Major League Primary: Why Florida Is the Big Show of the GOP Race

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Marcus Yam / The New York Times / Redux

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich and his wife, Callista, stand before a crowd at a campaign event at a Hobby Lobby parking lot in Fort Myers, Florida, Jan. 24, 2012.

Newt Gingrich is promising to build NASA colonies on the moon. Mitt Romney is imagining Fidel Castro in “a nether region,” which one can only assume is a polite Mormon phrase for hell. Both men are all over the radio, putting on their best Spanish accents. No point in diluting the pandering: this is Florida, the primary big leagues, with more votes at stake than in the past three contests combined. And the latest TIME/CNN poll shows the two pack leaders running even. Here’s why Tuesday’s consequential Florida primary is totally different from anything the 2012 GOP race has seen so far.

It’s a closed primary. That means Democrats and independents can’t vote and there are no last-minute registration options as there were in Iowa. (The registration books for the GOP presidential primary closed Jan. 3.) This is most likely to disadvantage Romney, who’s performed relatively well with Republican-leaning independents to date, and Ron Paul, who collected a lot of atypical GOP primary voters in Iowa and New Hampshire. It’s one of the reasons Paul’s not contesting Florida at all.

There’s absentee voting. About half of the 520,000 Florida Republicans who’ve requested advance ballots have already cast their votes by mail. While that’s not a huge chunk of the electorate–1.9 million Republicans voted in the 2008 GOP primary–it probably gives Romney a slight edge given the dynamics of the race to date. For much of  January, Newt was near the nadir of his epic 30-point collapse in the Florida polls, from which he’s now almost fully recovered. Romney and his allies spent heavily on TV therre during that period, while Gingrich and Co. had to yet to purchase a single spot.

But there’s early voting, too. In-person ballot-casting started right after Gingrich’s big South Carolina win and more than 120,000 voters have turned up this week. Media afterglow has helped Newt’s poll numbers and another fat $5 million check to Gingrich’s PAC from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and wife Miriam has given Gingrich a significant presence on TV. Even so, ad spending totals are weighted heavily in Romney’s favor. According to NBC News, Romney and his allies have spent a total of $14.4 million on Florida ads to date. Team Gingrich has spent just $1.9 million, most of it from the Adelson-fueled super PAC.

Florida advertising is really expensive. TV time in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina is penny-saver cheap compared to Florida. Seven of its metro areas are among the 100 largest media markets in the country, including three–Tampa-St. Petersburg, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale and Orlando-Daytona Beach-Melbourne–that fall into the top 20. Romney’s cash advantage could end up making all the difference. And there’s quite a difference when it comes to first place or second place in Florida.

It’s winner takes all. Well, winner takes half. Um, probably. The Republican Party of Florida broke some RNC rules by moving up the date of its primary and was thus stripped of half its 99 nominating delegates at this year’s convention (in Tampa!), which the RPOF has decided to award in their entirety to the primary winner — which is another potential RNC no-no. The winner-take-all nature of the contest (as well as closed primary rules, prohibitive costs, etc.) have kept Paul out of the race, rendered Santorum a non-factor and set up an all-or-nothing scenario for Romney or Gingrich: whoever ends up finishing second will leave Florida with nothing to show for their huge investment. However, there are now rumblings of a legal challenge to try to force the RPOF to award its delegates proportionally. But it won’t be settled anytime soon.

Florida helped seal Romney’s fate in 2008. After losing to Mike Huckabee in Iowa and John McCain in New Hampshire and South Carolina, Romney entered Florida four years ago desperate for a win. He didn’t get it. McCain took 36% of the vote to Romney’s 31%, and with it, all 57 delegates. McCain won in part on the strength of Florida’s Latino (mostly Cuban) Republicans, of which he claimed an outright majority, and the effectiveness of his electability argument. This time, Romney is the perceived moderate with the electability argument and, lo and behold, he’s nearing majority support among Latino Republicans in the state. In 2008, the knockout blow didn’t come till Super Tuesday, but Florida, as always, was a political haymaker.

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