When the Republican presidential campaign shifts from South Carolina to Florida, it's a whole new ball game. No, Florida is not likely to halt Mitt Romney's momentum should Saturday's South Carolina primary mark his third win in a row.
The nature of Florida actually gives the well-funded Romney a big advantage, though a winnowed field could complicate things for the front-runner heading toward the state's Jan. 31 primary.
What's dramatically different is the unique character of Florida itself and what it takes to mount an effective campaign here. One can't overstate the difference between campaigning in Florida and campaigning in the caucuses and primaries of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
1 Size. Nearly 40 percent more voters turned out to elect the mayor of Jacksonville last year than turned out for Iowa's caucuses this month. New Hampshire's record-setting GOP primary turnout of 247,000? That's a low-turnout county election in Miami-Dade or Hillsborough. The Tampa Bay electorate alone is the equivalent of the state of Colorado's.
It's the difference between hand-to-hand combat and an air war. Florida has 10 major media markets — more than Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina combined — and each is significantly different from the next.
Statewide campaigns are mainly won with TV ads, not town hall meetings at Elks lodges. That takes money — more than $1 million a week to air multiple ads across the state. And that's on top of money for mail, travel and staff to organize events and mobilize voters.
2 Closed primary. Florida will be the first contest in the nominating schedule where only Republicans can vote. Other states allow independents or Democrats to show up on election day and vote in whichever primary they wish.
That makes Florida's primary a purer test of Republican support than prior contests, where some candidates, particularly Ron Paul, aggressively courted independents and Democrats to vote in the GOP contests.
3 Early votes. Already, more than 118,000 Republicans have voted in Florida's presidential primary by absentee ballot — nearly as many as voted in the Iowa caucuses. By Jan. 31, more than one-third of all votes may already be cast.
That makes it critical to have a campaign infrastructure to pursue absentee voters. Just ask 2010 gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum, whose campaign won on primary day but lost the GOP nomination because Rick Scott had amassed more early votes.
The Romney campaign has aggressively chased absentee voters, sending at least two mailers to the more than 430,000 Republicans who requested absentee ballots. Newt Gingrich said Friday his efforts are about to get under way.
In addition to absentee voting by mail, tens of thousands of people are likely to vote early. Hillsborough and four other counties open early voting sites today, while most counties offer early voting from Saturday to Jan. 28.
4 Hispanic votes. Florida is the first state in the contests with a significant number of Republican Hispanic voters, a slight majority Cuban-American but also many Puerto Rican and other Hispanic voters, too. More than one in 10 primary voters is Hispanic, easily enough to swing a close race.
John McCain beat Romney in the 2008 Florida primary by 6 percentage points, but beat him by 20 points among Hispanic voters. This year Romney is airing Hispanic TV ads featuring prominent Cuban-American supporters.
5 Issues. The size and diversity of Florida make the issue matrix for candidates more complicated and nuanced than other states because Florida is essentially several different states in one.
Romney may be well served touting his opposition to the Dream Act in Jacksonville, but that won't play well in heavily Hispanic Miami-Dade. "Drill here, drill now!" draws cheers in Polk County, but not necessarily in Sarasota or Escambia. Pinellas Republicans will be much less impressed with antiabortion mailers than Republicans in Marion, and South Florida Republicans will be more attuned to foreclosures than those in Leon County.
Seniors represent a disproportionate share of the vote, with half the electorate likely to be at least 56 years old. Clumsy rhetoric on entitlement reform can kill a campaign. Florida also has many more urban Republicans (three of the top 20 media markets are in Florida) than Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, which tends to make these voters more sympathetic to issues like infrastructure spending.
So welcome to America's biggest battleground state, presidential candidates. Better bring plenty of money and an ability to appeal to all of America, not just a narrow slice.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]