Mitt Romney lost badly here in the state’s most populous county in 2008, by a more than a 3-to-1 margin to John McCain. This time around, polls show he is running better with Hispanic voters — which matters in heavily Cuban-American Miami-Dade, where there are more Hispanic Republicans (265,000) than there are Republicans in all of New Hampshire (232,000).
Palm Beach County
This is Democratic territory, but Palm Beach County is home to the third-highest concentration of Republicans in the state. McCain won comfortably here over Romney in 2008, but with a solid managerial class, — and more households with 65 and older residents and with household income over $100,000 than anywhere else in the state — this county is in Romney’s sweet spot. If he’s not winning here, it’s going to be a rough night for him.
Located at one end of the Interstate 4 corridor, Tampa’s Hillsborough County is one of the nation’s great presidential bellwethers: Since 1960, no candidate has won Florida without carrying Hillsborough in the general election. Together, it and neighboring Pinellas County (St. Petersburg)have nearly a half-million GOP voters.
On Florida’s Space Coast, Newt Gingrich’s talk about lunar colonies and space exploration is no joke. It could give him an edge in a populous Republican county that rejected Romney in favor of John McCain in 2008. Ron Paul, Rick Santorum and Romney — all of whom knocked down Gingrich’s ambitious NASA agenda — may live to regret it in a county where 2008 turnout was 54 percent, the third-highest percentage in the state.
Romney essentially ran even with McCain in Orange County, Home to Orlando, in 2008. It should be friendly territory in 2012, but Mike Huckabee won more voters here than in any other county in 2008, which suggests there is a vein of evangelical voters and social conservatives for Newt Gingrich to mine.
Jacksonville’s Duval County, and its surrounding counties, served as a Romney stronghold last time around. With strong local GOP establishment support — including fundraising — Romney should run up the score again here. There’s a reason the CNN debate audience in Jacksonville seemed so stacked in Romney’s favor.
Lee County was a top performer for Romney in 2008. By virtually any measure — turnout, number of Romney votes cast, vote share won by Romney — the county, home to Cape Coral and Fort Myers, overperformed for the former Massachusetts governor.
For Romney, the news out of Lee County just gets better: in the past three years, it has added some 27,000 Republicans, far more than any other county in the state.
In terms of population, Sumter County is a pipsqueak in Florida, but it includes most of the planned retirement community known as The Villages a must-stop on the GOP campaign circuit. Romney has visited six times over the course of his two presidential bids; his latest came Monday even when he held an election eve rally.
Fred Thompson, Rudy Giuliani, Sarah Palin and John McCain are among the other leading GOP lights who have made appearances here at one time or another. In the past week alone, Romney, Gingrich, Rick Santorum have all stopped by.
Why? An extremely engaged electorate of senior citizens, many of them conservatives. Turnout in the 2008 presidential primary was 57 percent, well above the statewide average and second only to Lee County among Florida’s 67 counties.
Closer to Dallas than to Miami, Pensacola’s Escambia County is the westernmost in the state. Like much of the Panhandle, its politics are more Deep South than South Florida, and it’s the kind of place Newt Gingrich has to win if he has any chance of pulling of an upset. With its military bent and social conservatism, it resembles the one place where Gingrich thrived — South Carolina.