Unless something unexpected takes place, Florida can already claim the top spot in deciding recent presidential nominations, both for Republicans and Democrats, and is poised to be, along with a handful of states, a pivotal swing state in the November elections.
As for determining nominations, Florida now has replaced both Iowa and South Carolina as the "must-win" early state. In 2008, Barack Obama's win in Iowa certainly gave him the boost that later exploded into momentum in the South Carolina Democratic contest. But had Florida's legislature not moved the Florida contest ahead in the order of states voting that year, leading to an announced Democratic National Committee decision not to seat any of its delegates, all of Florida's delegates would have counted in the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Clinton was poised to cream Obama in the Sunshine State and in fact did so, while having to stick to a pledge not to campaign in Florida. Had the contest been held anytime after February 5th of that year, momentum likely would have shifted and Clinton would have received the nomination. In this instance, Florida's lack of participation (Florida finally sent a diminished delegation to the convention well after Obama had secured the nomination) was the critical ingredient in helping make Barack Obama his party's nominee.
The 2008 contest for the Republican nomination was far more cut and dried. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee roared out of Iowa with a big win. But with an upset comeback in New Hampshire and a tight victory in South Carolina, John McCain won the endorsement of a then-popular incumbent Gov. Charlie Crist and basically cruised towards the GOP nomination after a win in Florida.
That leads us to 2012. Minus some amazing changes in the political landscape, Mitt Romney, who basically saw the last of his hope for the nomination in 2008 go down the drain in Florida, essentially had his "game change" moment in the state's 2012 primary. With Rick Santorum, surprising all with his performance in Iowa, and Newt Gingrich winning big in the "always the ultimate nominee" South Carolina, Romney unleashed funds, ads, a strong organization, and two comeback Florida based debates and sent Gingrich packing with a huge victory.
While Santorum had moments of appearing to present a continued challenge, Romney's position was likely strengthened beyond measure in later states because of his Florida knockout punch. He became the strongest candidate, and to republican voters, he seemed the most likely to give Obama a run for his money.
Florida's claim to fame for being critical to victory in the November battles for the presidency became legendary in the 2000 presidential contest. This column went into syndication in 2001. In those days, many in syndication either worked for or had an affiliation with a major newspaper. My relationship with the Florida Times-Union has given me the added value of getting a taste of Florida
In 2008, Florida reversed its course of voting for Republican nominees and gave its electoral votes to Barack Obama. By the time of that election, the collapse of the housing market had hit Florida with full force. Confused by a financial meltdown just weeks before the election and stunned by economic woes, Floridians gave the edge to the man who promised change.
The fact that the change has been slow, and in many cases counterproductive to the best interest of the nation, should not lull Republicans into a false sense of comfort as to their chances of knocking Obama off in November. The most recent poll conducted in Florida by the group PPP, which identifies itself as a Democratic affiliated firm, but has a good record for accuracy, shows Obama five points ahead of Mitt Romney. But there are many variables, beyond the obvious such as the state of the economy in November that will influence the likely result of the contest in Florida.
First, there will likely be a spirited contest to determine the Republican nominee who will take on incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. The strength of the ultimate Republican nominee in that contest will be critical to GOP chances overall. Then there is the question of whether a national convention being held in a state, this year the Republicans come to Tampa, Fla., helps or hurts a potential nominee.
Add to the mix furor in the African-American community over the Trayvon Martin case and the wildcard of a Romney pick of Florida's popular Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio as his running mate and there are plenty of reasons to believe the vote in Florida could be a photo finish this year. Make no mistake, both sides will be pushing like never before to win the now golden prize of presidential politics.