In a historic year where three different GOP presidential candidates have won the first three primary contests, the focus is now on Florida. Voters in the Sunshine state are the next to weigh in on the tumultuous contest that now only has four remaining contenders – former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, winner of the South Carolina primary; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, winner of the New Hampshire primary; former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, belatedly-announced winner of the Iowa caucuses, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
These are the top 5 things you should know about the Jan. 31 Florida primary.
Florida Republicans made up 36 percent of the electorate in the 2010 election, according to analysis by Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. There are about four million GOP voters in total, but they represent a more diverse group than seen in the other early states, she says.
"You have a sizeable Jewish population in the Palm Beach and Miami Beach area and you have many more Catholics here than you saw in the other states," she says. "And the Protestants aren't as nearly evangelical as you saw in for example South Carolina."
Thanks to thriving retirement communities, the majority of Republicans are 50 or older, just as in the other states, she adds. But unlike the other states, Florida is more ethnically diverse; about 11 percent of Republican voters are Hispanic, anchored by a large Cuban-American contingent in Miami and a healthy popluation from Puerto Rico in central Florida.
"So you get in a close race, obviously Latinos could say that they make a difference, as could every other break you want to make," MacManus says.
Not only is Florida the largest primary state to date by land size, it's also the most expensive state to advertise in, and the most ethnically, religiously and politically diverse. So while Rick Santorum's shoe-leather worked in Iowa, Romney's close ties and big money worked in New Hampshire, and Gingrich's vim and vigor worked in South Carolina, it takes a well-rounded candidate to succeed in the Sunshine state. They need money, organization and the right message, experts say.
"Because we are so big and there are so many different factors that are important here, I think debates, earned media, as well as television, and organization in terms of how many humans are out there getting people together, making sure their voters turn out – all of those things are part of the strategy to win Florida," says Brian Hughes, spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida.
"There are other states where you can get away with more or less of that, in Florida, you really need to be doing it all," he adds. It costs about $1 million a week to run advertising in the state, thanks to the large media markets surrounding Orlando and Miami.
"About 45 percent of Republicans live in the Tampa and Orlando media markets, and then of course, the other big cluster you have is down in southeast Florida," says MacManus. "And for smaller markets, you have Republicans in Jacksonville and definitely the Naples area."
In other states, the candidates have touted the endorsements of the state's top politicians as a means of currying favor with the local electorate – but that's not likely to happen in Florida.
For one thing, Gov. Rick Scott is about as unpopular a figure as there is – in December one poll tracked his job approval at 26 percent, with 58 percent disapproving.
"People outside the state are overdramatizing his influence on the Republican party or anybody else," says MacManus.
For another, the state's popular political figures have decided to pass on making endorsements. That includes Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is Cuban-American and wildly popular, but has ties to both Romney and Gingrich, along with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Bush was wooed by both Romney and Gingrich, but announced shortly after the South Carolina contest that he would not weigh in.
In the end, such moves may not have swayed many voters anyway, MacManus says.
"There's been so much attention to this contest, starting with Iowa, Florida television stations have been really inundated," she says. "This is a very political state and the stations know that Florida's role in politics; so it's not like people haven't had chances to formulate opinions, especially people who are going to be primary voters."
The experts agree that like the rest of the country, the economy is the top issue for voters.
"If you really want to narrow it down to one motivating factor for all of these voters, it seems to be the economic message," Hughes says. "Basically, the younger people want to know about job creation and older people want to hear about their retirement investments and their real estate investments. If you are looking for a core issue to speak to almost every audience, it's going to be, what can you do to turn the economic factors around so that home values start to go back up and young people can get jobs?"
MacManus says though there are a lot of retirees in Florida, their focus isn't solely on Social Security or Medicare.
"You have to recall that larger shares of Florida's retirees are younger and wealthier and better educated than seniors' populations in a lot of other states," she says. "But the deficit is a huge issue with them because during the really bad economic downturn many of them were getting requests from their adult children because many of them were losing their homes or job."
One issue that has the potential to divide Florida Republican voters is the environment, MacManus says.
"The environmental issue related to oil drilling because of the situation down around Cuba where there's talk of foreign companies going in there and drilling when the American companies can't and concern about the environment, and of course, Cuba politics always grabs people's attention," she says.
Florida GOP voters are typically a little more "pro-environment" because they often move to Florida to take advantage of the coastline or inland lakes, she says.
"But they are also very concerned about energy and Florida is sitting on a lot of oil, so they say, and as gas prices go up I just think that's an issue that could turn people," MacManus adds.
Hughes says there's no doubt that gulf coast residents remain sensitive to debates on off-shore drilling, thanks to the recent Deepwater Horizon spill.
"Some of the gulf coast communities are going to be more sensitive to it," he says. "But no matter where you live in Florida, I think people do recognize and respond to the idea that we're going to have to do something in this country to get ourselves on a road to independence as far as energy."
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