A viewers guide to the Florida primary
With its large an diversified electorate, Florida tests whether candidates can succeed across many different parts of the GOP's base: from the cultural conservatives in the panhandle, to the moderates who swung this primary to John McCain last time; retirees along the coasts and younger families in once-booming, Republican-leaning suburbs and exurbs, and, of course, the Tea Party activists who helped lead Rick Scott and Marco Rubio to wins here in 2010.
The tallies: Where the votes are
The winner will need to perform at least moderately well across a number of distinct regions and metro areas. Miami-Dade will of course be the largest county reporting Tuesday (perhaps 150,000 of those) but Florida's vote geography shifts a little bit northward in a GOP primary as compared to a General; a lot of votes come from areas Tampa, central and northward, where Republicans are more abundant.
On the registration rolls, Republicans dominate along the Florida coasts - many of which have been fast-growing, often wealthier counties, stretching along the Atlantic east of Orlando and on the Gulf Coast from Sarasota down to Ft. Myers. The panhandle, with its heavy military and retiree population and southern roots, boasts very heavy GOP registration percentages on the western side, as does the Jacksonville area on the Atlantic coast - that city grew rapidly in the 2000's, expanding outward, with exurban and suburbanites that tilted heavily to the GOP in General elections.
Types of voters: A wide array
As a closed primary, this is a battle just among Republicans - no registered independents here to sway the outcome. As in the party's ranks nationwide, self-described conservatives are the bulk of Republican primary voters in Florida - they were six in ten in 2008's presidential contest. If (and, importantly, really only if) the election is close, then moderates could be a difference maker. John McCain actually lost conservatives in 2008 to Mitt Romney - but won moderates by a decisive enough margin (43 to 21) than they put him over the top.
If you're looking at regions as the votes come in, the northern part of Florida profiles in many ways more in line with what we see in other southern states: more conservatives, more evangelicals. As you move south in the state, historically you'd find relatively more moderates: they were less than one in five voters in the panhandle and regions above Orlando in 2008, but that rose to about one-quarter among Republicans in the regions around Miami. Emphasis on "relative," though: conservatives still dominate everywhere.
Based on polling and vote patterns from the last few primaries, if it is to be a good night for Newt Gingrich that would be first characterized by strong vote totals in the panhandle and around Jacksonville; without that, it might be an uphill climb for him.
Meanwhile, after Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, Florida now offers a notable Hispanic vote. In 2008 Latinos were 12 percent of the GOP primary electorate and the bulk of them were Cuban, specifically (7 percent overall of the electorate was Cuban.) In a close race that could be determinative, and Romney and Gingrich have this week gone hard after that vote. But there are longer-range implications here: Republicans are keeping an eye on Florida's Latino vote for the General election, too, in this swing state. In 2008 Barack Obama carried the Latino vote in Florida. While for years that vote was defined by the Cuban American vote, Obama's success was driven in part by voters of Puerto Rican and Central American backgrounds who have been among the boom that took place in the central part of the state over the last ten to twenty years.
And keep an eye on the Tea Party vote. Florida was a big success for Tea Party backers in the last cycle. This time around a third of the GOP electorate considers themselves part of the movement, in a recent Qunnipiac poll. Tea Partiers propelled Marco Rubio to the Senate in 2010 (and pushed aside the once-favored Charlie Crist) and Rick Scott won narrow contests in both the GOP Governor's primary, and the General, by running with the mantle of outsider. This year, South Carolina's strongest Tea Party voters helped propel Gingrich to his win - the former speaker got more than twice as many of their votes (48 percent to 21percent) as Romney. In New Hampshire it had been a different tale: Romney carried conservatives and Tea Party backers.
In recent pre-election polls, Romney has been doing at least well enough with Tea Party backers to build a lead. If he can replicate that Tuesday, getting strong - even if not majority - Tea Party support, that will be a good sign for him.
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