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The Fight From Florida: Romney, Gingrich, and the Clash of Two Parties in One

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When I arrived at my electoral precinct’s polling station late Tuesday morning to participate in the Republican presidential primary, I was rather surprised to find that I was the only voter there. Everything went very smoothly; I marked my ballot for former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, fed it into an electronic tabulation machine, and departed as quickly as I came. 

As I drove away from the station, I noticed two wind-beaten plastic signs scattered along the side of the road. One was for resigned House speaker Newt Gingrich and the other for defeated Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. The latter surprised me as Santorum essentially gave up on winning Florida days ago, but I suppose that for some of his staunchest supporters hope really does spring eternal. Strongly doubting that my heavily suburban and retiree-dominated precinct would go for any candidate other than Romney, I could not help but admire the persistence of his opponents’ followers.

That night, the results filtered in quickly, and Florida was called for Romney immediately after the polls closed in the Panhandle, which was at seven o’clock Central time. My eyes were glued to a county by county map offered at The Huffington Post which told me much more about the nature of Romney’s landslide win, and Gingrich’s loss of a similar magnitude, than any of the news stations had to say. The latter won, with the exception of famously left-leaning Tallahassee and a couple of other less notable locales, the entire Panhandle, and continued his victory streak clear across northeastern Florida to the Atlantic coastline below Georgia. The Romney Express, meanwhile, began to gain serious speed around Jacksonville and only continued to pick up velocity, eventually reaching its destination of Key West. By the time it had arrived there, Gingrich had been left so far back in the dust that it was virtually impossible to tell if he was still standing.

The stark geographical contrast between Romney’s and Gingrich’s respective support bases is none too shocking for those of us who live and breathe Florida politics. The further north one goes, the deeper in the South one finds him or herself. While south Florida is like an odd hybrid of New York City’s tri-state area and Latin America, central Florida more closely resembles southern California. North Florida, from Fernandina Beach to Perdido Key, could best be described as lower Alabama or Georgia. Needless to say, Gingrich enjoys tremendous support in Southern states, so he performed very well in that last region. Romney, on the other hand, appealed to a stellar coalition of social moderates and affluent suburban or urbanites living below an imaginary line stretching from Duval to Citrus counties. As this describes the bulk of the Sunshine state’s Republican constituency, it can be no wonder that he performed as superbly as he did here.

Placing this aside, though, it cannot be ignored that the same dynamics which made a winner of Gingrich in South Carolina have repeated themselves in Florida, and no doubt shall continue to in other states. He carried Florida’s most fundamentally religious, culturally insular, economically impoverished, and undereducated counties in a rout. The former speaker’s raw anger and base appeals to unbridled emotionalism are undeniably paying off as far as the GOProletariat is concerned, but thankfully such boorishness is not enough to catapult him nationwide to nominee status.

I have little reason to believe that Romney will not be the Republican standard bearer against incumbent President Barack Obama this fall. He has the money, momentum, and mainstream appeal necessary for capturing the Oval Office. However, this race, sure to drag on for months upon months at Gingrich’s insistence, is surely going to leave a stark divide within the GOP. Throngs of Gingrich’s groupies are threatening to abandon the Republican ship if Romney defeats their man. While I am of the opinion that enough will vote for Romney against Obama as their hatred knows no bounds for the president, there is a very good chance that come 2013 they will be testing the waters for a far right third party.

If this actually happens, then I have just two words to say: happy trails. It might be difficult initially, but the GOP will rebound soon enough as a viable center right alternative to the increasingly radical Democratic Party and the rightist fringe to boot. The rabid factionalization we are seeing in the 2012 primaries could possibly be the prologue for such a political epic. I guess we all have no choice other than to wait and see what happens next. As I said in my last article, whatever it should be, it is guaranteed to be groundbreaking.

On to Nevada as the once three ring circus, now completely devolved into a flash mob, begins transformation into a grand scale twenty first century reenactment of Gettysburg.

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About Joseph F. Cotto