Rule Breaker: The Florida Republican Primary, Winner-Take-All Allocation, and the Undoing of American Democracy

by Sheahan Virgin // Published February 2, 2012

Photo Credit:  Joe Raedle, Getty

Alligators and orange juice, space ships and sunshine be damned, Florida’s greatest claim to fame over the last decade has been its penchant for political controversy. Having labored and lucked its way into the spotlight of successive election cycles, the Sunshine State is today an almost mythical place for presidential candidates, a land of both hope and hazard. And more than any other state over the last decade, Florida has demonstrated to Americans the perils of reflexive adherence to current voting procedures and the overwhelming need for election reform.

Two days ago, Florida once again found itself on the frontlines of a presidential election, as it played host to a Republican Party searching for clarity amid the disorienting fog of war. In the GOP’s 2012 nomination contest, three states had gone before Florida, each coronating a different would-be nominee—Iowa for Rick Santorum, New Hampshire for Mitt Romney, South Carolina for Newt Gingrich—a lack of concurrence that positioned Florida as an all-powerful tiebreaker with the schedule to itself.

After days of attention, a handful of nationally televised debates, and millions of dollars in advertisements, the candidates—having made their respective pitches—could only wait for Floridians to render a collective verdict. In the end, Romney overwhelmed Gingrich, winning with 46.4% of the vote—his largest plurality of the campaign thus far—to 31.9% for Gingrich, 13.4% for Santorum, and 7.0% for Ron Paul.

Not only did Romney right the proverbial ship after a sobering loss in South Carolina, but the former Massachusetts governor collected all 50 of Florida’s delegates to the Republican Convention, the Sunshine State’s winner-take-all rules inflating the strength of his non-majority victory (46.4% of the vote yielding 100% of delegates). Despite combining for a 52.3% majority of the vote, Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul exited Florida empty handed, delegate-less.


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Perhaps most disquieting for Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul is that, had the RNC enforced its own rules, Florida would not have been able to employ winner-take-all allocation. In a confrontation last year, the RNC stripped the Sunshine State of half its delegates for violating party scheduling rules proscribing a primary date that encroached upon the privileged status of Iowa and New Hampshire. With the RNC apparently unwilling to penalize the state by reducing its delegates twice, Floridian powerbrokers subsequently broke the RNC rule requiring all states holding pre-April contests to employ proportional methods of delegate allocation, opting instead for a winner-take-all primary. By breaking these two rules and holding an early winner-take-all contest, Florida, as The Washington Post notes, made itself “one of the most pivotal states in the presidential race.”

While the RNC should be commended for moving to proportional allocation* for convention delegates for the pre-April contests this election cycle, its inability† to force an insubordinate early state like Florida (soon to be followed Arizona, which also is breaking the rules with a winner-take-all primary) to obey party policy threatens to undermine the key changes—such as a longer nomination battle and its corresponding voter enthusiasm and media attention—the party hoped to effect with its rule modification. Forty-nine confiscated delegates to the Republican Convention in exchange for a much-hyped winner-take-all contest and two weeks of adoration from doting candidates might have been a good deal for Florida, but it was a sour deal for the American people.

Put simply, proportional allocation keeps a nomination battle going in that it enables more than one candidate to seize delegates—and therefore, influence within the party. Winner-take-all allocation—which many states prefer because it provides for larger swings in the delegate race and increases their importance—tends to abbreviate the process, as the candidate with the most votes in a state, no matter her share, lands all of its delegates. Such a result is undemocratic, as it not only leads to delegate counts unreflective of the vote, but also often drives the de facto nomination of a candidate before the majority of Americans have had an opportunity to vote.

For example, in the 2008 GOP nomination battle between John McCain, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Rudy Giuliani, Florida’s January 29 winner-take-all primary proved decisive. McCain, despite winning an unimpressive 36.0% of the vote to Romney’s 31.0% (a mere 5% margin), gathered all 57 of the state’s delegates, or 100%. Like Romney, Giuliani and Huckabee, despite 14.7% and 13.5% of the vote, respectively, received no delegates.


Although McCain’s margin was small and the race extremely competitive, Florida’s winner-take-all rules portrayed the Arizona senator’s victory as absolute—the latest step in his inexorable march to the nomination—and gave him enormous momentum heading into Super Tuesday on February 5. In other words, winner-take-all allocation made an admittedly vulnerable candidate look invincible, a storyline that subsequently shortchanged the process, as each of McCain’s challengers—having staked so much on one state, Florida—retreated into premature obscurity, the race essentially over before millions of voters and the majority of states had had a chance to weigh in. Trademark winner-take-all.


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Never one for nuance, winner-take-all undermines American democracy, reducing million of voters to irrelevancy. The RNC was correct to move away from a winner-take-all system. Importantly, proportional allocation of delegates is more likely to lead to a prolonged nomination fight, which gives more voters an opportunity to evaluate formally the candidates. Proportionality, additionally, is more reflective of the popular vote, including—rather than excluding—candidates, rewarding them for their effort, spreading—rather than concentrating—influence, and granting voters of all stripes a voice at the party convention. The GOP must make an example of Florida in order to deter similar rule infractions in 2016, by Florida or any other state. If it fails to do so, then winner-take-all will continue to slither its way back into American primary politics.


* In 2010, the RNC—recognizing that states prefer holding early, winner-take-all contests—changed party rules to prohibit winner-take-all allocation of delegates to the Republican Convention for any primary or caucus occurring before April 1, 2012, with the exception of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada (see Rule 15(b)(1) and 15(b)(2)). In other words, states were presented the choice between an early primary employing proportionality and a winner-take-all primary occurring later on the schedule. By doing so, the RNC hoped to accomplish the twin goals of prolonging the nomination battle and deterring front-loading of the schedule.

† Florida could be compelled to allocate its delegates to the Republican Convention proportionally, although for now, the winner-take-all method stands. A provision in the RNC’s rules allows a registered Florida Republican to file a challenge with the RNC Committee on Contests, asking the committee to force Florida to allot its delegates proportionally. If such a complaint is approved by the Committee on Contests, the RNC could force the Sunshine State to retroactively give delegates to Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul. If the race between Romney and his competitors evolves into a delegate-driven war of attrition, debate over Florida’s delegates could take center stage once more.