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Florida Preview: Lots of Sunshine, Lots of Suburbs, Lots of Clout

Like most big states, Florida can be divided into several “sub-regions.” There’s the Northern Panhandle running from Jacksonville to the Alabama border plus the rural counties of Central/Interior Florida, which are the sections of Florida still most like the rest of the Old South: rural/smalltown, conservative, religious. “Old Florida” has about 20% of the state population. At the other end of the political/social spectrum is the “Gold Coast,” centered in Miami and including Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, and Key West.  It is mostly populated by migrants from the Northeast, particularly Greater New York (the joke in Florida is that the further south you go, the closer to New York you get). The Gold Coast also has significant concentrations of mostly Republican Cuban refugees and strongly Democratic inner city blacks. The Gold Coast casts about 25% of the state vote.

Then there is the ring of coastal counties running from just south of St. Petersburg down the Gulf of Mexico to Naples and up from Fort Pierce to Cape Canaveral on the Atlantic Coast.  These counties are mostly populated by middle and upper class retirees who have a high turnout in GOP primaries (about 30% of the state vote).  The suburban retirees on Florida’s west coast came down I-75 from the Midwest while their counterparts on the Atlantic Coast came down I-95 from the Northeast.  For lack of a better term, we’ll call this region “Sun Belt Coastal.”  The true swing area of Florida is the “I-4 corridor” running from Daytona Beach through Orlando to the Tampa Bay area and casting about a quarter of the state vote.

The Northern Panhandle and Central Florida are very similar to the smaller cities and towns of South Carolina that went so heavily for Gingrich. Newt should sweep them. On the other hand, Romney has the endorsement of numerous Cuban Republican leaders and should do well in the Miami area.  The two areas that will likely decide this crucial primary are the Sun Belt Coast and the I-4 corridor.  And these mostly suburban voters could also give us a strong indication as to what their friends and relatives are thinking back in Metro New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago.

So Florida will not only have great influence over this year’s Republican ticket through its primary, but also possibly light the way forward by its predictive power of so many transplanted suburbanites.