While most attention is riveted on South Carolina, it is noteworthy how dramatically the polls have changed in Florida, which will hold its primary two weeks from today. Mitt Romney, who is trailing Newt Gingrich by double digits a month ago, is now leading by 17 points in the RealClearPolitics average. It’s not hard to see why.
Public Policy Polling’s first survey of the Sunshine State, for example, has Romney at 41 percent with Newt Gingrich (26 percent), Rick Santorum (11 percent) and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) (10 percent) far behind. The pollsters find that in Florida:
Romney’s lead expands further when you look only at voters whose minds are completely made up, to 48-27 over Gingrich. 71% of his voters say they’ll definitely cast their ballot for [Romney], compared to only 61% who say the same for Gingrich. . . . Romney has extremely impressive favorability numbers in the state with 68% of Republicans seeing him positively to only 24% with a negative opinion. And even if most of his opponents were to drop out before the primary, Romney would still be in a good shape. In hypothetical head to head match ups he leads Gingrich 50-38, Santorum 59-29, Perry 69-21, and Paul 76-17.
This would be significant in an event, but it is even more noteworthy since ballots by mail are out and, in many cases, have been returned.
Moreover, in-person early voting is also underway, as the Associated Press reports:
In person early voting began Monday in Hillsborough, Hardy, Hendry, Monroe and Collier counties, five days ahead of the South Carolina primary. And while the downtown location was slow, more than 1,125 people cast ballots in Hillsborough on the first day, said Travis Abercrombie, a spokesman for the county supervisor of elections.
In 2008, 24 percent voted before election day, a number you can expected to be at least equaled this time around.
In sum, about a quarter of the vote is being cast at a time when Romney is cruising in the polls and his favorability is very high. That provides some cushion, should he stumble in South Carolina or hit a rocky patch between South Carolina and Florida.
As hard as it may be to catch Romney in South Carolina, then, Florida may be even tougher. Moreover, it’s not clear how much money the not-Romney candidates and their superPACs have . (You can easily spend more than a million a week in air time.) In short, especially if he wins South Carolina, it’s going to be very, very hard to stop Romney in Florida.