The battle of Florida: Early voting and the Democratic pledge

We always knew that the Republican primary in Florida would be hardly contested. The first poll conducted after South Carolina was Rasmussen's released yesterday that gave Romney a lead. Since then, SUSA has come out with its own Florida poll, also entirely conducted post-South Carolina/Nevada:

  • McCain is ahead 25% to Giuliani's 20%, Romney's 19% and Huckabee's 14%. Thompson and Paul are tied at 7%.
  • A week ago, McCain was already up, but only 25% to 23%, with Romney and Huckabee at 18%.
The striking result in this new wave of Florida polls we are getting is that Giuliani is not out of the race just yet. The media will likely cover him extensively over the next week given that they have barely followed him at all since December and that this could very well be Giuliani's (first and) last stand.

And the poll also provides us with a fascinating stat: Florida's early voting started weeks ago at the beginning of January and SUSA finds that, among those who have already voted, McCain leads Giuliani 31% to 25%, with everyone else far behind. If a significant number of voters have already cast their ballot before Rudy's fading into irrelevance, that could be a huge boost for Giuliani -- and it could be fatal to Romney's hopes, since the former Governor only jumped back in the race with his Michigan win last week. Hopefully more polls release such information so we can get an idea of the dynamics of early voting.

What will be very interesting to follow in the next week is the Democratic race. SUSA's poll of the race puts Clinton up 56% to 23%, with Edwards at 12%. Among those who have voted early, Clinton's lead is even more crushing, 72% to 17%. Clinton will probably win Florida. But will it matter?

Remember, the Democratic candidates signed a pledge back in early September that they would not campaign in the "rogue states" of Florida and Michigan -- and neither of these states has any delegates to award right now. Obama and Edwards withdrew their names from the Michigan ballot, but they did not do the same in Florida. That means that the media will have difficulty treating the voting here next week the way they did Clinton's Michigan victory since there will be actual voting between the top three candidates.

The test of whether a contest with no delegates should be covered by the press will probably be whether there is any campaigning going on or whether the different camps are playing at all in the state. And Clinton knows this. Her camp went after Obama's today accusing them of having broken the pledge by running a national ad that is also airing in Florida. The Obama campaign is saying that there was no way to run a national ad without having it also run in Florida. But the New York Observer is now reporting that Clinton adviser Howard Wolfson might be looking to get Clinton to campaign in Florida saying that "the agreement is over." We will probably know very soon whether the Democrats will engage in the battle of Florida, and whether Hillary will dare cross the frontier into the state.

To be fair to Clinton, this pledge was the silliest moment of the campaign season. The candidates were bullied into signing it by the state chairs of the Democratic Parties of IA, NH, NV and SC and it was obvious that the lives of whoever tried to resist would be made miserable in the early-state. Given how protective Iowa and New Hampshire can get, a candidate who did not sign the pledge would have been quasi-eliminated from the running. I would have no problem with the candidates breaking the pledge now and campaigning in Florida.

So this is an issue in which both sides make a lot of valid points. On the one hand, the state does not appear very competitive and only Clinton stands to benefit from Florida becoming a real contest. And it would be unfair for Obama and Edwards if Florida only now ceased being off-limits when they haven't gotten a chance to organize to offset Clinton's advantage.

On the other hand, Clinton appears to be naturally fitted for the state given that her lead has stayed remarkably stable here for months even when her national numbers have decreased and other big states like California have tightened; so it's also unfair to let that silly pledge candidates were bullied into ruin her chance to make a stand here.

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