It’s in the 70s and sunny in Tampa Bay as Florida voters head to the polls for the biggest Republican primary contest so far in 2012. Here are our top five factors to watch as exit poll results start rolling in early this evening. Make sure to follow the Post’s Election 2012 blog for live updates (including exit poll analysis) throughout the night. We’ll also be tweeting the results @PostPolls.
1. Electability – Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich each says he is the best candidate to take on Obama. In each successive contest, more Republican primary voters say beating Obama is the top attribute – 31 percent in Iowa, 35 in New Hampshire, 45 percent in South Carolina. “Electability voters” overwhelmingly supported Romney in Iowa and New Hampshire, but the tables turned in South Carolina, with Gingrich winning these voters by a 51 to 37 percent margin. The exit poll results will shed a bright light on who is winning the electability vote.
2. And the debate winner is? Gingrich owes his South Carolina landslide to stellar debate performances heading into the state’s primary. Two in three voters said debates were important, and Gingrich won those voters by 50 to 23 percent over Romney.
The winner of Florida’s two debates was less clear, though Romney was widely credited for upping his game, offering a vigorous defense of his investments and tax returns. Who won the debates and did they matter? Tonight’s exit poll will help answer that question.
3. Late deciders (and early voters) –Two of the first three contests were won by candidates who surged in the closing days, Rick Santorum in Iowa and Gingrich in South Carolina. There’s little sign of a big Gingrich shift to match Romney in the latest polls, and because of Florida’s early voting system, it may be too late. More than 630,000 voters cast their ballots before Tuesday, more than a quarter of the overall turnout in 2008. And Romney led Gingrich by a 55 to 24 percent among early voters in a Suffolk University poll released Monday.
4. Conservative base – Strong tea party supporters, evangelicals and the most conservative voters have picked three different champions – Santorum, Romney, then Gingrich – in the first trio of contests. Florida Republicans will cast more than twice as many votes as all three contests combined, providing the best verdict yet on who these core GOP groups want as a nominee.
Pre-election polls show Romney and Gingrich running fairly closely among tea party supporters and evangelical Christians. If Romney matches or beats Gingrich among these groups, it signals a monumental challenge to consolidate a serious non-Romney coalition.
5. Hispanic voters – Ninety-eight percent or more of participants in the first three GOP contests have been white. That will certainly change in Florida, where Hispanics made up 12 percent of the 2008 primary electorate, according to exit polls. Romney struggled badly among Hispanic voters four years ago, winning only 14 percent compared with 34 percent of white voters. Among Cubans, who make up most Hispanic GOP voters in the state, Romney garnered just 9 percent.
Romney has made a concerted effort to court Cubans and other Hispanics this time around. Did it pay off? His success or failure will be an indicator of how well he can court Hispanic voters in a general election, a growing bloc of voters who overwhelmingly backed Obama in 2008.