Florida Primary First Republican-Only ‘Winner-Take-All’ Contest

Mitt Romney is favored to defeat Newt Gingrich in today’s presidential primary in Florida, home to the largest and most diverse Republican electorate and the biggest bloc of convention delegates to date.

Surveys of Florida Republicans show that Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, leads Gingrich, a former U.S. House speaker, by more than 10 percentage points in a contest that will award all of its delegates to the statewide winner. Romney would get a boost in a state he lost four years ago to Arizona Senator John McCain, who won the Republican nomination.

Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Representative Ron Paul of Texas trail Romney and Gingrich. Gingrich has overshadowed Santorum in courting the votes of conservatives. Paul is eschewing an active campaign in Florida to concentrate on caucus states early next month that give him better opportunities to accumulate delegates.

Here’s a closer look at the Florida primary and mechanics:

Who may participate in the Republican primary?

The Florida election is open only to the 4.06 million voters who were registered Republican as of Jan. 3. Polling places will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. local time. Most of Florida is in the Eastern time zone, and part of the state is in the Central time zone.

Florida has different participation requirements than other states. The Jan. 21 South Carolina primary was open to all registered voters. The Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary allowed registered independents to vote in the Republican race. The Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses were open to registered Republicans only, though voters could shift registration from Democratic or independent or register as a Republican on caucus night.

How many voters will show up?

Daniel A. Smith, a political scientist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, said Jan. 24 he didn’t expect turnout to match the 1.95 million voters who participated in the 2008 primary, or 51 percent of the 3.83 million registered Republican voters at the time. A similar turnout rate to 2008 would draw 2.07 million voters in this year’s primary.

“I don’t see the excitement topping 2008,” Smith said.

About 603,000 Republicans had voted as of Jan. 29 by absentee ballot or in an early-voting process, according to Brian Hughes, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida. Historic trends indicate the total vote “will likely end up between 1.5 and 2 million Republicans,” he said yesterday.

How are Republican voters spread throughout the state?

Just over half of the 2008 vote came from 10 of Florida’s 67 counties, led by Miami-Dade in the southeastern corner of the state, Pinellas in and around St. Petersburg on the Gulf coast, Palm Beach in and around Boca Raton in the southeast, and Hillsborough in the Tampa area. Broward County, situated between Miami-Dade and Palm Beach in southeastern Florida, and Duval County, which takes in Jacksonville in the northeastern corner of the state, round out the top six.

Orange County, which includes Orlando and cast the seventh-most votes in 2008, backed McCain over Romney by one-half of one percentage point, the closest margin of victory among the top 10 counties. Brevard County, which takes in most of the state’s “Space Coast” and cast the eighth-most votes in the 2008 primary, gave McCain 36 percent and Romney 31 percent of the vote, matching their statewide percentages.

Florida has a more diverse Republican electorate than Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina. About one in 10 Florida Republican voters is Hispanic. According to a 2008 exit poll, 39 percent of Florida Republicans described themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, compared to 65 percent in South Carolina and 57 percent in Iowa this year.

How many delegates are at stake?

There are 50 national convention delegates at stake, the most of any state to date. Florida’s delegation was reduced from 99 delegates because it is violating Republican National Committee rules by holding a binding nomination contest before March and a “winner-take-all” contest before April 1. The national party’s rules panel assessed additional penalties on Florida Republicans earlier this month, giving them poorer housing and seating assignments and eliminating their guest and VIP convention passes.

How are the delegates allocated among the candidates?

Florida is the first state to award all of its delegates to the statewide winner. Gingrich won 23 of the 25 delegates in South Carolina, with Romney winning the other two. New Hampshire awarded its delegates in rough proportion to the statewide vote. The Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses didn’t award any delegates to candidates.

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