How Rubio Made Florida A Winner-Take-All State

Mar 13, 2016

Florida’s primary on Tuesday could finally decide who will get both the Republican and Democratic presidential nomination.  The Sunshine State's pivotal role in the primary system was no accident, and it may be surprising to find out that the man behind Florida’s winner-take-all primary is Marco Rubio – whose own presidential aspirations may be decided on Tuesday night.

Senator-elect Marco Rubio walks through the halls of the U.S. Capitol a few days after getting elected in 2010.
Credit CHIP SOMODEVILLA / Getty Images

There are 246 delegates up for grabs for the Democrats and 99 for the Republicans.  Even though the Republicans have fewer delegates, they have more at stake and that’s because whoever wins the Florida Republican primary race gets all 99 delegates.  Whether the candidate wins by one vote or by 100,000 votes, he will get all 99 delegates.  On the other side, the Democrats allocate their 246 delegates on a proportional basis, based on the election results. 

The winner-take-all strategy on the Republican side was done by design and Marco Rubio can be credited for setting it all in motion. 

Democratic strategist Steve Schale explains that in 2006, before  Rubio became Florida House speaker, he wrote a book titled “100 Innovative Ideas for Florida.”  It was a compilation of policy ideas that Rubio wanted to pass while he was in Tallahassee.  One of those ideas was to move the Florida primary to an earlier date, in an effort to make the state a national player in primary politics. 

“Without Marco Rubio's leadership on this issue,” says Schale, “Florida would not have moved to a January [primary back in 2008] and would not have set in motion the number of steps that led to where we are today, being the first winner-take-all state on the calendar.”

According to Schale, Rubio undertook an effort to move the Florida primary to late January, which resulted in the both the Republican and Democratic National Committees punishing the state’s parties in 2008 for violating primary election rules.  Florida Republicans decided to violate party rules again in 2012 by having an earlier primary and the state was once again punished.   So in 2014, the state Legislature passed a law that moved the primary to mid-March.  For Republicans, the new primary date allowed the party to allot the 99 delegates in a winner-take-all system.

Ironically for Marco Rubio, that means the winner-take-all stakes on Tuesday are critical for him.  Florida is now a must-win state for the former state House speaker if he has any hope to keep his presidential aspirations alive.

“For Marco Rubio it is do or die in his presidential career,” says Schale. “If he doesn't win he really has almost no path forward. He is not raising much money; he's almost broke.  I think that Marco Rubio will succeed in making Florida relevant on Tuesday night. I'm afraid it's not in the way that he wanted.”