How Florida's Later, Winner-Take-All Primary Is Both Risky and Rewarding for Jeb Bush

Whichever Republican wins next year's Florida primary will get all of the state's many delegates. But the home-state candidates will have to wait longer to get there.

Florida's decision to hold its presidential primary in mid-March, rather than closer to the beginning of next year's nominating contests, has altered more than the chronology of the 2016 calendar. It deprives former Gov. Jeb Bush of an early state where he would begin as a strong front-runner, but instead sets up a winner-take-all battle for Florida's treasure trove of delegates later.

The new date, March 15, is the earliest under the Republican Party's rules that Florida can hold its primary and give all its delegates to the winner, a potential windfall for Bush, who currently holds a huge lead in the polls there. At the same time, the decision to move Florida deeper into the nominating contest ratchets up the pressure on Bush, as well as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, to notch an early win elsewhere.

Now, if Bush were to stumble through the first four primary states (Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada) next February, Florida won't be there as an immediate safety net. In the past two elections, Florida's primary came right after the first four so-called "carve-out" states, but in 2016, the state's primary will be held six weeks after the kickoff Iowa caucuses, an eternity in presidential politics.

"If we're mapping out this contest next year, it's not that Florida is going to provide Bush with a significant lead so much as help him to catch up in areas across the country where it's not traditional Bush territory," said Josh Putnam, an Appalachian State University professor who tracks changes to the primary calendar at his blog, FrontloadingHQ.

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Bush backers argue that his cash-rich campaign would be able to handle that eventuality. "Whatever potential downsides are there are far outweighed by the upside of a winner-take-all structure," said Brian Ballard, a Tallahassee-based lobbyist who is supporting Bush. The date change was backed by Republicans in the Florida Legislature and signed into law by GOP Gov. Rick Scott in mid-March.

"I just don't envision any scenario where the two Florida candidates are out of play by the time Florida rolls around," Ballard continued. "And a winner-take-all win by either one of them, certainly with Jeb Bush's financial wherewithal, would put a great deal of momentum back in anybody's sails, but especially a guy like Jeb Bush."

Other Bush supporters note that in the case of a drawn-out nomination fight, there is less need for the state to vote early.

"Now we're seeing people stay alive a lot longer than they used to," said former Florida state House speaker Will Weatherford, who is also backing Bush. "Staying power is really important, and there isn't as much of a necessity for Florida to be really early because candidates are lasting longer."

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Many Florida Republicans also believe the move is a positive development for Bush, who is planning to place the state at the center of his likely primary and possible general-election campaign strategy. If Bush is able to take all of the state's projected 99 delegates in one fell swoop, it could allow him to build a sizeable lead over his Republican opponents, or quickly catch up to them if he's behind, heading into the remainder of the primary season. That delegate haul would, in a single day, rocket Bush (or whoever wins the state) nearly 10 percent of the way toward winning the GOP nomination.

But the later date also poses significant risks. If Bush struggles in the traditional early-voting states, a portion of the next slate of contests will take place across the South, where a group of states is organizing a regional "SEC" primary on March 1. That could prove to be difficult terrain for Bush and provide time for another candidate in the vast field of Republican presidential hopefuls to collect delegates and gain momentum before Florida's primary rolls around.

"He has the resources to compete everywhere," veteran Republican strategist Ed Rollins said of Bush. "He's got to get a win or two, or at least a good place, before he gets to Florida. He's got to show he's not a single-state candidate."

Bush's allies helped push the measure through the state legislature; one representative even emailed Bush back in January about the effort. Florida Republican Party Chairman Blaise Ingoglia, who is also a member of the state House, said he was not in contact with Bush, Rubio, or any members of their teams as the bill moved through the legislature.

"I think it would have been the date regardless of whether Senator Rubio or Governor Bush was running either way," Ingoglia said. "We have always been consistent that the date that we wanted to choose would be the one that would highlight the importance of Florida on the national landscape."

The move may make Florida especially important. But it could also make for an excruciating wait until March 15.

Scott Bland contributed to this article