Florida's Winner Will Lock in 50 Delegates? Not Necessarily

It would be hard to overstate the importance of Florida's upcoming primary. The contest falls at the end of a month that's seen three separate victors in three separate contests. The winner of the contest will carry momentum through the February caucus states and on to Super Tuesday, which will take place on March 6.

There's another reason why Florida's contest is so important though: delegates. In order to clinch the Republican presidential nomination a candidate must win  1,144 delegates. So far, the number of delegates awarded per state contest has been relatively low, and has been allotted on a proportional basis.

There are 50 delegates up for grabs in Florida's contest - the largest number awarded by a single state so far in this season - and it is the first state to award them on a winner-take-all basis. Fifty delegates is a big prize for the GOP candidates. It ensures that the winner of Florida's primary will have a big lead in the race to 1,144.

But there's a catch: Some of those delegates could be taken away down the road.

Florida violated the Republican National Committee's rules twice this cycle - first, when they  moved their contest to January, and then again when they decided to dole out their delegates on a winner-take-all system.

The RNC certified a new set of primary rules in 2010 that forbade winner-take-all contests from occurring before April 1.

The same rules that Florida violated also stipulate that the state can only be punished once, which has already happened. Florida originally had 99 delegates, but that number was cut in half. The Sunshine State will not lose any more delegates. But, there is another way Florida's winner could ultimately wind up with fewer than 50 delegates.

A provision the Republican National Committee's rules allows Florida citizens who were eligible to vote in the primary to file a challenge with a group called the committee on contests, a committee within the RNC, requesting that Florida switch their delegate allotment to a proportional system.  If this were to occur, and the committee approved the request, it would mean that the winner of Tuesday's upcoming primary could lose some of their 50 delegates, and the candidates who finished in second place or further behind could gain delegates.

An individual can file this challenge at any time up until 30 days before the Republican National Convention commences on Aug. 27. However, the committee won't make any decisions until it convenes one week before the start of the convention.

If a change in delegate alottment were to happen, mathematically speaking, the potential gains and losses in delegate numbers would not be very big. However, if the primary season does continue into June and the difference in delegates awarded to the leading candidates is small, that proportioning could have a real impact.

The likelihood of such a challenge being filed and approved is hard to predict this early in the game, but it is a distinct possibility, said John Ryder, a Tennessee lawyer who helped to draft the new set of RNC bylaws.

"That risk exists for the Florida delegation, that it could be proportioned," said Ryder, who also serves as Republican national committeeman for Tennessee. "It's like any time you go to court, you don't know what the outcome's going to be. You could win, you could lose, but there's always a risk."