Florida is poised to move GOP primary ahead of all others. How will it change the race?

It appears Florida is set to reschedule its 2012 Republican presidential primary for Jan. 31 – ahead of all other states and thrusting it into a potentially critical role in the GOP nomination race.

Mario Anzuoni/REUTERS
Republican presidential candidates: Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, Mitt Romney, Rick Perry, Ron Paul, Herman Cain, and Jon Huntsman stand on stage before the start of the Reagan Centennial GOP presidential primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif., in September.

Florida, it appears, is set to reschedule its 2012 Republican presidential primary for Jan. 31 – ahead of all other states, and in violation of GOP rules.

This may seem trivial, but in the world of presidential primaries, Florida’s decision – expected to be announced Friday by a state commission, according to CNN – is huge. It is likely to trigger a chain reaction in which other key states move their primaries even earlier, forcing candidates, their entourages, and campaign reporters to spend the holidays in the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire.

It may also thrust Florida into a critical position in the GOP primary calendar.

For Iowa and New Hampshire states, going “first” is seen as a birthright. Though in the grand scheme of things, the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses, followed by the first primary, in New Hampshire, are relatively recent inventions.

Iowa’s first presidential nominating caucuses of any import were held by the Democrats on Jan. 24, 1972. (More people checked the box labeled “uncommitted” than any candidate in that caucus.) New Hampshire held its first presidential primary in 1916, but the first one that mattered was in 1952.

But we digress. Iowa and New Hampshire always go first, followed by the South Carolina primary and the Nevada caucuses. Those four states are now enshrined in Republican National Committee rules as “carve-out” states – that is, they are allowed to hold their nominating contests before March 6. The schedule currently has those four states holding their contests in February.

By going early, Florida risks punishment by the Republican National Committee, losing half of its delegates at the Republican National Convention in Tampa next August. But in 2008, Florida did the same thing - moved its primary up to be fifth in line, and lost half of its votes at the convention – and apparently decided it was worth it.

After all, Florida turned out to be the most important primary in the GOP nomination race. It was Sen. John McCain’s victory over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney that led Mr. Romney to drop out and effectively sealed the nomination for Senator McCain. Florida voters got a lot of face time with the candidates in 2008.

A similar scenario could play out this time. If Texas Gov. Rick Perry is able to right his campaign, and hold his strong position in the polls, he could win Iowa and South Carolina, while Romney is favored to win New Hampshire and Nevada. Florida would be a critical tie-breaker.

Republican honchos are hoping to stretch out the nomination process, as the Democrats did four years ago. That left the eventual nominee – now-President Obama – battle-tested and well-organized across the country. His victory map included the traditionally red states of Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia.

“The Republicans were trying to slow things down and capture lightning in a bottle, similar to the Democrats last time,” says Josh Putnam, a political scientist at Davidson College in North Carolina, who is watching the primary scheduling process closely.

Mr. Putnam says there’s no real benefit to having the primaries start in early January, either to the party or to the candidates. But it’s been clear for a while that it would happen, and so the campaigns have been operating under that assumption, he says.

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