The next time Florida moves up its presidential primary, it ought to jump ahead of Iowa even if that means holding the election on New Year's Eve. That may be the only way to force changes to the primary schedule that would require candidates to build initial support from a larger, more diverse electorate with more mainstream views. As the Republican primary stands now, the nation has to wait another 26 days for Floridians to bring some reality to this disappointing march to the GOP convention this August in Tampa Bay.
Republican voters in Pinellas County outnumber the Republicans who voted in the Iowa caucuses by about 100,000. Those Iowa voters are largely white evangelical conservatives, who were far more interested than Florida Republicans in conservative candidates with the most rigid views. Yet every four years, the nation focuses on the Hawkeye State as those GOP activists too often embrace candidates who have little chance of winning the broad appeal needed to move into the White House.
Despite the outsized attention and a cliffhanger that saw Mitt Romney edge Rick Santorum by just a handful of votes, the caucuses just reinforced what has long been apparent. Romney won roughly the same 25 percent, or 30,000 votes, that he captured four years ago when he finished second in Iowa, underscoring the lack of enthusiasm for him among conservative Republicans. Yet those conservative voters have not found another viable candidate.
Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, happened to be the last alternative standing as others faded. Ron Paul, who finished third, is the quirky libertarian uncle who is entertaining but unelectable. Businessman Herman Cain dropped out after his untidy personal life became an issue. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who couldn't remember the number of U.S. Supreme Court justices or which federal agencies he wants to eliminate, ran a poor campaign and appears all but finished. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, the winner of the Ames straw poll last summer, is finished with just 5 percent of the Iowa vote. And former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is pushing ahead with his political and personal baggage because he is so angry with Romney and his ego won't let him admit defeat.
That leaves Santorum, who has little hope of winning more moderate New Hampshire on Tuesday and no visible campaign in Florida. He supports outlawing all abortions with no exceptions, eliminating the corporate income tax and employing torture techniques such as waterboarding on prisoners of war. Those extreme views would hardly appeal to Main Street Republicans, let alone win a general election. Yet Santorum could lose badly in New Hampshire, recover in conservative South Carolina and arrive in Florida before the Jan. 31 primary as one of the last candidates standing.
This is no way to pick one of the two main candidates to become the next president of the United States. It will be up to Florida Republicans to bring some clarity to this primary season. But the Iowa caucuses should not kick off another presidential election season. The primary system should be overhauled to enable more voters with more mainstream values to have a greater voice in selecting the nominees of the major political parties.