The Florida Dem Primary: Delegates V. Influence

On Saturday, the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws committee (RBC) will meet to formally consider the delegate selection plans submitted by state parties.

All signs suggest that the DNC will formally sanction Florida Democratic Party for .submitting a plan that violates DNC rules. The Florida Democratic Party plans to hold its delegate-selection contest on Jan. 29, seven days before the party's official window opens.

So what will happen? First, the RBC will immediately take away all of Florida's so-called "Superdelegates" -- spots reserved for the members of the Democratic National Committee and members of Congress. Then, the RBC will reduce the remaining delegate total by at least half. (The RBC could reduce the delegate total by 100%, which would also have the weird effect of removing the penalties on candidates who decide to compete there.)

Florida has thirty days from formal receipt of the RBC’s action .to resubmit its plan to cure its defects. Over the past several weeks, DNC officials have discussed several alternatives with Florida, ranging from a party-run caucus to a vote-by-mail primary. The state has rejected them all. Going early is its priority.

Florida Democrats act as if they're not worried about the DNC penalty. They believe that the eventual nominee will restore its delegation to full strength as the convention begins. They therefore conclude that presidential candidates will contest the state as if the DNC had done nothing.

But here's why the DNC's penalty actually has some teeth. If Florida had no delegates to compete for, presidential campaigns have two choices about competing in a penalized Florida. They can spend money to explain why they aren’t spending money to just win a beauty contest. . Or they can spend money to try and actually win what is just a beauty contest.. The former option is much cheaper than the latter option.

And delegates, to the campaigns, matter more in January than they do in July. The Democratic campaigns don't assume that the convention will be brokered; they assume that the nominee will be known by the middle of February. The only metric available to really assess the strength(s) of the candidates at that point is their total number of delegates.

The media could well decide to cover Florida as a "real" primary, but here's a further complication. Two presidential campaigns -- Sen. Barack Obama's and Sen. John Edwards -- are close to concluding that they shouldn’t compete in Florida if Florida's delegate selection process doesn't matter. Publicly, these campaigns say they hope Florida resolves its dispute with the DNC. Privately, they admit that if Florida has few or no delegates, they are unlikely to compete. That means that Hillary Clinton will face enormous expectations to win the state solidly. Unless she decides to scale down her activities in the state, too.

So, if the state party is only concerned about being seated at the convention, then the RBC's penalty doesn't matter.

But if the state wants to play a role in determining the nominee, then the RBC’s penalty matters a lot. The two interests are in conflict.