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Florida primary shows why N.H., Iowa should stay first

If Mitt Romney goes on to win today’s Florida primary, pundits are ready with an explanation: He’s outspent Gingrich by about 5-1 on the Florida airwaves, an estimated $15.4 million in ads versus $3.4 million. While there’s always room to question the conventional wisdom — Romney scored a couple of good debate performances, and Gingrich’s plans for a moon colony annoyed fiscal conservatives — the spending differential is glaring. When Romney arrived in Florida a bit more than a week ago, he was trailing Gingrich by 9 points in polls; now he’s up by 12. Could he have come back that quickly without a big spending advantage? Almost certainly not.

That’s particularly true in Florida, a sprawling state where voters rely on the airwaves for virtually all their information about candidates. There’s no Sunshine State equivalent of the retail campaigning that goes on in Iowa and New Hampshire, which means not only that most Floridians don’t have a chance to see the candidates in person, but that they have less incentive to study the race closely. Other than news coverage and debates, ads provide most of the information.

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This amounts to a strong defense of the nomination process that accords first-in-the-nation status to Iowa and New Hampshire. Florida, after all, is the state that keeps trying to leapfrog the system by scheduling its primary earlier than any others. Then, amid reprisals by other states and threats from the national parties, the Iowa-New Hampshire-South Carolina timeline is preserved. And well it should be.

With more than 16 million people, Florida is twice the size of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina put together. And while diversity is its hallmark, disjointed might be a better way to describe the Florida electorate. From Southern military families in the north to Miami Cubans in the south, with sugar growers, citrus kings, NASA denizens, and, of course, an enormous proportion of retirees, Florida is an amalgam of special interests. None of these interests is reflected in the national electorate to the same degree as in Florida. This political stew makes Florida a quirky battleground in national elections; but as a stand-in for the nation, it’s a ringer.

Of course, Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and the other early-voting state of Nevada aren’t perfect microcosms either, but, taken together, they contain a rough approximation of the national electorate. Most importantly, they don’t require bushels of cash for a candidate to be competitive; only southern New Hampshire, near Boston, touches on an expensive media market. So candidates can slowly develop networks, build support, and achieve success — before being forced to empty their bank accounts in Florida.

Today’s result may well mark the end of a competitive race for the Republican presidential nomination: Romney is seeking a knock-out blow. If so, it’s a premature end. But at least it came after three states which, despite their well-noted quirks, measure candidates by standards other than campaign ads.

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