PLAYING THE MARGINS There is a new political strategy developing on how to deal with the ultra-conservative voters in Northwest Florida when it comes to national and statewide races. The goal is not necessarily to win Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa counties, but to cut enough into the leader’s vote-margin to neutralize its impact.
In the past, candidates might have written off the Panhandle and conceded the area to the more right-wing candidates, but now they see the value of making a visit to the area.
In 2008, Barack Obama won the state of Florida by less than three percentage points, 50.9 to 48.1. Our three counties voted for Republican John McCain, but the margin was only 33 points, which Democrats considered a victory. A visit by Michelle Obama to the Pensacola area may have been the difference maker in rallying support for her husband.
In this year’s Florida Republican Presidential primary, Mitt Romney fought off a resurgence by the more conservative Newt Gingrich, who had a surprise upset the prior week in the South Carolina primary. Romney eventually won Florida handily, 46 percent to 32 percent.
Gingrich carried Northwest Florida, but the margin was only 3.4 points. A Saturday rally at The Fish House might have been what deflated the former Speaker of the House’s chances. Romney made the most of his moment in Pensacola, showing off endorsements from Sen. John McCain, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Congressman Jeff Miller and Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward. Photos of the rally made the cover of the New York Times.
Two days later Gingrich flew into Pensacola addressing his troops from a hangar at the Pensacola airport without fanfare. His speech did little to rally the troops beyond their base, although they did succeed in getting more people to the polls for Gingrich than the downtown Republican power brokers that supported Romney—which is a column for another day.
What does this mean for the 2012 general election? Both parties will pay attention to Northwest Florida. We probably won’t see President Obama or the Republican nominee, which will most likely be Romney, but we will get the “B team,” possibly the First Lady for the Democrats and Sen. John McCain and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for Romney.
Northwest Florida will be relevant as the two candidates fight for Florida’s key electoral votes. One party will be fighting to capture every possible vote. The other will be aiming to syphon off enough votes to keep the Panhandle from offsetting larger margins in the more progressive south Florida counties.
The battle will be intense.