Another Perspective

A Defense of Florida

A January 31 Florida primary will not spoil anyone's Christmas, though the RNC seems eager to spoil the GOP's chances next year.

By 10.10.11

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TAMPA -- No one is keen on politicking over the Christmas holidays. I certainly don't want to mix political speeches with my Christmas carols, though a certain kind of eggnog might make some of the candidates go down better. But this year there may be more of this than in years past as at least five states have moved, or are likely to move, their presidential primaries or caucuses into January.

So far Florida is getting the biggest share of blame for this doleful outcome after a state panel appointed for the purpose decided Florida would move its primary forward to January 31. This has led the traditionally early primary and caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, all of which had planned to have their say in February, to leapfrog into January.

I'm trying not to be a homer here. But Florida gets the full rap for this mixing of campaigning and cranberry sauce only if one believes it is written on the heart of Man by the finger of God that the traditional four must go first.

Other than divine interest, and there's no evidence of this so far, no compelling reasons exist for these four small and untypical states to begin the business of choosing the next president. In conversations with Republican National Committee officials and both the Florida State Republican Committee Man and Committee Woman, I've been unable to unearth any reason for this sequence other than that, "This is how we decided it should be and it's a rule." Also it's asserted that this sequence is "a tradition."

As traditions go, this one is hardly venerable. New Hampshire has indeed had a long history of hitting in the presidential leadoff spot. But the Iowa caucuses have been around for many fewer cycles, and South Carolina and Nevada only for the last couple. So the argument from tradition is weak.

Another argument politically savvy types give for the small states going first, though not one I heard from RNC officials, is that a skilled retail campaigner with limited campaign cash can make his/her case face to face in the confined space of Iowa or New Hampshire. Forget TV ads. Packaging doesn't help here. Candidates have to convince voters standing right in front of them.

I saw this up close and personal in the late summer of 2007 when I went to New Hampshire to do some political writing (OK, I also caught a couple of Red Sox games, but I mostly went for the politics). In a week I was able to meet and talk with all the major Republican candidates (the Dems were elsewhere that week). One weekday I told Mike Huckabee the same joke at lunch that I'd told Tom Tancredo the night before at dinner. Not sure that I wasn't a New Hampshire voter, they both laughed.

There's something to this retail campaigning business. But how much? This year the Democrats know who will head their ticket, and it's unlikely there will be an underfunded Republican with a winning case who needs the less expensive platforms of Iowa and New Hampshire to get on the electoral map. And, with no disrespect intended to the fine folks in both states, Iowa and New Hampshire are hardly typical of the nation. There is a higher percentage of evangelicals in Iowa than elsewhere. New Hampshire is majority conservative with a strong libertarian streak. There are more independents in New Hampshire than either Republicans or Democrats. Both states are whiter than rice, and not just in the winter.

The arguments for Nevada or South Carolina as early birds are even weaker. Anyone who suggests that, "As Winnemucca goes, so goes the nation," risks being institutionalized.

Florida, on the other hand, is the United States writ small. Actually, not all that small, with almost 19 million souls calling Florida home. It's the fourth largest state, and the biggest swing state, there being little mystery about which column California, Texas, and New York will find themselves in after votes are counted in November 2012.

All the races, economic classes, and other important political demographics exist in Florida in roughly the proportions they exist in the nation. Florida is a proving ground with national significance. A conservative candidate who can win in Florida in January can win it all in November. And with 29 electoral votes, more than 10 percent of the total necessary to get to the White House, there's no way for a Republican to retire our socialist president without carrying Florida next year.

Not surprising then, Florida Republicans would like a say in deciding who will run for president. They'd rather not wait till the business is settled before they get to vote. Thus January 31.

Considering the importance of all this, we're entitled to wonder why national Republicans continue to say they will punish Florida Republicans if they don't set a primary date the nationals consider seemly. The threat is the RNC will strip Florida of half its convention delegates next August unless Florida slinks back down the line where national Republicans say it belongs. Keep writing those big contribution checks to candidates and to the party, but otherwise do what you're told, they say. RNC strategy appears to be to insult and annoy the most important state to the party's success next year.

This approach is particularly toxic this cycle as the Republican convention will be held in Tampa. What a great story this will be for the main(left)-stream media, "National Republicans Diss Host." In how many interviews will Democrats croon, "How can the Republican Party run the country? It can't even run its primaries." Wouldn't it be a better idea to try to put the focus on the conservative candidate coronated at the convention rather than on a pointless intra-mural squabble?

Barack Obama's favorability ratings remain in the tank. There's little hope of his policies and his administration showing themselves as anything but pluperfect failures between now and Election Day. This one appears to be the Republicans' to lose. But they appear to be working on it.

Republican candidates get well-deserved hands at political events when they speak out against pointless and damaging rules and regulations that impair our economy and diminish our lives. Perhaps it's time for national Republican officials to revisit some of their own.

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.