America is threatened by many crises, ranging from economic recession to international terrorism, but none of these threats are quite so immediate or so fundamentally hostile to our democratic form of government as the existential menace of Florida.
Perhaps this is a slight exaggeration, but not by too much, when you consider the multiple ramifications of Florida's announced plan to hold its 2012 presidential primary on Jan. 31. This would completely wreck the primary schedule as other states move up their dates, and would also result in the Republican National Committee stripping Florida of half its delegates to next year's convention, which will be held in Tampa. So Republicans in the host state of the GOP convention would be punished for a decision made by their own elected Republican leaders, who seem indifferent to the consequences.
"We know the risk we're taking, but we're talking about satisfying maybe 100 people versus 19 million people who could have a say in who the nominee is," Florida state Senate president Mike Haridopolos told the Wall Street Journal, as if a Florida primary in March -- where it should be, according to RNC rules -- would be utterly irrelevant to the nomination process. This kind of pretzel-logic is inexplicable to sane people, but we're talking about Florida Republicans, whose former state party chairman, Jim Greer, tried to rig the state's 2010 Senate primary with an early endorsement for former Gov. Charlie Crist. That classic example of Florida GOP shenanigans sparked a grassroots uprising that elected Marco Rubio to the Senate and drove Crist out of the party completely, while Greer is currently awaiting trial on felony corruption charges..
But while Florida GOP leaders evidently either don't know or don't care what's good for their own state party, the repercussions of their madness will be felt far beyond the Sunshine State. A Jan. 31 date for Florida's primary would result in four other events on the presidential campaign calendar -- the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries, and the Nevada caucuses -- also leap-frogging to January dates. And while some may shrug at this truncation of the schedule, it undermines the entire rationale of the primary system.
There are logical reasons why the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries, especially, have become sacrosanct as the first events of the quadrennial presidential campaign calendar. Both are states with small populations (Iowa about 3 million, New Hampshire about 1.3 million) where TV and radio advertising are relatively cheap. This permits little-known long-shots with small budgets to campaign on a fairly even playing field with better-known and better-funded candidates. Furthermore, Iowa and New Hampshire are states where retail politics -- the old-fashioned business of shaking hands and meeting voters one-on-one or in small meetings -- are a huge factor in the campaign. Barack Obama famously beat Hillary Clinton in Iowa four years ago because of Obama's greater strength in grassroots organizing, and Jimmy Carter won New Hampshire in 1976 by bringing scores of Georgians (the "Peanut Brigades") to go door-to-door for him in the Granite State. So unless we wish presidential campaigns to become all about money and what pollsters call "name ID," having Iowa and New Hampshire go first looks like a good idea.
Yet we ought not confine ourselves to merely logical reasons for keeping Iowa and New Hampshire first. Aren't Republicans conservatives, and don't conservatives believe in the value of tradition? There is something wonderfully traditional -- indeed, downright reactionary -- about having presidential candidates go through the quaint custom of waiting for returns from tiny precinct caucuses in Iowa and shaking hands with voters in the snowy streets of small-town New Hampshire in February. Nor are these traditions merely sentimental. The pragmatic and utilitarian value of tradition is evident in that voters of Iowa and New Hampshire, long accustomed to their role in vetting presidential candidates of both parties, have become quite shrewd judges in these matters. A joke told by Tim Albrecht, spokesman for Iowa Gov. Terry Brandstad, is quite relevant here: An Iowa Republican is asked whether he supports a certain presidential candidate and answers, "I don't know. I've only met him twice." Early-state voters are not over-awed by "rock star" candidates and media hype, because they've seen it all so many times before. Such is the real value of tradition.
Floridians might argue that there is no reason Iowa and New Hampshire can't still go first, just because the Sunshine State moves it's primary up to Jan. 31, True enough, but the likely impact of that move would be to trample on other events in our American tradition, including Christmas and football. Until 1984, before the recent craze for "front-loading" the primary calendar, the New Hampshire primary was held the first Tuesday in March. (Iowa's caucuses were more variable, with dates ranging from Jan. 19 in 1976 to Feb. 20 in 1984.) That schedule permitted at least a couple of weeks, and sometimes more than a month, for survivors of the Iowa ordeal to campaign in New Hampshire. For more than two decades, however, New Hampshire has been forced to fend off threats to its legislatively mandated first-in-the-nation primary by scheduling earlier and earlier, in turn forcing Iowa to do the same. Four years ago (largely because of Florida's insistence on an early date), Iowa held its caucuses on Thursday, Jan. 3, and New Hampshire's primary was Tuesday, Jan. 8.
With such a speeded-up schedule, not only are candidates effectively forced to choose between the two first states in making their final campaign thrusts -- a candidate who emphasizes Iowa can scarcely avoid the appearance of snubbing New Hampshire, and vice-versa -- but the business of campaigning intrudes on the Christmas holidays. And now that college football has instituted the Bowl Championship Series, the national champ isn't crowned on New Year's Day but rather (this year) in New Orleans on Jan. 9. Do Floridians really want to force people to choose politics over football and Christmas? Before the talk of a Jan. 31 Florida primary, Iowa had scheduled its caucuses for the reasonable date of Feb. 6 (the Monday after the Super Bowl) so that Americans could get a late-December holiday break from politics, and no football fan could complain.
Many people have tried to talk sense to Haridopolos and the other Florida Republicans who seem determined to inflict January insanity on the nation. Paul Senft, the state's Republican National Committeeman, warned that moving up the primary "will alienate the remainder of the country." RNC Chairman Reince Priebus is said to be attempting to negotiate some way to avert this disaster, and yet the Floridians seem to think themselves entitled to dictate terms to the rest of the GOP. In an interview with the Hill, Florida Republican strategist Justin Sayfie said that if Priebus stripped the state party of half its delegates to the Tampa convention as punishment for breaking the rules, it would be a "slap in the face to the Republican leadership in the state of Florida."
No "leadership" would ever have deserved a slap in the face more than if the madmen leading the Florida GOP wreck the 2012 schedule -- and as collateral damage, ruin Christmas -- for the rest of America.