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Eye On Candidates
November 13, 2015

Florida Contest Could Be Crucial in the GOP Nomination Fight

The state of Florida is home to four candidates running for president, two of whom have won statewide office: former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also lives in the Sunshine State these days, as does retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson. And it’s beginning to look as though the state’s mid-March primary could be vital for several candidates. The Washington Post this morning explains how Bush and Rubio are both trailing the frontrunners, businessman Donald Trump and Carson, in their home state (Huckabee trails as well, but few expect him to contend for the Florida primary).

Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are far behind in their own home state

There’s fresh evidence here of the unthinkable: Florida’s biggest Republican stars, former governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, run the risk of losing their state’s winner-take-all primary next year to an out-of-state contender.

A loss in their home state could force both Bush and Rubio out of the presidential race after March 15, when Florida and three other states will hold the first winner-take-all primaries.

The contests will come after New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada and a slate of southern states reward delegates proportionally — likely giving a good number of candidates enough support to keep going. But when Florida votes, the state will reward all of its 99 delegates to the winner — enough support to potentially allow the victor to take a commanding lead….

A poll released last week showed businessman Donald Trump with 37 percent of support among GOP voters; former neurosurgeon Ben Carson had 17 percent. Rubio placed third, with 16 percent, followed by Sen Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) at 10 percent. Bush earned just 7 percent in the poll conducted by SurveyUSA and Tampa-area television stations….

Apparently most candidates early on didn’t plan to compete in Florida, assuming it would be a battle between Bush and Rubio with the loser exiting the race. It hasn’t played out that way so far:

But as Bush struggles to maintain support and Rubio only now begins to build it, their rivals sense vulnerabilities.

 “The people of Florida like me and I love them,” Trump said in a brief interview this week. “We’re doing really well in Florida, I’m leading Jeb and Marco, and I’m there a lot. I have a lot of property there. I employ thousands of people in Florida — thousands!”

Barry Bennett, campaign manager for former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, said his team is “rethinking” its initial plan to skip Florida partly because “everybody is looking for a new, fresh face.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is also ramping up his Florida efforts according to the article, including announcing the members of his state leadership team. But Bush appears to have the superior organization, not surprising for a former governor, while Rubio has field staff but no field office in the state.

Another article this morning, this one in National Journal, suggests that the number of candidates actively competing in Florida could be far fewer than elsewhere:

There are 99 del­eg­ates at stake in the March 15 primary, nearly one-twelfth of what’s needed to se­cure the nom­in­a­tion. And this time around, the Flor­ida party de­cided to ditch a sys­tem that div­vied them up pro­por­tion­ally and in­stead ad­opt a win­ner-take-all mod­el. The de­cision was made, in part, to make the primary more cru­cial and win the state a lar­ger share of pres­id­en­tial can­did­ates’ at­ten­tion.

In­stead, it may now be more likely that cam­paigns will write it off en­tirely….

Cam­paign­ing statewide in Flor­ida is both un­wieldy and ex­pens­ive. The state stretches 832 miles from Pensa­cola to Key West and in­cludes 67 counties, mak­ing an ef­fect­ive voter-turnout op­er­a­tion a lo­gist­ic­al night­mare. The state also has 10 dif­fer­ent me­dia mar­kets, mean­ing that a ser­i­ous TV ad cam­paign costs nearly $2 mil­lion a week.

The cost of competing in Florida isn’t the only reason the field is likely to be smaller. By the time the state’s voters head to the polls on March 15, the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada will already have held their contests as well as several southern states on March 1, the so-called SEC Primary, plus another dozen states that will have held either caucuses or primaries by then. It’s almost a certainty that many of the 15 candidates currently running will have dropped out by the time Floridians head to the polls.

Losing Florida could be the end of either Bush or Rubio, possibly both, assuming they have survived the previous six weeks of the nomination process. A win for Carson, Cruz, Trump, or any other candidate that may have emerged as a serious contender on the other hand could deliver three victories in a single state by driving Bush or Rubio from the race, picking up a large number of delegates, and cementing their status as a frontrunner for the nomination. For those reasons, it’s quite possible that anybody still left in the race will be ferociously competing in Florida.