Southern Bellwether: Florida’s Crucial 2012 Contest Takes Shape

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Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Republicans participate in the Florida "President 5" straw poll in Orlando on Sept. 24, 2011


An election year is nigh, so it’s time once again for Florida to remind us that it is more than just a dysfunctional retiree repository. It’s Our Most Important Swing State. The Florida Republican Party’s communications director, Brian Hughes, got the ball rolling last week when he announced that the winner of the state’s GOP straw poll on Sept. 24 would go on to “be the Republican nominee.” The only question was whether it would be former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney or Texas Governor Rick Perry. And sure enough, it turned out to be … former Godfather’s Pizza CEO Herman Cain, who on Saturday snared 37% of the 3,500 GOP delegates gathered in Orlando, more than Perry (15%) and Romney (14%) combined.

Florida has spoken. And good thing, too, because if not for its straw poll, we wouldn’t have known that the Cain Train was the bullet locomotive destined for the GOP nomination. But now that we know, we can skip the primary elections, right? Please?

Of course we can’t. Memo to Florida GOP leaders: Your straw poll turned out to be as reliable a nominee gauge as Iowa’s, won by the now vanishing Michele Bachmann in August. But next year’s primary will give Florida another chance to prove what a crucial swing state it is. Florida is threatening to move up its primary date — as it did in 2008, when it played early kingmaker for the eventual GOP presidential candidate, John McCain — from March to January so that it can wrest the title of Most Crucial State from pretenders like Iowa and New Hampshire, two relatively small and nondiverse states that have no business wielding the inordinate presidential-selection power we grant them. If the Sunshine State GOP does hold its primary on Jan. 31, the national Republican Party is threatening to punish Florida by stripping it of about half its delegates to next summer’s national convention — to be held, ironically, in Tampa — the same sanction it levied four years ago.

But national Republican leaders are tilting at windmills. The fact is, Florida — with its 29 electoral votes, bellwether demographics and cache of independent voters that makes up almost a fifth of its electorate — is the country’s most important swing state. Winning Florida was key to Barack Obama’s presidential victory in 2008 — he was, in fact, the first northern Democrat to take the state since FDR — and regaining the peninsula is just as key for Republicans in 2012. So it’s got every right to tell us in January who the Republican presidential nominee will be — even though it already told us that on Saturday, didn’t it?

Cain, who polled at 7% among registered Republican voters in Florida last week, crowed on Saturday night that “the Herman Cain train is picking up steam!” And who knows, maybe Florida could end up marking the start of a heretofore also-ran’s drive to the top of the 2012 GOP ticket. But what’s more likely is that Cain’s stunning victory was a raspberry blown by Florida GOP voters at their current presidential field, particularly the media-anointed two-man race between Romney and Perry — whose abysmal Saturday showing only tells party leaders how long a row they’ve got to hoe between now and next August’s convention. As TIME’s Mark Halperin reported over the weekend, buzz is growing again about whether more appealing Republican pols like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will jump into the contest.

Still, for the moment, the reality is that Romney and Perry are the party’s only Electables. So the more relevant consideration is how those two are shaping up in Florida, where unemployment stands at 10.7% and residents lost 7% of their median income during the recession. Oddly, even before Saturday’s straw poll debacle, the peninsula didn’t look so promising for either man.

Polls, of course, show them leading the GOP pack there. But the bad news for the conservative Perry is that the state that last year catapulted the conservative Marco Rubio into the U.S. Senate and the even-more-conservative Rick Scott into the governor’s mansion seems less enamored of the Tea Party brand that backed them: only 36% of Florida voters have a favorable view of the ultra-conservative movement now, and a majority don’t, according to the polling firm War Room Logistics. The bad news for the more moderate Romney, per the same poll, is that 53% would still be willing to support a candidate endorsed by the Tea Party. Says Republican consultant and pollster Alex Patton of Gainesville, Fla., who conducted the War Room Logistics poll: “The question is whether the economy will still be so bad next year that Florida voters will still be angry enough to set aside their reservations about the Tea Party” as they did in 2010.

The War Room Logistics survey has Perry and Romney tied among Florida Republicans at 25% each. But a new Quinnipiac University poll has Perry at 31% and Romney at 22%. Still, perhaps the most telling measure in the War Room poll is Florida’s independent voters: in a 1-on-1 vs. President Obama, it has Perry losing by a 47%-to-37% margin, while Romney defeats Obama 45%-to-38% — an indication of which man might fare better in the 2012 general election. A big part of Perry’s Florida problem is the perception that he’s anti–Social Security, a program that benefits more than a fifth of the peninsula’s population. Romney hammered Perry on that issue at the GOP debate in Orlando last week, where Perry also lost points for often seeming as tongue-tied as a cowboy on his first date.

Another surprising figure for Perry is his poor showing among Florida’s Latinos, who make up almost a fifth of the state’s voters. The Texan is widely considered more pro-immigration than the rest of the GOP presidential roster, yet among Sunshine State Latinos he claims only 26% support, compared with 43% for Romney in the War Room poll. The immigration issue tends to matter less to Cuban and Puerto Rican Americans, who make up the bulk of Florida’s Latino population, than it does to Mexican Americans. But even so, the poll reflects a Florida Latino deficit for Perry that could be just as perilous for him as his standing with Florida independents.

And winning Latinos and independents would probably give the Republicans their best shot at defeating Obama in Florida. A poll released last month by Magellan Strategies shows Obama doing even worse than Perry among Florida Latinos: 72%, according to the survey, say they won’t support re-election for the President, who won a remarkable 57% of the state’s Latinos in 2008. Overall, in fact, Obama has only a 39% approval rating in Florida — and performs worse, at 33%, among independents.

This bodes well for Republicans next year, no matter who their candidate is. Pollsters like Patton believe that if Florida’s primary is indeed held on Jan. 31, it will favor Romney, who’s been in the running longer and has a larger war chest than Perry does. “And if Romney wins Florida,” says Patton, “it will probably seal the [nomination] deal for him.” But it’s not certain if Florida’s GOP will opt for a January primary, especially if it means it gets to seat only half its delegates at a national convention held on its own beach.

Or we could just avoid that whole primary mess and take the Florida GOP spokesman’s word for it. Everybody onboard the Cain Train!