All across Iowa, Republican candidates are trying to cram as much campaigning as possible into the days remaining before the Jan. 3 caucuses, all the while taking care not to get in the way of the voters’ real lives during the holiday rush.
It’s not easy. Newt Gingrich is planning a tour of more than 40 cities and towns. Rick Perry is in the middle of his own marathon. Michele Bachmann is trying to hit all 99 of Iowa’s counties in just 10 days. It’s an insane last-minute rush, at a moment when most voters’ time is filled with holiday gatherings and shopping and preparation.
Why would Republicans schedule such a crucial event at such an inconvenient time? What sense does that make? The answer is: It doesn’t make any sense, and it didn’t have to be that way. And it wouldn’t be, were it not for Florida.
The Iowa caucuses were originally scheduled to take place on Feb. 6, followed by New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Each state jealously guards its place in the schedule — Iowa is the first caucus; New Hampshire, the first primary; South Carolina, first in the South, and Nevada, first in the West.
Having the race begin in earnest on Feb. 6 would have allowed Republicans plenty of time to campaign after all the holiday distractions. The other states would have followed in an orderly fashion, with Florida set for March.
But Florida Republicans worried that a fast-breaking Republican race might be decided by March, which would give Florida no role in selecting the GOP nominee. So Florida Gov. Rick Scott and a group of legislators decided to move Florida’s primary to Jan. 31, ahead of Iowa and the rest of the pack.
The Floridians knew the move was against party rules, but as former Gov. Bob Martinez explained: “We’re the biggest swing state in the Union.” And the biggest swing state does what it wants.
The other states howled. Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn denounced Florida’s “arrogance” and “petulant behavior.” New Hampshire GOP Chairman Wayne MacDonald called the decision “a disservice to the political process.” South Carolina GOP Chairman Chad Connelly called Florida a “rogue state.”
No matter. “Florida will be crucial to the general election strategy, and we are the fourth-most populous state in the Union,” says Florida GOP spokesman Brian Hughes. “What other states did to pack around the holidays and how candidates and their organizations choose to campaign are not things that Florida could decide.”
The move has had the most effect in Iowa. For example, it’s normal to have the last debate a few days before the caucuses. When Iowa was planning to hold the caucuses on Feb. 6, a Monday, a debate was planned for Thursday, Feb. 2. Now, with the caucuses on Jan. 3, it’s just not possible to hold a debate a few days beforehand, unless Republicans wanted to do it on New Year’s Eve. So the last debate of a debate-packed season was Dec. 15 — nearly three weeks before the caucuses. Because of Florida’s move, Iowa voters won’t get a last look at all the candidates.
The final days of the Iowa campaign will also have a weird start-and-stop quality. “Everybody is going to hit the pause button over this weekend,” says party chairman Strawn. Christmas break will be followed, he says, by “an intense sprint at the end trying to capture the attention of caucus-goers who have kids home from school.” And then there will be New Year’s.
Florida’s move will have one more effect, this one felt nationally. Because of all the reshuffling, there will be a strangely quiet period in the Republican race in February. After voting in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri on Feb. 7, there will be three weeks before the next contests, on Feb. 28 in Arizona and Michigan. There would have been no gap had Florida not broken the Republicans’ carefully planned schedule.
In the end, Florida’s move might backfire. State Republicans wanted an earlier primary to make sure Florida would play a major role in selecting the candidate, even if the race was over quickly. But if the campaign stretches out for months, it will be later primaries, and not Florida, that could prove decisive. It could turn out that Florida Republicans outsmarted themselves.
Meanwhile, the Merry-Christmas-Happy-New-Year-please-vote-for-me campaigning continues in Iowa. Nobody wants it that way, but they have to play the hand that Florida dealt them.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.