Florida’s move this past weekend to change its primary date to Jan. 31 in violation of Republican National Committee rules will drastically alter the GOP presidential nomination fight. Under RNC dictates, the only states permitted to conduct a delegate selection event prior to the March 6 Super Tuesday date are Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina. Florida is willing to accept penalties that will reduce their 99-member Republican National Committee delegation to approximately 50, coupled with other sanctions, in order to make the move.
But accepting intra-party punishment is not the only factor involved in altering their election schedule. Under the Voting Rights Act, all or parts of 16 states are subjected to federal approval of all electoral moves, including primary/caucus date selection. Therefore, it is the Obama Justice Department that will have to grant Florida, New Hampshire, and South Carolina “pre-clearance” or, in this case, permission, to schedule a nominating event in January 2012. Only Iowa and Nevada, in this group of five states, may move unencumbered because they are not part of the group of 16.
The RNC’s originally proposed calendar began with the Iowa Caucus in early February, but Florida’s attempted move to the last day in January means the other four states are forced to leap-frog the Sunshine State in order to maintain their prominent political position. This means five nominating events, two caucuses (IA, NV) and three primaries (NH, SC, FL), will be held in the first month of next year followed by a five-week void until Super Tuesday in early March.
How does the proposed schedule change affect the current crop of candidates and potential late entries? The big winners under the new calendar are the two front-runners, Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. The early and compressed voting schedule favors the better-known candidates and those having the largest campaign war chests. The quicker time frame featuring five shotgun-style nominating events in a 29-day period gives less time to the current also-rans to ramp up a credible campaign and makes gaining momentum from an early surprise victory even more difficult because there simply won’t be enough time to cement a previous win.
But the potential late entries are an even greater disadvantage under the new voting schedule because they will now have less time to construct a major campaign operation from scratch. Therefore, Florida’s decision this weekend makes it even more unlikely that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and former Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin will become official candidates.
If the GOP fight winnows down to a two-candidate race in January, then watch for a very interesting race. Perry wins a one-on-one match with Romney if he can successfully cast himself as the conservatives’ candidate and frame Romney as the moderate. On the other hand, as we have seen particularly in the last 10 days, Romney has the superior campaign apparatus, so Perry will have to make a rapid operational improvement or he risks losing his early strong standing.
As so often in American politics, the schedule can be the determining factor in deciding battles. Such may be the case with the 2012 GOP presidential contest. At the very least, however, this weekend’s Florida decision has set this campaign upon a brand new course.