US politics from outside the beltway

RSS

Florida: why it’s a whole different ballgame

Purest test yet of where Republican hearts lie.

The stakes are high for next Tuesday's Florida primary and, unlike other states, this one's much tougher to call. Mitt Romney will be gunning for a win in Florida in an effort to restore the sense of inevitability he built around his campaign, while Newt Gingrich will be keen to hold onto the momentum he built during his South Carolina victory last week. Fellow Republicans Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, who decided to forego a campaign in Florida altogether, will merely be hoping to hold on.

Florida is the first contest that approaches the scale of a general election fight and carries a great deal of political weight due to its large size and ethnic, religious and political diversity.

In the 2008 Florida primary 1.9 million Republicans voted, which is double the amount that has cast ballots in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina combined this year. Florida's population is also more diverse and multicultural: candidates will have to appeal to the immigrant-rich Miami region, the more conservative north and the large population of retirees scattered all over the state.

Moreover, about 11 per cent of Republican voters are Hispanic, anchored by a large Cuban-American contingent in Miami and a significant number of Puerto Ricans in central Florida. More than one in ten primary voters is Hispanic, easily enough to swing a close race. John McCain scored the Hispanic vote against Romney in 2008 and this time Romney is taking no chances, airing Hispanic TV adverts featuring well-known Cuban-American supporters.

Crucially, Florida is the first closed primary, meaning only registered Republicans can vote, which makes it a purer test of where Republican hearts lie. Other states allow Democrats and independents to show up on election day and vote in whichever primary they wish, which provided an opportunity for candidates - particularly Ron Paul - to try and court independents.

The Sunshine State also allows early voting and absentee voting by mail. It is estimated that by next Tuesday more than one-third of all votes may already be cast. Romney started chasing absentee voters a few weeks ago while Gingrich has said that efforts are now firmly underway. This system has worked in Romney's favour, since many Floridians voted for him when he had the air of inevitability around his campaign following his victory in New Hampshire. Also, since Republicans have been able to cast their votes at polling stations everyday since the South Carolina primary, each candidate will be vying to win every day's main media story.

Television advertising is also far more important in Florida than it has been in other states due to it being covered by 10 media markets. It is by far the most expensive state to advertise in, making funding of paramount importance - a minimum of $1 million per week is needed. The number, size and expense of the media markets are unlike anything that has been seen before.

Florida can essentially be seen as several different states in one, making it difficult to pinpoint just one key issue to focus on. Candidates are in for a tough ride, as they have to appeal to a huge range of Americans on varying nuanced problems.

The Sunshine State is a winner-takes-all contest, meaning that fifty delegates are up for grabs, all of which will be awarded to the winner of the primary, making the battle critical for frontrunners Romney and Gingrich in their effort to win the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. The winner-takes-all nature will likely mean that Rick Santorum does not devote many resources to Florida because it only has a small evangelical Christian bloc.

With the candidates' attacks against each other getting even nastier, it is easy to see why Florida is fast becoming America's biggest battleground state. A great deal is at stake and the results could go either way.

However, one thing is for sure: whoever is crowned winner in Florida will have the advantage in fundraising and momentum as they look to the rest of the country for votes. Let the games begin.