Today’s Republican primary in Florida appears headed for a photo-finish between Arizona Senator John McCain and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
Forty-eight hours before the polls opened, a Zogby poll showed the two candidates deadlocked at 30%, well ahead of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee and New York Mayor Rudolph Guliani, who trail with 14 and 13%, respectively.
The former mayor, who skipped six straight early contests to focus on Florida, has slumped badly in the polls over the last month. The latest Rasmussen poll, also released on Sunday, showed Romney leading McCain by six points, and Guliani running a distant third, with only 14%.
With the Florida GOP primary now a two-man race, support of military voters and retirees may (again) prove crucial for McCain. They proved to be a decisive block in the recent South Carolina primary.
While active duty military and retirees represent only 14% of the electorate in the Palmetto State, they accounted for 25% of the 400,000 votes cast in last month’s Republican primary, and they broke solidly for McCain.
As we noted at the time, the Senator’s “triangle” of support included the coastal and Midlands counties that are home to that state’s Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force installations and most of South Carolina’s military retirees. McCain’s support among military voters was more than enough to offset Mike Huckabee’s advantage among evangelicals, concentrated in the upstate region.
Active duty and retired military members represent an even greater prize in Florida. Figures from the state House of Representatives indicated that almost 80,000 military personnel are stationed in the Sunshine State, along with 42,000 military spouses. Another estimate puts the number of military retirees in Florida at 180,000.
Additionally, there are thousands of military personnel who list the state as their home, but are stationed outside Florida. That group became the center of controversy during the 2000 presidential election, amid complaints that some military members (and dependents) had trouble obtaining absentee ballots, received them too late to be counted, and that Democrat operatives were attempting to “suppress” their votes.
Eight years later, it’s unclear how many military personnel have submitted absentee ballots for today’s GOP primary. However, that number may be very high, given the surge in early voting reported by the state Democratic and Republican parties. As of Sunday afternoon, almost a million people had voted early or cast absentee ballots, nearly matching the total turnout for the last contested GOP and Democratic primaries in Florida.
That’s why military voters represent such a key prize in today’s Republican primary. Despite the strains of on-going conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, military members are much more likely to identify themselves as Republicans, in comparison to other Americans . As a 2004 Annenburg study revealed:
Forty-three percent called themselves Republican, 19 percent called themselves Democrats and 28 percent said they were independents. While the party identification of respondents in national polls moves around a bit from week to week, this was strikingly more Republican than the general population in the September 27-October 3 sample. There, 28 percent called themselves Republican, 34 percent Democratic and 27 percent independent.
Active duty military personnel and retirees are also more likely to vote than the general public, making them a reliable block for the Republican candidates they support.
So far, we haven’t seen any polling among Florida’s military population, so it’s hard to what sort of lead McCain has among that group, or if he has an actual advantage. But, in what’s shaping up as an extremely tight race, support among military personnel, retirees and dependents could propel the Senator to key victory, or hand him a stinging defeat. As tonight’s results come in, here are a few regions and counties to watch.
Northwest Florida: The region that includes Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton and Bay Counties is home to the Pensacola Naval Base; Whiting Field Naval Air Station; Tyndall AFB, Hurlburt Field and the sprawling Eglin AFB. Heavily Republican, these counties have one of the nation’s highest concentrations of active duty military personnel and retirees. There are at least 37,000 military voters in Okaloosa County alone, more than 20% of the local population--and a sizeable portion of the electorate.
The Jacksonville Area: Duval, Clay, St John’s and Nassau Counties. Jacksonville is a Navy town with three major military installations, while a number of armed forces retirees live in the surrounding counties. In South Carolina, McCain rolled up solid margins in the region around Charleston’s navy facilities, and he hopes to accomplish the same feat in northeast Florida.
The Space Coast: Brevard County is the home to Patrick AFB, Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, with another sizeable contingent of active duty military personnel and retirees.
Tampa-St. Petersburg: MacDill AFB (where CENTCOM and U.S. Special Operations Command have their headquarters) is located in Tampa, and there are significant numbers of military voters in the three counties that make up the metro area: Hillsborough, Pinellas, Hernando and Pasco.
There are smaller military clusters in southern Dade County (around Homestead Air Reserve Base), and in Monroe County, home of the Key West Naval Air Station.
In what promises to be a tight election, a few thousand votes in Florida’s “military counties” could make or break McCain’s chances.
ADDENDUM: A final ARG tracking poll from Florida (released this morning) shows Romney with a slight lead, 34-32%, but it’s within the survey’s margin of error. However, other, last-minute polls give Senator McCain a narrow advantage. That underscores the importance of today's military vote; in a close contest, gaining a plurality among the state’s 300,000 military voters may prove decisive (H/T: NRO’s The Corner).