When Florida violated the Republican National Committee’s rules and moved its primary to Jan. 31, and made the contest winner take-all for delegates, its reasoning was pretty simple. Officials wanted the state to play a prominent role in the primary process.
The state was penalized for its actions but achieved its goal. Tuesday’s primary falls at a crucial time, and will be a significant victory for the candidate who wins. With three contests yielding three different victors so far, Florida offers GOP candidates a chance to break the tie, and gain 50 delegates in the process.
The latest polling shows Romney with a double-digit lead going into Tuesday’s contest. While Sen. John McCain won Florida in 2008 with 36 percent of the vote, Romney did well, coming in second place with 31 percent.
Florida’s primary will be different from the previous primaries from a procedural and a demographic viewpoint.
On the procedural front, the primary is a closed contest, meaning that only registered Republicans can participate. In order to participate, voters must have been registered as a Republican by Jan. 3, 2012.
This is the first closed contest of the 2012 primary season. The state boasts a voting-eligible population of 13,088,171. Of that group, 11,241,022 – nearly 86 percent - are registered to vote. There are 4,063,853 registered Republicans in the state, about 36 percent of the registered voting population.
The polls open at 7 a.m. and close at 8 p.m., but a lot of voters will have already cast their ballots by the time polls open in Florida. That’s because a sizable portion of state residents vote early or by absentee ballot. About 27 percent of the votes cast were early or absentee in the presidential primary in 2008. The reason behind this is that the state has a relaxed policy on absentee voting. Unlike in many other states, any eligible voter can opt to vote by absentee ballot, regardless of where they plan to be on Election Day.
Florida also allows voters to cast their ballots early, should they so choose. The Florida Division of Elections allows counties to hold early voting beginning 10 days before an election, and ending on the third day before the election is scheduled. The Florida Division of Elections estimates the Republican early turnout at 293,760 votes.
Nine candidates will appear on the ballot in Tuesday’s primary, but only four of them – Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul- are still in the race.
On the demographic front, Florida’s population is more ethnically diverse than, say, Iowa and New Hampshire. Latino voters make up 11.1 percent of the state’s registered Republican voters, according to data compiled by the Pew Hispanic Center. Romney, Gingrich and Santorum have each been trying to court the Latino vote. Ron Paul is not actively campaigning in the Sunshine state. He’s focusing his attention on the next state, Nevada.
Two key areas of the state to watch will be the North/Panhandle region and the South Central region.
Populous and conservative, the South Central region is traditionally a key part of the state for Republican candidates. McCain had a strong victory in the region in the 2008 general election with 54 percent of the vote to Obama’s 46 percent. The region includes major cities such as Naples and Fort Myers, but it will be particularly important in this cycle for an additional reason: mortgages.
The South Central region of Florida is an area that has been hit particularly hard by the mortgage crisis, one of the hardest hit areas in the country. Romney and Gingrich have been campaigning hard in the region, exchanging blows at each stop along the way about their opponents’ respective ties to mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
While Gingrich has attempted to tie Romney to the toxic companies by pointing out that he held stock in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the majority of the mortgage-related attacks have come from Romney, who has continuously highlighted the $1.6 million the Gingrich Group, Gingrich’s consulting firm, was paid by Freddie Mac between 1999 and 2007. If Romney wins this region, it will be yet another reminder that negative ads and attacks work.
The other region to watch is the North/Panhandle section of the state. The area is heavily Republican. While the region does include a large Democratic base in the city of Jacksonville, much of the surrounding area, particularly the more rural areas, are very socially conservative. And since Florida’s primary is only open to registered Republicans, the Democratic population of Jacksonville will likely not be much of a factor in the area.
The first congressional district, which is located in the western most part of the panhandle, boasts a higher number of military retirees than any other district in the country. Unsurprisingly, McCain received the most votes in the first congressional district in 2008, but Romney actually received the highest percentage of the vote in the North/Panhandle region overall, 34 percent to McCain’s 32 percent and Mike Huckabee’s 19 percent.
If Romney can withstand the “Massachusetts moderate” attacks that Newt Gingrich has thrown at him in this region, it is a good sign for his chances of sweeping the state.
February will see a slew of caucus events in Colorado, Minnesota, and the next state on the 2012 primary calendar: Nevada.