Why the GOP Nomination Fight Could All Come Down to Florida

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The race for the Republican nomination looks like it’s finally turning into a real fight with presumed frontrunner Mitt Romney beating back insurgent Newt Gingrich. The pattern of the early voting states has long been assumed to split pretty evenly: Evangelical-heavy Iowa and South Carolina going to the anti-Romney, these days the former House Speaker, and the former Massachusetts governor winning New Hampshire and Mormon-heavy Nevada. Obviously there are a lot of ifs, ands and buts to these assumptions, and the degree of the wins will make a difference in momentum. But if early voting follows this pattern, Florida is likely to be the tiebreaker, and even more so now that the race is becoming competitive.

There were rumors that Romney pushed the Florida Republican Party to move its primary up – incurring the wrath of the Republican National Party and costing them half of its 99 delegates – so as to front-load the early schedule. Given that the first three states will, for first the first time this cycle, split their delegates proportionally – last cycle the winner-take-all nature of the early states helped John McCain run away with the nomination early – Florida’s winner-take-all status could seal the front runner’s momentum and likely the nomination for whomever won it. But back then, Romney’s victory seemed a lot more inevitable and there is now some discussion that Florida’s winner-take-all status could be made proportional, thus potentially extending the race beyond Florida if there are still two strong candidates left standing by then.

On paper, Romney has a lot of advantages in Florida. First, he is the only candidate with enough money to really compete: blanket advertising in the Sunshine State costs $1.5 million a week. And he has the support of much of the establishment – either tacitly or overtly – with six of the state’s 19 GOP representatives endorsing him. And despite topsy turvy polling, which had Romney leading two months ago, Herman Cain in the lead last month and Gingrich ahead this month, Romney has maintained a constant edge in one key poll: month after month, Quinnipiac’s Florida survey has consistently found that Floridians believe that Romney is the only candidate who can beat President Obama. Even the Quinnipiac poll out last Thursday found Romney beating Obama by three points and Gingrich losing to the President by two, despite other polls showing Gingrich more than 20 points ahead of Romney among primary voters.

Still, Florida has, in recent years, been less about the candidates and more about the voters. “There’s a sense of anger and of responsibility,” says Kathleen Shanahan, a former chief of staff to Jeb Bush who now runs a small business. “People are looking for politicians to be responsible. So, if you’re in a position of authority, it’s your responsibility not to toss the hot potato for years and years. That’s why Herman Cain had a boomlet.” Starting with Marco Rubio’s surprise win over former governor Charlie Crist for the 2010 GOP Senate nomination, followed by businessman Rick Scott’s upset primary victory in Florida’s 2010 gubernatorial race and, finally, in the straw poll over the summer where Cain surprised everyone with a big win over Texas Governor Rick Perry, Florida’s primary voters have proven they’re looking for something different, Shanahan says. Florida’s GOP primary electorate is “significantly defined by Tea Party voters,” she adds. “By virtue of what’s known today, and we are in December, Newt’s got a higher likelihood of receiving of their support.”

Sally Bradshaw, another former Bush chief of staff and senior adviser to Romney’s 2008 campaign, agrees. “Governor Romney does seem stuck at 25% in the polls,” she says. But what about Gingrich’s erratic past? “People seem to think they know Newt. Maybe it’s that he’s been around for so long. That’s why you’re seeing an even bigger margin in the polls for Newt. Voters, for whatever reason, feel like they have a relationship with him.” Indeed, in a TIME/CNN/ORC poll released last Wednesday, Gingrich led Romney 48% to 25%, a stunning 39-point leap for Gingrich from the same poll taken in late October. Perhaps even more importantly, Gingrich led among Tea party voters 62% to Romney’s 18%.

Who will win Florida? It’s clear if the race were held today, Gingrich would have the advantage. But a lot could, and will, happen before the Jan. 31 primary. And the state still looks likely to, if not determine, then strongly sway the nominating process. “The party’s position has been for many months now that we needed to go early and by ourselves so our voice would be heard loud and clear. Given the size and diversity of our state, it’s a pretty good sample of what you’d see in a national election,” says Leonard Curry, chairman of the Florida Republican Party. “If it’s not the deciding factor, it will be very close to it – to pushing the nominee over the line.”