Politics Counts: The Counties That Matter in Florida’s Primary

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In every presidential primary season we eventually reach a vote that is portrayed as must-win for the top candidates, the showdown. This year that vote is Tuesday’s Florida Primary.

Florida is being framed as the place where we will discover whether former House Speaker Newt Gingrich can win a big, diverse state with a closed primary giving him incredible momentum going forward. Or, conversely, whether former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney simply stumbled in very conservative South Carolina and, upon reflection, Republican voters are reaffirming his front-runner status.

Those are dramatic storylines to be sure. Who doesn’t like sudden-death politics? But look closer at the state and the path ahead

and Florida doesn’t really look like a must-win – particularly for Mr. Romney. Rather it is about key counties in the state, mostly places that Patchwork Nation’s demographic/geographic breakdown calls the Monied Burbs and the Boom Towns.

What happens in those 26 counties will play a large role in determining who wins the state since together they hold more than 50% of Florida’s population. But beyond the number of voters, the bigger issue is the kind of voters that live in those counties and what the vote says about their attitudes toward the field.

The Boom Towns and Monied Burbs stand out for a few important reasons. They are wealthier than most counties in the U.S. Their voters tend to be better educated and more moderate in their politics overall. In other words, they are Mr. Romney’s base. And he has done well in them in 2012 so far and in Florida back in 2008 – just not well enough to win the state.

Much of Mr. Romney’s campaign is predicated on the belief that he’s best equipped to beat President Barack Obama in the fall, and that notion rests on Mr. Romney’s perceived strength in swing-voting suburban and exurban areas like the Monied Burbs and Boom Towns.

And that’s why Florida is so big, especially the Burbs and Boom Towns (in rust and beige on the map below).

Read the rest of this week's POLITICS COUNTS column on the WALL STREET JOURNAL'S site.