Democrats' primary may not count. So what, some say

Momentum of a Florida win may matter more.

Published May 28, 2007

Often lost amid the state-by-state presidential nominating scramble is the prize each state offers the candidates: delegates to the national nominating conventions.

Nobody gets the nomination without enough delegates, after all.

Which helps explain why Florida Democrats are in such a bind now that America's biggest swing state has decided to snub the rules of the national parties and hold one of the first presidential primaries of 2008.

Driving the Democrats' anxiety is the growing sense that this could be a longer-than-expected primary contest, where delegates really do matter.

The national parties intend to punish Florida for scheduling its presidential primary election too early by not counting the state's delegates to the national conventions.

The response from Florida Republicans? Yawn. Who cares about balloons and funny hats at a ceremonial convention anyway? Florida Republicans say winning the most votes in Florida is prize enough for any candidate because of the momentum it would generate in other states.

The response from Florida Democrats? Anger, worry, and most of all, confusion.

The "count every vote" party is seriously considering telling hundreds of thousands of Florida Democrats that if they show up to vote Jan. 29, their ballots will be officially meaningless. They're so worried about losing delegates, Florida Democrats may make Jan. 29 a nonbinding election and hold some sort of caucus to divvy up delegates later on.

"When I explain this to people, they cannot comprehend these rules and they cannot believe the Democratic Party would disenfranchise them and make their vote not count in 2008, " said Chris Korge, a south Florida developer and top fundraiser for Hillary Rodham Clinton. "This idea of a caucus is ridiculous."

'Delegates do matter'

Early momentum usually drives the nominating process, but there's a plausible scenario for split victories in January 2008: John Edwards wins the Iowa caucuses, where he ran strong in 2004; New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson wins the Nevada caucus in his home region; Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York wins the nearby primary in New Hampshire; and Sen. Barack Obama wins South Carolina, with its huge black voting bloc.

Then comes Florida's Jan. 29 primary, one week before roughly two dozen states vote on Feb. 5.

"If there are no Florida delegates to be awarded, the candidates won't spend money here campaigning - or at least I don't think they will - because delegates do matter, " said Fort Lauderdale lawyer Mitchell Berger, a veteran Democratic fundraiser backing former North Carolina Sen. Edwards.

Parties sought order

Both national parties tried to assert some order on the nominating process and set rules to keep states, which have the authority to schedule votes when they want, to follow along.

Florida broke the rule that forbids states to schedule elections before Feb. 5, which was made to promote geographic and demographic balance while protecting states that historically have had a big, early role in the nominations. The penalty is to lose half the delegates to the national convention.

The Democratic National Committee rules go further, saying any candidate who campaigns in a state violating the schedule - and that includes raising money - will forfeit any delegates from that state. Florida has nearly 10 percent of the 2, 165 delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination.

The question is whether losing those delegates would be significant or whether the momentum of doing well in Florida, even in a nonbinding election, would propel a candidate to victories in other states on Feb. 5.

With elections everywhere from Illinois to California to New York, that day effectively becomes a national primary election, but at least two candidates could still be viable then.

Not since Ronald Reagan tried to snatch the nomination from Gerald Ford in 1976 has a national convention had drama and suspense, but nominations ultimately are about delegate counts and the prospect of a brokered convention always exists.

"Having a strategy of getting to the number of delegates to secure the nomination does matter, " said Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, who as Al Gore's campaign manager in 2000 invested minimal effort in Washington state because its primary did not count for delegates.

She sits on the DNC rules committee and said "no way" will the rules be changed to accommodate Florida Democrats. Otherwise, other key states such as Ohio or Pennsylvania might be tempted to reschedule.

"Florida could have played a much more strategic role moving to Feb. 12 rather than Jan. 29, " Brazile said.

Eye on the prize

The DNC has granted the state party another extension for putting together its plan for awarding delegates. State party chairwoman Karen Thurman said she is looking at all options, even using Internet voting at later caucuses, and has not ruled out simply sticking with Jan. 29 and accepting the penalties.

The state has little history organizing caucus elections, in which party activists typically gather at locations across the state and conduct internal votes. By some accounts that could cost the party millions of dollars.

Further complicating the matter is the possibility that other states, including New Hampshire, South Carolina, even Michigan, may move their primaries earlier in response to Florida's move.

"The one consensus that I am finding, " Thurman said, "is that everybody that I talk to absolutely does not want to disenfranchise the voters in Florida and that whatever we do we keep our eye on the ball: winning the election in November of '08."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at 727 893-8241 or asmith@sptimes.com.