It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
The Republican race this year wasn’t supposed to start until February, so voters didn’t have to be troubled with politics when they were still concentrating on mistletoe.
Instead, the first Republican vote took place Jan. 3, when New Year’s champagne bottles were barely in the trash.
The GOP race was supposed to be spirited and exciting. Not one that turned bitterly nasty even as only a handful of delegates have been awarded, allowing plenty of time for a bloody internecine struggle between Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.
How did it turn out this way? Blame Florida, say Republican National Committee members who helped design the rules governing the process year. The Sunshine State decided to ignore a carefully constructed RNC calendar and hold its primary Jan. 31, earlier than the party had intended.
“Greedy, greedy, greedy,” sighed John Ryder, an RNC member from Tennessee who helped craft the rules governing this year’s primary process.
“Astute, relevant, decisive,” shot back Rep. Dean Cannon, the Republican speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, who helped decide it was worth incurring party sanctions to ensure Florida played a major and early role in the process.
For 18 months following the 2008 election, a special RNC committee carefully studied the nominating process to try to come up with a new calendar that would produce the strongest nominee to challenge President Obama in November.
The committee’s goal was to push the whole process out of the Christmas season and to avoid a front-loaded national primary, where all the big states held primaries early and chose the best organized, most well-funded candidate before voters in most of the country even got a chance to participate in the process.
After watching Democrats get energized through a long and closely watched primary battle in 2008 between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, they decided a longer process would help vet candidates and get activists enthusiastic about the campaign.
And so they decided the nominating process wouldn’t kick off until February and wouldn’t begin in earnest until March and April.
Under rules adopted in 2010, no state was supposed to hold a vote in January.
Only Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — states that deeply treasure their traditional first-in-the-nation status — were supposed to vote in February.
States could then choose to hold contests in March, but only if they agreed to undercut their own ability to swing the race by awarding their delegates proportionally to candidates, as opposed to awarding all delegates to the winner of their state’s race.
Most states, it was thought, would choose to hold primaries and caucuses in April or even later.
“The goal was to give candidates a chance to keep playing, states the opportunity to be be relevant and the lesser-funded and less well-known candidate a chance to emerge,” Ryder said.
But then Florida happened. In September, state leaders decided to break RNC rules and conduct the state’s primary on Jan. 31.
Not to be outdone, Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina moved their races up as well.
The RNC had decided it didn’t have the right to bar states from setting their own elections rules — this is the party that holds the 10th amendment in pretty high esteem, after all. But it said it would impose some punishments on states that broke the rules.
States that leap-frogged into January would lose half their delegates, minimizing their impact on the nominating process’ ultimate outcome.
They’d get bad seating at the August convention.
They’d lose guest passes that allow them to wow activists and donors on the floor of the RNC’s big party. And they’d get assigned the worst hotels.
Big whoop, state lawmakers in Florida decided.
“The inconvenience or the modification of the delegate structure at the convention is not nearly as important to me as the substantive and potentially decisive role 18 million Floridians played in choosing the nominee,” Cannon said.
“My job as speaker of the House and a constitutional officer is to do what’s best for Floridians — not what makes political party folks happy,” he added.
As a result of all the rule-breaking, only 135 of 2,286 available delegates have been awarded so far this year, even as more than 2.6 million people have voted in Republican contests stretching across four states.
A new spotlight fell on Florida’s rule-breaking this week, as Gingrich announced he would challenge the state’s decision to award all 50 of its delegates to Romney, who convincingly won the state. After all, RNC rules had said that any state that held a primary before April had to award delegates to candidates in proportion to the percentage of the primary vote they captured.
RNC officials have said they’ve exhausted available penalties for Florida and they can’t force the state to award delegates proportionally.
A challenge to Florida’s rules will probably be considered by an RNC committee shortly before the party’s convention in August. At that point, it will either be critically important or hold no consequences at all, depending on whether Romney has managed to win the delegates he needs to capture the nomination.
“I’m not one to say ‘I told you so.’ But I told you so,” said Linda Herron, an RNC member from Georgia who had lobbied fellow members to reject the new rules.
She said she always believed states like Florida would find the sanctions unconvincing and break the rules.
And she said she’s now concerned a longer process might leave the party’s eventual nominee weakened heading into the general election.
“All they’re doing now is standing in a circular firing squad,” she said, especially given the number of sometimes vicious televised debates. “We’ve got three people, and they’re all slugging it out. I don’t know if that’s hurting us or helping.”
Even so, those who helped draw up the new rules say they have largely functioned as designed.
The goal had been to prevent a nominee from being crowned before much of the party got involved. And, indeed, the GOP race has been volatile and unpredictable, drawing unexpected attention and energy to the race.
“It’s extended the lifeline for candidates like Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich to compete and to share their ideas through debate,” former RNC chairman Michael Steele, who chaired the committee that rewrote the rules. “It’s allowed the base to insert themselves more directly into the process, knowing they have an opportunity to affect the ultimate outcome.”
He said he believes the nastiness of the race is hurting the candidates and sapping activist energy, but blamed the candidates, not the process, for the campaign’s tenor. “That’s wholely on the backs of the candidates,” he said. “It’s not something you can write into the rules.”
Still, the party will redesign the system for 2016. The RNC’s rules committee has been meeting for months to discuss the issue and will propose a new process at the summer convention, said Saul Anuzis, an RNC member from Michigan who sits on the panel.
He said a variety of changes are under discussion, from small tweaks to dramatic overhauls.
Anuzis, who also sat on the committee that wrote the rules for 2012, said he believes this year’s calendar has worked nearly as designed.
“It almost worked,” he said. “If Florida hadn’t moved, it would have.”