A Different Romney, A Different Florida Than Last Time

A Different Romney, A Different Florida Than Last Time

"[John McCain’s plan to combat global warming] would cost America 300,000 jobs. In addition, people would pay, they estimate, approximately 50 cents per gallon more for gasoline and 20 percent more for their gas utility bill. That would depress the economy just at a time when we're trying to stimulate the economy."

-- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigning in Sweetwater, Fla. on Jan. 27, 2008.

Florida is a very different place than it was when the Republican primary race came to the state four years ago.

In 2008 exit polls, 44 percent of Florida Republican primary voters who described themselves as “very conservative,” picked second-place finisher Mitt Romney -- more than double the share of that group that went to either overall winner John McCain or fourth-place finisher Mike Huckabee.

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But “very conservative” was 27 percent of the state’s Republican electorate back then, smaller than “somewhat conservative” (34 percent) and “moderate” (28 percent). The portion of “very conservative” voters will likely be higher this time around. Their preferences will likely be different too.

The Republican Party and the American electorate overall has become more conservative since 2008, and Florida is very much a part of the trend. In the 2010 midterms, for example, 80 percent of Florida Republicans identified themselves as “conservative,” up 19 points from the combined score when McCain won.

That same Tea Party ‘tude helped the GOP sweep statewide general elections in 2010, allowed Marco Rubio to defeat a formerly popular, formerly Republican governor in a Senate run and add four GOP members to the state’s already predominantly Republican House delegation. Now, only six of Florida’s 25 House members are Democrats.

Also different are the packaging and perceptions of the presidential candidates. In 2008, Romney had chased McCain down to Florida, bashing him as the Dole-endorsed, establishment moderate who would get marginalized in the general election. This time, Romney is playing the part of Mr. Establishment, while the conservative antagonist is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The lines are delivered with more fire, but the message is the same: Stop this charging RINO.

So, while Romney can count on some of the same Florida supporters who backed his 2008 bid, particularly Northeastern transplants and businessmen looking for someone to be the nation’s CEO-in-chief, the map looks very different for the former Massachusetts governor this time.

Romney’s success will depend on how many conservatives stick with him this time around.

Gingrich’s chances will depend on not only seeing the number of conservatives swell but keeping their votes united behind him.

If Romney’s week of blistering high-dollar, high-frequency attacks on Gingrich’s character have hurt enough, conservatives unable to vote for the more moderate former Massachusetts governor but anxious about Gingrich may opt to lodge protest votes with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

As voters in a winner-take-all state, Florida Republicans know that only first place really matters and may more quickly flee a candidate they perceive as flawed if he or she doesn’t look viable.

A better-than-expected showing for Santorum, who has been polling around 13 percent, would be one of the best signs of an impending romp for Romney. In 2008, second-tier Florida candidates Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul took 31 percent of the vote. If Santorum and Paul’s combined statewide vote share approaches that number, Gingrich will be in big trouble.

Money Matters

Part of what is driving the change in the Florida electorate is frustration with one of the hardest economic falls in the nation.

When voters were going to the polls in 2008, Florida’s unemployment rate was 4.6 percent, the same as the nation overall, and had been lower than the national average for many months before. The Florida unemployment rate last month was 9.9 percent, the first time it was out of double digits in a crushing 31 months, and is still worse than all but four states.

The reason is that ever since Mr. Flagler built his railroad to Miami in 1896, the Sunshine State’s economy has been heavily dependent on real estate. While the bursting of the real estate bubble in 2008 hurt the whole country and trashed every 401(k), Florida went straight from boom to bust. Not only did depressed housing prices mean that the market for flips and swaps dried up, but the pool of ready cash and debt to finance development, second homes and the sunbelt retirement dreams of snowbirds was gone too.

After nearly a century of growth, sometimes stratospheric, Florida is lagging the nation.

Since January 2008, Florida has consistently been among the worst in America for foreclosures. There were warning signs even then, with a big jump in foreclosures from the year before. Thirty thousand foreclosures that month seemed like a lot, especially at a rate of one out of every 273 households. It is no surprise, then, that Barack Obama carried Florida by 3 points in the general election, even though Democrats have lost the state in seven out of the last 10 presidential contests.

