The attention may be focused on the Republican presidential contests around the corner in Iowa and New Hampshire, but the candidates ignore what's under way in Florida at their peril.
More Florida Republicans — about 370,000 — already have requested absentee ballots for the Jan. 31 primary than the number of Republicans who voted in the 2008 Iowa and New Hampshire contests combined.
The ever-growing volume of votes cast before the primary in Florida is one of the factors that make the state a very different challenge from the earliest elections, in Iowa on Jan. 3, New Hampshire on Jan. 10 and South Carolina on Jan. 21. Candidates not only have to grapple with the sheer size and diversity of Florida, but they must prepare for a contest where half the votes or more are in well before the primary.
"Under the old model in Florida, a campaign would work toward a 72-hour program going into Election Day,'' said Republican strategist Brett Doster, who is leading Mitt Romney's Florida effort.
Now, ballots come in right after the start of the new year, followed by a lull, then more absentees, then early voting, then the primary.
In theory that means a successful statewide campaign in Florida requires a formidable campaign apparatus to chase absentee ballots to bank as many votes as possible. But there's a little secret that most professional campaign operatives in Florida prefer not to acknowledge: It's not at all clear the ground game matters much in a presidential election.
Florida's GOP primary results will be driven much more by national momentum — the results in Iowa and New Hampshire and what's being broadcast on Fox News — than by campaign get-out-the-vote efforts.
John McCain mounted a minimal field campaign in Florida four years ago and still won the primary with 36 percent of the vote to 31 percent for Romney. McCain did benefit, though, from an aggressive absentee ballot program mounted by supporters of the "Save Our Homes" property tax initiative as well as by targeting moderate Republicans in South Florida.
This year, it appears that Romney has the campaign operation best equipped to compete in Florida. He not only has campaign professionals and a grass roots operation built up over seven years, but he also has the financial resources to campaign in a vast state with 10 major television markets.
Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman also have veteran Florida operatives on staff, but their ability to sustain viable campaigns up until the primary remains uncertain.
Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, has scrambled to put together a Florida campaign team to capitalize on his surge in the polls, which currently have him leading Romney in Florida by double digits. The Gingrich campaign last week named campaign leaders for all 67 counties in the state.
"Campaigns are won on the ground and through the hard work of grass roots activists such as those who have joined Newt Gingrich's team in Florida," said Deborah Cox-Roush, the former Hillsborough GOP chairwoman, who recently joined the Gingrich campaign after working for Herman Cain.
Restore Our Future, an independently run political committee helping Romney, is airing TV ads across the state attacking Gingrich's character and his record as a conservative.
Soon the campaigns will face the inevitable Florida debate on whether to fund a substantial grass roots campaign operation, or focus money almost entirely on TV ads.
"Our efforts on the absentee ballot program are going to be robust," said Jose Mallea, a veteran of Marco Rubio's Senate campaign, who is now directing Gingrich's Florida effort.
Mallea said the Gingrich campaign also expects to open offices in Orange and Bay counties as soon as this week.
Election offices sent overseas absentee ballots a week ago and will begin sending other absentee ballots as early as Tuesday. Many local offices, including Hillsborough and Pinellas, will wait until after Jan. 1.
Based on past experience, campaigns expect most voters to hold onto their ballots a couple of weeks before voting.
"You're going to get about 10 days out, and that's when people are going to make up their minds," said Nick Hansen, state director for the Perry campaign.
The rhythm of a presidential campaign is much different from others, Hansen noted, because the rush of activity bursts suddenly.
"Momentum is important, but the campaign organization matters as far as laying the foundation to catch the tsunami that will come," said Hansen, a veteran of Romney's 2008 Florida campaign. "You better have your worker bees in place because they're the ones you turn to when you say, 'I'm opening 12 offices and I need people to man them who know the drill.' "
Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]