"Let’s say (Republicans) take away half of our delegates. They’re worth more than Iowa’s, New Hampshire’s and almost South Carolina’s combined."

Will Weatherford on Tuesday, July 5th, 2011 in an interview with the "St. Petersburg Times" editorial board

Rep. Will Weatherford says penalized Florida delegation would still wield clout

Florida lawmakers, seeking to boost the state's presidential primary influence, want to jump ahead in line.

Why let just Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada set the agenda as early primary states?

A legislative commission will decide by Oct. 1, 2011, when to hold the 2012 Florida presidential primary. (At the moment, it's legally set for Jan. 31, fifth in line and before a raft of other states that vote on Super Tuesday.) But any date before the first Tuesday in March would draw the ire of the Republican National Committee, which says it will slash Florida's delegation by half.

Still, some Florida Republicans argue it could be worth it for Florida voters once again to throw critical early weight behind a candidate. (It braved party penalties to support John McCain in January 2008, and lived to tell about it: While half of Florida's delegates didn't get official convention votes, they did get to attend. And McCain went on to win the nomination.)

State Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, chatting with the St. Petersburg Times editorial board in a wide-ranging hourlong interview July 5, 2011, said lawmakers were working on a deal for an earlier primary that wouldn't draw penalties. But he wanted to make the point that even if the state got penalized, it would still have influence.

"I think the goal is to be as close as we possibly can, hopefully like the fifth slot or something like that, without penalty," he said. "So we’re negotiating with the RNC as to how we get that done. There may be a penalty anyway, no matter what we do. ... The way they've got it structured is that anybody who goes before Super Tuesday gets penalized. But playing devil’s advocate, as Florida, if we were to go into it and say, 'Okay, we’ll take the penalty, we’re going to go the Thursday before Super Tuesday, and Florida's election is going to really matter and help catapult that person to Super Tuesday.' Let’s say they take away half of our delegates. They’re worth more than Iowa’s, New Hampshire’s and almost South Carolina’s combined. We have a lot of delegates. We're a large state. We're a diverse state. We reflect what I think is the demographics of the country, and we should be a player. And so I think we will be a player. It'll just come down to what the specific date is, but we're talking about that."

He said, "Let’s say they take away half of our delegates. They’re worth more than Iowa’s, New Hampshire’s and almost South Carolina’s combined." We were curious: Does Weatherford's convention math make the grade? 

The Republican National Committee hasn't said how many delegates each state will have at the 2012 convention. So we asked Weatherford how he made his calculation.

He pointed to a CNN count that showed delegates from 2008:

Iowa: 37
New Hampshire: 12
South Carolina: 24
Florida: 57 (half of its original 114)

So, if things are similar next year, Florida's half-delegation would be the same size as Iowa's plus New Hampshire's and a third of South Carolina's, according to 2008 numbers.

He mentioned a second source, the Green Papers, a favorite site among political junkies for its fastidious attention to political details.

And that's where Weatherford's 2008 comparison started to break down.
The site lists how state delegates voted at the Republican National Convention. It notes that Florida lost half its delegates for violating party rules. Interestingly, it also lists four other states that lost half their delegates — including New Hampshire and South Carolina.

That's right — two states in Weatherford's comparison also sported atypically small delegations in 2008. And those states won't be penalized in 2012. New rules allow four states to lead the pack: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Not Florida.

Which means if states are awarded delegates in relatively similar numbers to 2008, as Weatherford assumed (something also predicted by the Green Papers for FloridaIowaNew Hampshire and South Carolina) — New Hampshire and South Carolina will actually have twice as many as were allowed back then.

Since the RNC hasn't released its official totals, we can only offer thoughtful estimates, but according to two methods, Iowa and New Hampshire alone would have more delegates than a halved Florida delegation. (First method: Assume 2008-sized delegations, but double New Hampshire and South Carolina. Second method: Rely on the Green Papers estimates.)

Wouldn't a normal person think Weatherford meant that Florida's delegates would still outnumber Iowa's, New Hampshire's and at least a chunk of South Carolina's when he said "They’re worth more than Iowa’s, New Hampshire’s and almost South Carolina’s combined"?

Weatherford would prefer you not parse his words so carefully: "We were having a free-flowing conversation," he said. "... I was trying to give an illustration that we're still meaningful."
So we ran his main idea by some experts in Florida politics, who backed him up.

Christopher Mann, a political scientist at the University of Miami with elections expertise, noted that the biggest argument supporting Weatherford's claim is one the future House speaker didn't make: The Florida 2008 primary was "winner take all." McCain won, and so was was awarded every at-large delegate, plus three delegates for every congressional district he took.

But in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, delegates were divided among candidates in proportion with the votes they earned.

"Thus, Florida's 2012 primary is a bigger prize to win and a more painful to lose," Mann said. "In theory, someone could get zero delegates in the prior three states and still have the most delegates after winning Florida because the delegates in the first three states are likely to be split among several candidates. More likely, a congested field after three proportional primaries will suddenly have a clear front-runner in the delegate count after Florida."

Experts from the University of Central Florida and University of South Florida agreed.

"Weatherford does have a valid point that by moving up the Florida primary, Florida will have a greater role in selecting the Republican nominee," said Darryl Paulson, professor emeritus of government at University of South Florida. "The 2008 election found that McCain's victory in the Florida primary essentially ended the contest for the presidential nomination."

So where does this leave us?

Weatherford was on safer ground when he based his claim on 2008 delegate counts. But the 2012 numbers will be different, first because they've yet to be set, and second because delegations for New Hampshire and South Carolina will return to full strength. Meanwhile, Weatherford's underlying point, that Florida's delegate count will add heft to the winning candidate even if it's penalized, is true — and for more reasons than he gave.

While we would have preferred he had gotten his delegate math right — and mentioned the "winner take all" nature of Florida's primary — we still rate his statement Half True.