While John McCain claimed victory in yesterday's Florida GOP primary, results also showed a surprising defeat in a military town he once called home.
Statewide, the Arizona Senator cruised to an easy victory over his nearest rival, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Mr. McCain captured 36% of the vote in yesterday's primary, compared to 31% for Mitt Romney. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Guliani, who staked his entire campaign on the Florida outcome, finished a distant third, just ahead of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. Guliani is expected to drop out of the race today and endorse McCain.
But in the Jacksonville, the nation's third-largest Navy town--and a city where McCain once led a naval air group--Romney returned the favor, racking up double-digit margins in three counties with a large military population.
In Duval County--which includes the city of Jacksonville--Mr. Romney won by 15 points. He put up similar margins in nearby St. John and Clay counties. McCain's best showing in the region came in Nassau County, north of Jacksonville, but he still lost to Governor Romney by six points.
It was, perhaps, the only blight on a big night for Senator McCain. With his victory in Florida, McCain is in a commanding position to capture the GOP presidential nomination, while his opponents saw their prospects dashed, if not eliminated.
Exit polling from Florida indicates that Mr. McCain scored well among Republican moderates, liberals, Latinos and elderly voters. However, he trailed Mitt Romney among voters who identified themselves as conservatives, and younger voters, suggesting a potentially tight primary battle.
That's one reason the "veteran vote" was considered crucial in Florida. There are at least 300,000 military personnel, dependents and retirees who reside in Florida. Thousands of military personnel outside the state also claim Florida as their home, voting in elections by absentee ballot. In a close contest, the military voting bloc might prove decisive.
But, as in other recent primaries, the military vote broke solidly for Senator McCain. According to Associated Press exit polling, more than one in four GOP voters in Florida (27%) identified themselves as veterans. Mr. McCain received 42% of the votes from that group in Tuesday's primary.
County-by-county returns indicate that Senator McCain won three of Florida’s four “military” regions, where most of the active duty personnel and retirees are concentrated. McCain carried four of the five counties in the panhandle, an area that includes the Pensacola navy base; Whiting Field Naval Air Station; the massive Eglin AFB complex, and Hurlburt Field, home of Air Force Special Operations Command.
Senator McCain won by eleven-point margins in three of that area’s five counties, including Okaloosa, which has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of military voters, roughly 20% of the electorate. By comparison, Governor Romney won only one county in the region (Bay County, home to Tyndall AFB), and his margin of victory was only one point.
McCain also triumphed along the “Space Coast” in Brevard County (where Patrick AFB and Cape Canaveral are located), and in the four counties that make up the Tampa Bay metro region (Hillsborough, Pinellas, Hernando and Pasco). That region also has a large population of military personnel, assigned to MacDill AFB and the two major commands headquartered at that installation.
Given his victory in other military regions, McCain's loss in Jacksonville had to be disappointing. By one estimate, at least 30,000 voters in the area have some sort of military affiliation, including active duty personnel, dependents and retirees.
McCain also has personal ties to the area. Toward the end of his Navy career, he served as Executive Officer (and later, Commander) of an A-7 training unit in the Jacksonville area. In a sense, McCain has been well-known in the local naval community for more than 30 years. But those connections did not produce a majority among Jacksonville's Republican voters.
Without more detailed exit polling data, it’s difficult to reach firm conclusions about John McCain’s loss in Jacksonville. It’s possible that the Senator won a majority among military voters, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Romney’s support among other groups.
Mike Huckabee’s relatively poor showing in the Jacksonville area (he pulled less than 17% of the vote in three of the four counties) may have provided another boost for Romney. However, that trend didn’t apply to other military areas. Huckabee had similar numbers in the four counties that comprise the Tampa Bay metro area, which John McCain carried by an average of seven points.
As the race for the GOP nomination goes “national” with Super Tuesday, the focus on individual states (and key constituencies within those states) will become less important. While Senator McCain’s Florida win put him in position to claim more victories (and delegates) next week, his loss in Jacksonville is a bit puzzling.
In sharp contrast to South Carolina, where the state's large navy population (centered around Charleston) went overwhelmingly for McCain, the nation's third-largest Navy town, Jacksonville, rejected him by a wide margin.
Makes you wonder: do the people of Jacksonville know something that other voters missed?