We’re just a few months away from the start of primary elections, and the Republican race is clearly shaping up as a two-man contest between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry. And, so far, all signs point to Florida being a big deal this cycle, perhaps the decisive battle.

This is a role that the Sunshine State has played in the past. In 1976 Jimmy Carter’s solid victory over George Wallace in Florida ended the latter’s candidacy, and helped Carter enormously in his pursuit of the Democratic nomination. On the Republican side, Florida was hugely important in 2008; it ended Rudy Giuliani’s candidacy and helped John McCain consolidate his lead over Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney.

Assuming that Florida keeps its number five spot in the nomination battle (behind Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina), there are three big reasons why Florida could be the contest that decides the race.

First, Florida is a well-balanced Republican electorate. When looking at the Democratic party, it’s often necessary to break it down by demographic groups. However, the GOP is very similar demographically – for generations it has primarily been the white, married middle class – so the better way to examine the Republican party is by ideology.

From that perspective, Florida is pretty evenly balanced, as the following chart shows.

As you can see, New Hampshire and Iowa fall on the extremes of the early battles. South Carolina and especially Florida fall into the middle, with the Sunshine State being particularly well mixed. Why does this matter?

It seems pretty clear that Perry is looking to create a voting coalition on the right-hand side of the party, the “very conservative” voters being his main supporters. Romney, on the other hand, is looking to recreate the McCain coalition of 2008, with a base in the moderate side of the party. Presumably, this gives Perry an edge in Iowa and Romney an edge in New Hampshire. That leaves South Carolina and especially Florida as being potential tie breakers.

Second, Florida has a geographically diverse population, Perry and Romney are presumably expecting to carve up the Republican electorate by region – Perry dominating in the South with Romney doing well in the North and potentially the Mountain West (where low turnout caucuses with strong Mormon turnout should aid him).

Florida is kind of a mix of North and South. Obviously, it is below the Mason-Dixon line, but it also has a very national population. To appreciate this, consider the following chart, which tracks the percentage of each Southern state whose population was born outside the state.

Clearly, Florida is far and away the most diverse state on this list. That gives Perry and Romney an angle here – Perry as the Southern governor and Romney as a candidate from Massachusetts (by way of Michigan and Utah).

Finally, Florida is a swing state in the general election – and has been for decades. In fact, the Sunshine State has voted with the presidential winner every time but twice for the last eighty years. Indeed, Florida was one of a handful of states to break the “Solid South” and vote for Herbert Hoover in 1928.

The reason for Florida’s quintessential swing status has to do with the previous point – it is a very diverse state with many different populations. Some Southern, some Northern; a mix of races; urban, rural, and suburban populations. Florida has it all, so it tends to track the national electorate, albeit with a slight Republican tilt.

This makes a difference for the Republican primary because GOP elites (and voters generally) are going to be looking for electability. So if either Perry or Romney trounces the other in, say, Hillsborough County (in metro Tampa and a quadrennial swing county), that could signal who is the more electable candidate. After all, if Republican voters in Hillsborough strongly prefer one candidate, that says a lot about the independent voters who live next door.

If Perry and Romney ultimately “tie” in Florida, so that neither candidate gets a clean win, then the state will probably do very little to settle the contest. But at this point, Florida – unlike the four states that precede it – clearly does not favor either Republican. So, if one of them has a real breakthrough here, that will be a huge factor in the race. I’d go so far as to say that if one of them has a solid victory in the Sunshine State, he’ll be the one to win the nomination.

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