By January 2009, the Florida foreclosure rate had jumped by more than 10,000 units a month from the previous year and was only starting to slow down after a brutal summer and fall. It was not until 2010, though, that the scope of the state’s housing sickness was really clear.

In 2010, according to RealtyTrac (the nation’s real misery index) one in 18 Florida housing units received at least one foreclosure filing. That year, 485,286 Florida properties were foreclosed upon, second in number only to much larger California.

While the burn rate slowed in 2011, as the recession turned into anemic recovery, Florida couldn’t shake the housing blues. Just last month, Florida’s foreclosure rate was one in every 360 properties, compared to one in every 634 nationally – the sixth worst in America. Worse still, the average sale price for a Florida foreclosed home was less than $120,000, which represents $62,000 less than America at-large.

While many of those who went bust in the foreclosure debacle were speculators and developers, the wreck of the construction business, the decline in tourism and the lack of mobility for permanent residents has taken a heavy toll. Most notably for political purposes, the change has slowed the rate with which Americans were flocking to Florida and the rosy outlook of the residents who remained.

One other big change in Florida since 2008: As both major political parties have seen their share of potential voters drop during the recent rise in independent voters, Hispanics have become more important in the state’s GOP. Cuban-Americans, the largest Hispanic group in the state, have shown tremendous inter-generational loyalty to the GOP for the party’s strong anti-communist stances. Many dissatisfied white voters have drifted to unaffiliated status. Surveys suggest that as much as one fifth of the Florida Republican electorate is Hispanic.

Four years after Florida sealed the deal for the GOP, the Republican presidential process returned to a state that is more conservative, worse off economically, less optimistic and angrier than the one that McCain, Romney and Huckabee found in 2008.

Romney has sharpened his attacks, softened his rhetoric on immigration and burnished his conservative bona fides and will hope to take McCain’s former strongholds but keep some his supporters from when he was running as the “conservative alternative.” If can do that, Romney will cruise to victory.

If Gingrich aims to keep this primary close or pull off an upset, he’s going to have to hope that new and rebellious voters will march for him the way their counterparts did in South Carolina.

How Many Voters and Which Ones?

In 2008, there were 1.95 million Republican primary votes cast in Florida. Pollsters and pundits disagree on whether there will be more or fewer this time around, and, more importantly, which regions of the state will turn out most heavily.

There are some signs of a much higher turnout than last time. Not only is the race hotter, but we’ve seen turnout increases in the three previous nominating contests. While the growth was modest in Iowa and New Hampshire, the January 21 South Carolina primary shattered all Republican records in the state with a 35 percent increase over 2008.

In Florida, there has been a surge in early and absentee ballots with some 600,000 votes already cast – about 100,000 more than 2008, a 20 percent increase. Some of that represents voters becoming increasingly familiar with Florida’s permissive voting laws and some reflects an unprecedented push for early voters by the Romney campaign (a Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times poll said half of early voters went for Romney), but it certainly suggests an interested and engaged Republican electorate.

The Florida primary is different from the first three contests this year because it is closed. Only voters who registered as Republicans before Jan. 3 are allowed to participate. That leaves a potential universe of about 4.1 million voters. The conventional wisdom is that turnout will be down because there is no Democratic contest and Republican participation will not be enhanced by a controversial ballot initiative, as it was in 2008.

But there’s really no model for this election. Florida only jumped to the opening weeks of the primary calendar in 2008 and by the time the race arrived in Florida on January 29, McCain had won two of the three major contests and was looking much more inevitable than Romney is today. It’s hard to imagine that the most unusual and polarizing Republican nominating contest in more than a generation is really going to keep Floridians home.

With three winners in three contests so far this year and the most unsettled electorate in modern Republican history, turnout might drop to 1.6 million or it could climb to 2.2 million. There is no rulebook for this election. Certainly, without independent voters, it will be hard for Gingrich to replicate the 35 percent turnout surge of South Carolina. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be some surprises today.

Romney will be hoping to see more modest turnout. If the polls of absentee voters are right and so are anemic turnout projections, Romney could have banked 300,000 of the 650,000 votes he would need even before the polls officially opened.

Gingrich, conversely, will be looking for huge turnout numbers and, as he might say, a fundamentally transformed electorate from the last time. With Romney now playing the part of McCain, a similar turnout would mean a similar outcome: a 5-point victory over the leading “conservative alternative.”

Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com.