Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's announcement that he is taking his campaign to the Republican convention in Tampa is being dismissed as typical election season bluster. How else to describe a candidate without much money, dwindling momentum, and a truly narrowing path to the GOP nomination who is pledging to stick it out for the long haul?
But what if Gingrich isn't bluffing? The Republican primary process is, at its heart, a race for delegates: the first candidate to net 1,144 wins. By the time Floridians finish voting on Tuesday, just five percent of the total delegate pool will have been awarded. The upcoming states include a number of caucuses and southern primaries, the former of which play to Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas)'s strengths and the latter of which work to Gingrich's advantage. The more delegates a candidate accrues, the larger his influence becomes over the party platform.
As one top Republican Party official said of Gingrich's proclamation: "Why would he quit?"
"We are already active in Nevada," Gregg Phillips, a top official with the Gingrich-allied super PAC Winning our Future, told The Huffington Post, of a state that will caucus on Feb. 4. "Our team has been competing in Nevada for about a month."
If, indeed, Gingrich refuses to dislodge himself from the process, the question then becomes just how many delegates he will be able to gain. The process of unraveling that mystery begins precisely where he and the rest of the GOP candidates currently reside: in the Sunshine State.
Just how Florida will award its delegates is currently the subject of intense debate, with a section of the Republican Party adamant that the current structure -- which dictates that the winner of Tuesday's primary gets all the delegates -- is in violation of party rules.
In a letter to Florida GOP State Chairman Lenny Curry on December 21, 2011, RNC Chairman Reince Priebus noted that under committee rules, states other than Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina could not be "winner-take-all" if they held their primaries or caucuses prior to April 1, 2012. Florida violated that bylaw by moving its primary up to January 31.
Instead of forcing Florida to award its delegates proportionately, however, the RNC punished the state by cutting its number of delegates in half, from 99 to 50. This was, as Priebus noted, the punishment under the rules (emphasis ours):
Rule No. 16 imposes penalties upon any state that chooses to elect, select, allocate or bind delegates to the 2012 Republican National Convention earlier than the first day of the month in which that state is authorized to do so under Rule No. 15(b). Those penalties include a fifty percent (50%) reduction in the number of delegates that such a state is authorized to send to the 2012 Republican National Convention, as well as a prohibition on the three Republican National Committee members from the state serving as delegates or alternate delegates.
That seemed like it would put an end to the debate. But a number of GOP officials continued to argue that voters who don't back former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the likely winner of the Florida primary, were being disenfranchised by the way delegates were being awarded. They also said that other states chose not to jump ahead like Florida did out of a belief that their primaries would no longer be winner-take-all if they did so.
"I just want to know when the RNC members agree to a further rule change that would allow only Florida to jump the line and not have its delegates allocated proportionally," former RNC Chairman Michael Steele told The Huffington Post. "I'm almost certain California, Michigan and Ohio didn't agree to such a change cause I know if they could be in the mix right now they would be."
For those, like Steele, who believe that Florida's 50 delegates shouldn't go squarely to Romney, planning has turned toward ways to remedy the wrong. All it would take to get a hearing on the matter is for one registered Florida Republican voter to file a protest with the RNC. The party's contest committee would have to issue a decision at the convention.
It seems probable, at this juncture, that someone will file such a protest. Mark Cross, an Osceola County committeeman and executive board member of the state Republican Party, wrote Priebus a letter in November 2011, making the case that it would be simple for the committee to change Florida's delegation from a winner-take-all to proportional.
RNC Rules supersede any state rules or state statutes and should be enforced as to the application of delegate allocation. The rules as to the allocation and recording of delegates at the convention are completely and solely within the authority of the RNC. The rules must be applied equally to each and every state or they become meaningless without any reasonable expectation of application to any other state.
Certified results of elections are easily available from the Secretary of State for each state. The RNC can calculate, report and record the proportional vote and easily enforce this rule. The proper counting and allocation is simply a matter of mathematical enforcement of the rules and should not be confused with any penalty because a state and its voters will not be losing their voice in any way.
Even Priebus seemed to acknowledge that a challenge to the contest committee was likely. "In addition," he wrote Curry, "it has come to my attention that one or more Florida voters may file a contest seeking proportional allocation of Florida's delegation based on the primary taking place prior to April 1."
Asked for comment on the matter, Kirsten Kukowski, Press Secretary at the Republican National Committee, emailed over the following statement: "Florida lost half of its delegates and received additional discretionary penalties for breaking the party rules. The contest committee is designed to look at any delegate concerns that may arise."
But while the RNC itself is publicly deferring ultimate say on the issue for the time being, others in the party aren't acting so ambivalent.
"Michael Steele can say all he wants, but he's not the chairman anymore," Brian Hughes, a spokesman for the Florida GOP, told the Tampa Bay Times. "The RNC accepted our rule and that's it. We are winner-take-all."
Even if a challenge is made to the contest committee, there is no telling whether it will be successful. Different states have different models for proportionality, meaning that despite what Cross wrote, breaking up Florida's delegates would be a controversial move. Meanwhile, the odds are still likely that by the time the convention rolls around, the party will have firmly united behind one nominee with little reason to, or appetite for, refiguring the delegate count of one state.
"That's usually an indication that you think you're gonna lose," Romney said, when informed of Gingrich's proclamation that he would remain in the contest until the convention. "When you say 'I'm gonna go on no matter what happens,' that's usually not a good sign."
Even if the convention isn't ultimately brokered, the number of delegates each candidate earns and the way in which they are allotted are still significant. With the right number, candidates can force votes on certain issues, and they can make a motion on the convention floor to amend the party agenda or change the rules. They could also make a play for a key speaking role. It's why Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has pledged to keep campaigning until Tampa and why Gingrich is now offering the same posture.
Asked on Monday whether there was a chance he would drop out if he loses the Florida primary, Gingrich declared, "None... We’ll be in every state."
BEFORE YOU GO
Read more on Gingrich's 2012 campaign: