Republican nominee for president of the United States, the Florida GOP carved a special role for itself in the past two presidential campaigns: self-entitled scofflaw.

The Sunshine State's Republican elected leaders, convinced that America's biggest and most diverse battleground state should have an outsized voice in selecting the nominee, unapologetically blew up their national party's carefully crafted primary schedules by setting Florida's primary earlier than allowed in 2008 and 2012.

But for 2016, when former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio could be running to become the first Floridian ever nominated for president, the state GOP appears poised for a new role: compliant pussycat.

This time, no one is talking about ignoring the rules set forth by the Republican National Committee, at least so far. Party leaders are signaling they are content for Florida to share the spotlight with several other states on what is likely to be a "Super Tuesday" primary day on March 1, 2016.

"As big as our state is, we'll be influential regardless of the timing," Florida Republican Party chairwoman Leslie Dougher said.

The state GOP's newfound deference for the RNC's preferred primary calendar stems largely from the national party finally learning its lesson from Florida's prior snubs. Rather than merely threaten to cut the number of convention delegates allotted to states that break the scheduling rules — something that drew shrugs in Florida — the RNC now vows that rule-breaking states would lose nearly all their delegates.

Florida's share of delegates would shrink from nearly 100 to 12 — it would only have slightly more say than Guam in picking the 2016 Republican nominee. That would certainly be no help to Bush or Rubio.

"We want to make sure we have all of our delegates," Dougher said.

So do Florida Democrats, who have little choice but to follow the lead of the GOP, which controls the Legislature and can decide whether to change the law setting the presidential primary. Democrats expect to hold their presidential primary March 1 as well, in compliance with their national party rules.

"We're very pleased as a party because it makes the process smoother," said Joshua Karp, spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party, which in 2008 saw presidential candidates refuse to campaign in Florida because it bucked the Democratic National Committee's sanctioned calendar.

Winning the nomination requires winning enough delegates, and the more delegates Florida has, the better for a Florida candidate like Rubio or Bush.

That's why Rubio — who as Florida House speaker in 2007 led the charge to break the RNC rules and hold an early primary in 2008 — last year pressed legislators to pass a bill requiring Florida to comply with the national parties' schedule. That law says Florida can hold its presidential primary on the earliest possible date that does not warrant a penalty from either major party.

That means March 1 at the earliest, though nothing is firm yet.

"Having the primary in March is much better for a candidate from Florida than moving it up and losing delegates," said Republican consultant Marc Reichelderfer. "The media will be forward-looking as they count delegates and view Florida's large delegate count in their column."

Ironically, in a year when Florida could field two leading Republican presidential contenders, the Republican presidential primary could be the least interesting in over a decade. Because it's so expensive to campaign in Florida, other candidates might see little incentive to compete for Florida support against a heavy local favorite such as Bush or Rubio. They can concentrate on other states voting the same day as Florida.

"If Florida's primary is on a Super Tuesday it is unlikely to have the disproportionate impact of past elections," said former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux. "For example, (Sen. John) McCain clinched the nomination in 2008 by winning Florida. If Jeb or Marco runs, other candidates may concentrate their dollars in less expensive states."

Rubio and Bush are expected to decide on presidential runs by early next year.

The calendar is still subject to change, but the national party approved a schedule aimed at avoiding a drawn-out primary battle like in 2012, when it started in January and lasted until June. Many Republicans think Mitt Romney would have been much better off turning his attention to Barack Obama sooner, rather than slogging it out against longshot former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum through the spring.

Under RNC rules, only four states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — can hold primaries or caucuses before March. The party expects and hopes those states will set their elections for February.

Then comes March 1, when Florida is expected to join several other states, including Virginia, Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Massachusetts, in holding primaries.

"That Super Tuesday looks like it's going to have a particularly southern flavor to it," said Josh Putnam, a political scientist at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, who tracks the primary process on his blog, FrontloadingHQ.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp is coordinating with other southern states to turn March 1 into a regional primary that has been dubbed the SEC primary, after college sports' Southeastern Conference.

The RNC rules say that states holding primaries and caucuses before March 17 must award their delegates proportionally — rather than winner-takes-all — theoretically preventing a candidate with momentum from clinching the nomination too quickly and without sufficient scrutiny.

But the RNC also wants to hold the nominating convention much earlier in the campaign year and is requiring nominating contests to finish 45 days before the convention. With a slew of primaries expected in the second half of March, the nomination should be locked up much earlier than in 2012.

Contact Adam Smith at Follow @AdamSmithTimes.