The Florida primary kicked off on Tuesday, as the final four remaining GOP presidential candidates squared off in the biggest Republican presidential contest so far. Mitt Romney, polling with a double-digit lead, looked set to easily beat out closest competitor Newt Gingrich.
PolicyMic will have live updates and analysis as polls close around 7 p.m. Eastern time. Some Florida polls are in the central time zone, and the primary will not be called until 8 p.m.
Update: 7:35 p.m. With 41% of the polls reporting, Romney holds 50% of the votes, Gingrich has 30%, Santorum has 12%, and Paul has 7%
A Romney win in the Florida primary will solidify the candidate’s front-runner status and prove that the former Massachusetts governor is capable of fighting through considerable adversity. As early as last Monday, Gingrich had surged ahead in the Florida polls, leading 41% to Romney's 32%, after a surprising 12-point South Carolina primary win.
Romney has now completely turned the tables in only seven days’ time. The latest poll conducted by the American Research Group showed Romney leading Gingrich by 12 points, polling 43% compared to 31%.
Rick Santorum came in at 13% while Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) notched only 9%.
While a Florida win would cement Romney’s status as the top GOP presidential contender, it will force Gingrich to scrap for future votes, likely forcing the GOP primary to take the air of a dirty haze of negative attacks.
Gallup shows Gingrich and Romney statistically tied in a national poll. Santorum and Paul both look like marginal figures moving forward. Paul has set his sights on winning smaller delegate states like Maine, but polls last nationally in the same Gallup poll. Santorum could continue to hold out until Super Tuesday on March 6, when 10 states hold primaries, three of which are Southern states where the socially conservative Santorum could find some traction.
According to New York Times projections, Romney will likely garner 44.2% of the Florida votes, compared to 29.5% for Gingrich. The New York Times also projected that Romney had a 98% chance of winning the Florida primary.
As of Monday, more than 632,000 absentee and early voting ballots had been cast, many of which were expected to favor Romney.
"Doing well in Florida is a pretty good indication of your prospects nationally," Romney said Tuesday at his Florida campaign headquarters in Tampa.
Romney has taken a more aggressive approach since trailing Gingrich in polls early last week. Romney unleashed a barrage of ads to spread his message. Over the past month Romney and his Super PAC “Restore Our Future” have spent a total of $15.3 million in Florida alone. In comparison, John McCain's entire 2008 primary campain only spent a total of $11 million. In Florida, Gingrich has only spent around $3 million in ads.
The full force of Romney shows that the candidate can be formidable and even triumphant when facing significant obstacles. Romney currently polls in a statistical dead heat against President Barack Obama if the election were held today. If Romney is able to overcome a 12-point deficit against Gingrich in only a week’s time, imagine what the candidate can do against Obama.
But Florida will only be Romney’s second primary victory. Between now and Super Tuesday, Romney will still need to prove that he can win in the South, Midwest, and Southwest. As three out of the four remaining presidential contenders have won primaries or caucuses, Republicans are clearly still divided over who they should put their full backing behind. Though a Florida win will show Romney has significant electability, he still faces hurdles.
We should also still wonder if there is a schism brewing in the Republican Party, especially among libertarians in the GOP. Though Paul is polling at an insignificant amount nationally, the Texan still holds a significant and fervent base of followers. Millennials especially love Paul for his views on foreign policy, government spending, and social progressiveness. Paul has said that he will not run as a third party candidate. But as a libertarian candidate separate from the Republican Party, Paul would undoubtedly make a national splash.
While Gingrich remains the biggest GOP threat to Romney, the libertarian threat Paul still maintains could be even more significant.
Photo Credit: Aaron Webb