With a few sentences tucked into a 44-page elections bill during the frantic final hours of the Florida legislative session last week, Florida ended its eight-year battle with the national political parties over its early presidential primary.
The move was suggested by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who could benefit from it if he runs for president in 2016.
“If Marco Rubio is running, the effect is to make sure all those (Florida) delegates go to him,” said Josh Putnam, Davidson College political scientist who’s a leading national expert on the presidential nominating procedure.
Even if Rubio doesn’t run, changing the date of Florida’s presidential primary – which can hand a candidate the nation’s third-largest cache of nominating convention delegates – will reshape future nomination battles, experts say.
In the past two presidential elections, Republicans who dominate the Florida Legislature have set the state’s presidential primaries weeks earlier than national party rules allowed – Jan. 29, 2008, and Jan. 31, 2012.
They did so to enhance Florida’s influence on the nomination. Winning an early primary, according to conventional political wisdom, gives a candidate momentum.
But other states did the same, setting off a stampede for earlier dates. That pushed the campaign season into the winter holidays prior to the election, straining the endurance of voters and the finances of the candidates.
To halt the rush, the national Republican and Democratic parties have cooperated in setting schedules and penalizing states that don’t comply by cutting the number of voting delegates they can send to the national conventions.
The results: In 2008, Florida’s primary awarded no voting delegates to the Democratic convention.
Republicans lost half their delegates in the 2008 convention and the 2012 Tampa convention. State Republican Party and legislative leaders said the prestige, publicity and momentum of early primaries were worth it.
But now the national Republican Party has put more teeth in the rules with a “super-penalty” for any state except the four designated early states – Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina – that holds a primary before the last Tuesday in February.
It would cost state Republicans all but 12 delegates compared to around 100 they would otherwise have.
That’s a problem in an election cycle with two Florida Republicans, Jeb Bush and Rubio, among the top potential candidates. Some of the same Republicans who once said the early date was all-important are now saying the state needs a full slate of delegates.
Among them is Rubio, who led the charge as state House speaker in 2007 to move the 2008 primary from March to January. He later called the move a success, saying it drew support to Florida issues including a national catastrophe insurance fund.
No such fund ever materialized, however.
Rubio, meanwhile, blamed the disenfranchisement of state Democrats in their 2008 primary on the national Democratic Party, saying, "They went beyond what they had to do … It was an outrageous disenfranchisement of an entire state."
Late in the legislative session that ended last week, Todd Reid, Rubio’s state director, delivered a suggestion to Florida legislators that they push the date back to obey party rules.
Florida Democrats agreed to the move, according to prominent Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who discussed it with Reid.
The new date likely will be March 1, 2016, the first Tuesday with no penalties by either party.
In an email, Reid said the idea “had nothing to do with Senator Rubio” or his presidential ambitions, but that Rubio “agreed it made sense.”
“It was an idea with bipartisan support to protect and strengthen the influence of Florida voters on the presidential candidate selection process,” Reid said.
Asked why Rubio changed his view, Reid blamed the super-penalty, which would make Florida’s GOP delegation smaller than Vermont or American Samoa.
“The extra attention of going early is no longer worth bearing the penalty,” he said.
The change will affect the Republican race more than the Democratic one because of how the state parties choose their delegates, said Ashley Walker, who led the Obama 2012 campaign in Florida.
Democrats use a proportional system in which a second-place candidate can win some delegates.
Republicans use “winner-take-all” system, which makes the state a bigger prize for a Republican.
Walker said going early may not be as important in deciding the outcome of the nomination as it once was.
“In the last two election cycles, we’ve seen a much more drawn-out process,” in which candidates battled for delegates into late spring or early summer, she said.
Republican strategist Rick Wilson said because of it size and diversity, Florida tends to winnow out candidates who are less well-organized and well-funded.
Delaying the Florida primary could allow “stunt candidates,” with little organization or reputation, to survive longer, he said.
Wilson wouldn’t name examples, but some establishment Republicans have lamented that in 2012, Mitt Romney was forced to spend so much time and money fighting off candidates including Michele Bachmann, Donald Trump and Herman Cain.
The rise of independent political committees, which allow a few wealthy donors to fund an entire campaign, helps such candidates survive, Wilson said.