In the aftermath of theto move its primary date to January 31, 2012 -- a clear rebuke of the process set by the Republican National Committee -- RNC officials stress that their primary goal of having more states play a role in the nominating process has been met.
"While the primaries will now start earlier than planned, the overarching goal of the current rules was to allow more states and voters to have a role in choosing the next Republican nominee for president. This goal will be met," said RNC spokesperson Kirsten Kukowski.
Under a plan agreed to last year, the RNC said that any state that holds a winner-take-all primary or caucus before April 1, 2012 would be penalized by losing half of its delegates' votes at the party's national convention, which will take place in Tampa.
The rule specifically carved out exceptions for Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, permitting those states to hold electoral contests in February. The RNC says it had two goals: one, to hold the primary calendar later in the year, and two, to have more people take part in the process.
"One state changed the dynamic," said an RNC official, speaking of the calendar goal. But officials were upbeat that the goal of having broader participation, with more states and more voters having a say in the process, was achieved. "It's good for the candidates and the party," said an official.
In 2008, the Iowa Caucus was January 3, meaning that candidates spent the entire holiday season campaigning. The RNC was hoping to avoid a similarly early start to the process in 2012, but Florida's decision means the early start cannot be avoided.
Florida, though, will face the penalty of losing half of its delegates at the convention that it is hosting.
"There is no discretion. There's not some kind of a waiver. Those penalties were enforced in 2008 and will be enforced again in 2012," said a Republican official.
What is significant is that RNC officials say any primary state that moves up, including New Hampshire or South Carolina, would be penalized with losing half of its delegates at the convention. Iowa, being a non-binding caucus event, would not be penalized. Additionally, Arizona and Michigan, which are holding their primaries on February 28, will also be sanctioned.
The situation mirrors exactly what happened in 2008, when Florida moved its primary up, causing a cascade effect with other states jumping forward. That year the RNC stripped half of the delegates from Florida, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Michigan and Wyoming.
The calendar shift from Florida, and the expected shift from other states, emphasizes that these states see their leverage over the nomination process in terms of creating momentum, not binding delegates.
As smaller states with smaller delegate allocations to begin with, this may not surprise. Going early in the process gives places like Iowa and New Hampshire unparalleled attention and ability to winnow the field, history shows. That attention clearly outweighs any penalty they may face when it comes to delegate seating at the late fall convention.
At least one other state pushed the penalty to be enforced again.
"I fully expect the Republican National Committee to enforce its rules and penalize Florida and any other state that violates them as this process continues," said Georgia's Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who just yesterday decided to move his state's primary to March 6, in part of avoid a penalty by the RNC.
"Like many states who have chosen to play by the rules, Georgia committed in good faith to working within the parameters required by the Republican National Committee. Florida has made its decision, but should not be rewarded by daring the Committee to enforce its rules," Kemp said in a statement.
To avoid an RNC penalty, the Missouri Republican Party has abandoned its state's February 7 primary in favor of a March party only caucus.
"A caucus will continue to protect the rights of Missourians to select the Republican nominee for president--and any self-declared Republican who is registered to vote in Missouri has the ability to participate in the caucus process," said David Cole, Chairman of the Missouri Republican Party in a statement.