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The Second Florida Primary

Probably won't happen. Sorry.

Tallahassee--Will there be a do-over Democratic nominating contest in Florida? There are plenty of good reasons why there won’t. Here are the four best:

1) Money. Florida legislators are currently in their annual legislative session, looking under sofa cushions and in car ashtrays for ways to plug a $500 million hole in the current budget, and a $2 billion gap in the budget that starts this summer. They’re at the point where they’re actually discussing line items in the thousands of dollars. What are the chances they will suddenly decide that a second election, for 40 percent of the state’s registered voters, is worth $20 million of taxpayer money?

Neither the Florida Democratic Party nor the Democratic National Committee wants to spend $20 million, either. “We can't afford to do that. That's not our problem,” DNC chair Howard Dean said on Thursday. (At this moment, neither the DNC nor the state party has that much to spend anyway--and whatever money they do have they want to use on pounding the other team.) There’s one final option, though: Barack Obama’s and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns pitch in $10 million apiece to stage a second election. What are the chances of that? Slim.

2) Partisan politics. Governor Charlie Crist is a Republican, and his party has near two-to-one margins in both legislative chambers. Florida’s January 29 primary did exactly what Florida Republicans hoped it would do: put them at the center of the political universe for a week and give Crist a national lift. The current prolonged tussle between the state and national Democratic parties and the two campaigns clearly doesn’t hurt Republican chances come November.

So, while Crist has said he would sign a bill setting a new primary for the Democrats, it’s on the condition that they pay for it (see above). He is also getting great mileage whacking Dean around like a piñata. He was in high dudgeon the other day, calling Dean’s decision “unconscionable” and “intolerable”--in the same paragraph. He then went on: “Some party boss in Washington decided that the peoples' voice would not be heard. Are you kidding me?” Besides, if there were a solution, Florida Republicans would have to stop sending these gleeful Dem-bashing e-mails.

3) Voting machines. Even if the idea floated by one Florida Democrat to find a corporate sponsor for its primary got some legs (that’ll go over well in a race against the co-author of McCain-Feingold), almost half the Democrats in the state likely wouldn’t have anything to physically cast their votes on.

Any decision giving Democrats another primary this spring would stumble over last year’s election law that phased out touch-screen voting machines. Just two Thursdays ago, Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning announced that he had contracted for the removal and breaking down for parts of 29,000 machines from 18 counties around the state starting this week. Those counties include the state’s most populous urban centers--Miami, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach among them--where about half the state’s voters live. Some of these counties already have replacement paper ballot machines. Some don’t. Some of them would know how to use them in time for a June election. Some won’t.

4) Political maneuvering. The two candidates have widely divergent best-case scenarios regarding Florida and its delegates: hardly the recipe for a quick compromise. The status quo--Florida broke the rules and its delegates will not be counted until the nominee is settled and it’s all symbolic anyway--suits delegate leader Obama just fine. It is Clinton who needs the 38-delegate margin she “won” in the January 29 election--the hope being that enough superdelegates will feel okay about reversing the pledged delegate lead if it’s close.

But if somehow there were to be another primary election (Florida has never done caucuses, and is not likely to start now), the chances that Clinton would be able to pull out another 17-point win aren’t strong. Obama’s fundraising advantage should allow him to outbuy her on TV in this expensive-to-advertise state. And she has won only four states thus far by her Florida margin or greater: Oklahoma (24 points), Rhode Island (18), and her "home" states of New York (17) and Arkansas (43).

Because of the way Democratic delegates are awarded, even a modest decrease in her margin of victory would result in a not-so-modest decrease in her margin of delegates. (For more on why this is--and it’s complicated--click here.)

All that said, there are a couple factors that could produce a re-vote:

1) The mail. On Friday Crist said he would back state House Democratic leader Dan Gelber’s idea to stage a mail-in election--so long as Democrats, not taxpayers, come up with the $5 million or so it would cost, and so long as the state would administer the election. That solution, however, would take away much of the benefit Gelber was looking for: Part of the reason he chose this tactic was to collect millions of ballots from Democrats and independents that would help the state party build a database for turning out supporters come November. (This, presumably, is why Crist prefers the state handling that aspect of the election, and not Democrats.)

2) November. Democrats desperately want to make peace with Florida Democratic voters before the general election. After all, a Democratic win here would go a long way toward sealing a Democratic presidency. It’s in the Clinton campaign’s interest to argue that ignoring Florida Democrats in the primary season will hand the state to McCain. It’s in the Obama camp’s interest to counter, no, Democrats in the end will vote for the Democratic nominee, and independents aren’t overly concerned about delegates. But with the nation’s largest swing state on the line, pretty much all Democrats agree that it would be a good thing to end the delegation’s banishment before the summer convention.

One more situation to keep an eye on: the lawsuit filed by a Tampa-based Democratic activist against the DNC over its decision to strip Florida’s delegates. The federal trial court threw it out, but the appellate court in Atlanta has taken the appeal and recently moved up oral arguments from April to March 17. No telling what that means--but it’s a potentially huge monkey wrench.

And this, of course, does not factor in the monkey wrenches the candidates themselves might toss. For example: What if Clinton were to offer to pay all or the bulk of the cost of a re-do election? Would Obama be able to find a way out without looking like a curmudgeonly obstructionist?

So, no, a do-over still seems unlikely. But after the fun of 2000, and then the questionable vote totals from the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary, all that seems certain right now is that nothing is certain. Which is to say, for Florida elections, everything’s pretty much normal.

S.V. Dáte has covered Florida politics for a dozen years. His most recent book is Jeb: America's Next Bush.

By S.V. Dáte