Today’s Florida primary features the largest and most diverse electorate of any contest to date in the Republican presidential primary fight.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney enters election day with a clear polling lead although former House Speaker Newt Gingrich pledged this morning that “I’m not going to lose big in Florida.”
Most precincts — 94 percent, actually — close at 7 p.m. eastern time while a handful of polling places in the state’s Panhandle region close at 8 p.m.
Given the size and complexity of the Florida electorate, we polled a bunch of Sunshine State Republican strategists in search of the five counties they will be watching as leading indicators of not only who will win tonight but also of how the swing state is trending heading into the general election.
Their picks — plus a smattering of our own sense and that of the Twitterverse — produced what we think is a great CliffsNotes version of where to watch as ballots start to get counted tonight. Our five counties to watch are below — and listed in alphabetical order.
(And at the bottom is a special bonus: county-by-county results from the 2008 race, in which John McCain beat Romney 36 percent to 31 percent. Included in the chart are how much Romney won or lost each county by, and our projections for how well he needs to do in each county in order to win.)
Have a key county of your own that we didn’t mention? Throw it in the comments section!
The Fix’s top 5 Florida counties to watch
* Brevard: If there is a county where Gingrich’s pledge to have a permanent colony on the moon by the end of his second term will resonate, it’s this one where Cape Canaveral is located. Cuts to NASA plus a large tea party contingent mean that Brevard could be the epicenter of conservative anger (and turnout) both today and in the fall. In the 2008 Florida Republican presidential primary, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) beat Romney by 5 points in Brevard, which mirrored his statewide margin. In the fall election, McCain beat then Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) 55 percent to 44 percent
* Duval: This Jacksonville-centered county is home to voters who are, in the words of one veteran Florida operative, “more like a Georgian than a Floridian”. It’s culturally conservative and big — one Florida strategist estimated that 10 percent of the GOP primary vote will come from the Jacksonville media market. This is one of the areas where Romney ran strongest in 2008 against McCain — he carried Duval 41 percent to 27 percent — and he’ll need to replicate (or improve on) that performance to break 40 percent tonight. (Worth noting: Much of Romney’s Florida leadership team has their political roots in Duval County.)
* Miami-Dade: This is the key south Florida county and will be read as a sign of how Hispanics feel about Romney and Gingrich. Miami-Dade was Romney’s Waterloo in 2008 — he lost by more than 52,000 votes to McCain in the county (former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani actually came in second!), a margin that Romney could never make up statewide. (McCain won Florida by roughly 97,000 votes total.) If Romney runs stronger here tonight, Republicans will argue that it bodes well for his chances of narrowing the gap against Obama in the fall; Obama won Miami-Dade by 16 points over McCain in 2008.
* Orange: Turn on any television or read any political blog or newspaper and you will quickly grasp that the I-4 corridor, which runs from Orlando in the east to Tampa Bay in the west is the most critical region in this Republican presidential primary. (Heck, the Fix family’s new favorite show — “RockCenter with Brian Williams” — did a segment on the I-4 corridor last night.) Orange County, which houses Orlando, is as good a barometer as there is when it comes to determining how the I-4 corridor will vote. (It also is an early reporting county.) In the 2008 primary, the county was basically a draw as McCain beat Romney by 435 votes. Romney needs a far stronger showing in tonight’s voting. One other bonus for paying attention to Orange: It will be a very competitive county in the general election. Obama won it with 59 percent in 2008, but four years earlier Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) won it by .2 percent of the vote, a margin of 815 votes out of more than 388,000 votes cast.
* Pinellas: Nestled in the Bay Area — Tampa Bay, that is — Pinellas has an interesting amalgam of large churches populated by evangelicals and more moderate suburbanites. It’s also an older county; roughly one in five residents were over 65 years old, according to the 2010 Census. Pinellas runs a very aggressive absentee vote program; as of yesterday, more than 62,000 votes had been cast by absentee ballot in Pinellas. This was McCain territory in 2008 as he won it by 10,000 votes over Romney. It’s also likely to be a swing area in November; in 2004 then-President George W. Bush won it by 226 votes out of more than 550,000 cast.
With Aaron Blake