(This is a reposted and slightly modified second version of this piece)
As the GOP primary train has arrived in Florida, more uncertain than ever before.
Just ten days ago, Florida appeared to be nothing more than a minor speed bump on the way to a Romney nomination, a guaranteed fourth straight win. Now, with the switch of Iowa to Santorum and the Gingrich surge in South Carolina, all of the sudden, Florida appears to be must win for Romney.
The point of this piece is to look at the state from the perspective of the GOP electorate, where it lives, what it looks like, and whether there are any nuggets from 2008 and 2010 that might give some indication on what to look for as the results come in on the evening of January 31st.
I am not going to get into the business of trying to understand the mind of the GOP voter these days, and while I had fun in 2010 taking on the challenges facing Charlie Crist and his NPA bid for Senate, nor am I going to try to map out a win path for one of the candidates.
First thing, when looking at the GOP primary electorate, not surprisingly, Tampa is king. Roughly 26 percent of the GOP vote in the 2008 Presidential preference primary was from the Tampa media market. Interestingly (at least to this Democrat), the largest GOP county in the market is Pinellas, home to just over 6% of the likely statewide GOP primary vote, which makes that one county bigger than the entire Pensacola media market. It also means that if the primary turnout is similar to 2008, more GOPers will vote in Pinellas than in the Iowa caucuses.
The biggest county in the GOP primary is Dade County, home to just over 8% of the GOP primary vote, making that vote more than Pensacola and Panama City combined. It is also home to more than 2/3rds of the likely Hispanic GOP vote. In case you were curious, Broward has been the largest county in a Dem primary, though in 2010, Dade had more voters.
The smallest: Liberty County, which will probably see between 200-300 Republicans vote on January 31st.
In total, out of Florida's 67 counties, the ten biggest make up more than 50% of the primary vote. They are Miami Dade (8% of statewide vote), Pinellas (6%-Tampa market), Palm Beach (5.5%), Hillsborough (5.25%-Tampa market), Broward (5%-Miami market), Duval (4.85%- Jacksonville), Orange (4.75%-Orlando), Brevard (4.5% - Orlando), Lee (4.5%-FtMyers), and Sarasota (3.5%- Tampa market),
Assuming the turnout looks similar to 2008, the chart below shows where the GOP vote share by media market. For comparative reasons, the chart also shows the Democratic and General Election shares.
Media Market GOP Primary Dem Primary GenElec
Fort Myers 8.7% 4.4% 6.3%
Gainesville 1.3% 2.4% 1.9%
Jacksonville 10.2% 8.2% 9.1%
Miami/FtLaud 12.5% 20.4% 19.0%
Orlando 22.5% 18.6% 21.3%
Panama City 2.4% 3.0% 1.9%
Palm Beach 8.9% 10.5% 10.4%
Pensacola 5.6% 2.9% 3.8%
Tallahassee 2.1% 6.7% 2.8%
Tampa 25.9% 22.9% 23.5%
Putting this another way, nearly 1 of every 2 GOP primary voters calls the I-4 corridor home. If you own a TV set in those two markets, you might want to keep it off, because clearly Romney & Gingrich will be on there, as likely will be any second tier candidates who are throwing a hail mary in a couple of markets. And if you own a television station, you might want to send Newt Gingrich a gift basket for significantly increasing ad sales this week.
Looking back to the 2008 primary, for all intent, by the time it reached Florida, it was a 2 man race: Romney and McCain, a race that McCain won by 5 points, carrying 8 of the state's 10 media markets in the process. In the process of winning 18 counties (McCain won 45, Huckabee 4), Romney carried 2 markets: Ft Myers, where he beat McCain by 7 points, and Jacksonville, where he won by nearly 13. Interestingly, those were two of the three markets where Rick Scott most over-performed his statewide total in 2010. But remember, that was when Romney was the conservative alternative. Though his year, conservatives seem to be running as fast as possible to find any alternative to Romney, so the likelihood of him repeating those numbers in the Jacksonville margin are highly unlikely.
Just like Huckabee four years ago, Santorum is trying to make a come back, but just like with Huckabee, the places he will find the most appeal are home to the fewest voters. In 2008, Huckabee overperformed his statewide total of 13.5% in six markets, notably hitting 20% in each of the Panhandle markets. The problem, notwithstanding the arguments about the importance of the Panhandle, is combined, the four markets where he exceeded 20% add up to less than 12% of the statewide vote, making the entire Panhandle primary vote less than half of the Tampa vote.
Which brings this back to Tampa. Home to over a quarter of the primary vote, it was also the closest in both the 2008 Presidential Primary and the 2010 Gubernatorial primary to nailing the statewide vote (Crist threw off the scales in 2006). Just like in a statewide general election, how you do in the Tampa market says a lot about how you will do statewide, and fortunately for close observers of elections, several key counties in that market report really early (note Pinellas and Pasco counties).
If you are a real believer in trends and patterns, there are six counties in Florida that have correctly chosen the winner of the last five major statewide GOP primaries (2010 Gov, 2010 AG, 2008 PPP, 2006 Gov & 2004 Senate). Those are Hardee (rural SW FL), Levy (North-Central FL), Manatee (Tampa DMA), Osceola (Orange DMA), Polk (Tampa DMA) & Sarasota (Tampa DMA). So load up your browsers to those counties and hit refresh at 7:00PM EST, and let's see what happens.
Regardless, Florida once again shines as the nation's most interesting and important political state.