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Romney in a Sunny State on Primary Day

Romney in Florida; photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Mitt Romney holds a campaign rally Monday in Dunedin, Fla. Photo by Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.

The game of presidential see-saw the GOP has been playing in 2012 continues Tuesday night in Florida.

A short 10 days ago former House speaker Newt Gingrich emerged from the South Carolina primary with a big win and lot of momentum. It looks like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is ready to take the momentum back. Many polls show him with a double-digit lead in the Sunshine State.

Florida is considered a critical contest because of the state’s size and diversity. More people will vote Tuesday night than have voted in all the Republican nominating contests thus far combined. And nearly all of Patchwork Nation‘s geographic/demographic county types — 10 of the 12 — are represented in the peninsula.

But regardless of who wins the state, there are some key components in the vote to keep an eye on. (You can follow the vote live through the Patchwork Nation county-types on WNYC’s website here.)


In many ways, Romney’s lead in Florida is not a surprise. More than half its population (52 percent) lives in two county types that are a good fit for him: the wealthy suburban Monied Burbs and the Boom Towns that grew rapidly in the last decade. Those counties tend to have higher education and income levels — two factors that exit polls show are key for Romney. (They’re in beige and rust on the map below)

They also tend to be less ideologically charged, and Romney has done better with moderates.

Watch the vote as it comes in Tuesday night in those counties. If Romney does well in them, then his campaign can argue that South Carolina was something of fluke with little bearing on the rest of the primary season.

The bigger questions now, however, may center on Gingrich. Momentum in the 2012 GOP campaign has been a fleeting thing, and if he can’t win the state, he would at least like a strong showing. For him, a few places may be key.

The culturally conservative Evangelical Epicenters may be good for Gingrich, but very view Floridians live in those 10 counties. A better way to get a sense of the night for the former House speaker will be to watch the state’s aging Emptying Nest counties, which hold some 20 percent of the state’s population.

Many of Florida’s Emptying Nests sit in the middle of the state along the always-critical Interstate-4 highway corridor. Those places can be hard to get a read on. They tend to be socially conservative, but have a streak of pragmatism in them as well. Their main issues are often keeping taxes low and what might be described as family values.

Whether or not Gingrich has a good Tuesday night (a win or, more likely, a close loss) may well depend on how the vote in those places breaks, and it seems both of the Republican front-runners understand that.

Gingrich and Romney logged appearances at the Villages in recent days, the massive 55-and-over community in central Florida that is home to some 75,000 people. The settlement straddles Lake and Sumter counties (Sumter is a Boom Town in Patchwork Nation because of its rapid growth, but it’s one that certainly feels like an Emptying Nest in the Villages — and it may end up voting more like one. Organized senior communities tend to vote in very high percentages.)

Both of their rallies and speeches drew well, but Romney’s event had roughly three times the people according to one Villages worker. Of course, Romney’s event had been planned weeks in advance, while Gingrich’s was put together quickly. And the Romney rally, while well attended, was not enthusiastic.


Beyond simple bases of strength, though, there’s one big issue that is a part of the campaign in Florida that has really only surfaced in the state: foreclosures. Florida has taken some of the biggest hits in the foreclosure crunch, and it will be tempting to see what the vote tally looks like in the counties that have been hit hardest, since the crunch began in 2007.

There are some challenges in using foreclosures as a measuring stick, though, at least in the GOP primaries. First, there is a lot of pink and red on that map — maybe too much to draw distinctions. The Florida foreclosure problem is truly statewide and it may be hard to see county-to-county differences in the vote. Second, the Republican candidates, who are all proponents of smaller government, have generally not been interested in proposing government-based solutions to the problem.

In other words, you’d be hard-pressed to make it a voting issue if you’re looking to cast a ballot, at least on Tuesday. That foreclosure map and truly different approaches proposed by candidates may become a bigger issue in the general election in the fall.

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