TAMPA – We have the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primaries behind us now and as a result we know, well, just about what we did before these events took place. The Republican presidential picture is hardly more sorted out than it was before we wrapped our Christmas packages.
The conventional wisdom (which is always conventional but much less often wise) remains that Mitt Romney will outlast all his opponents and will, with minimum esprit de corps, be nominated in August in Tampa.
Lots of fine Americans live in both Iowa and New Hampshire, I want to make clear. But these are small states, very much unlike the nation at large, with some quirky voting rules. In a recent edition of the Wall Street Journal, a Michael Barone analysis of how untypical the Iowa caucuses are to what follows carries one of those headlines that are so good it makes it almost unnecessary to read the story. To wit, "As Iowa Goes, So Goes Iowa." Just so. If you don't think so, ask President Huckabee.
New Hampshire, where I have friends and a place I love, relishes its reputation for eccentricity and colorful contrariness. The kind of place that would give more than 40 percent of its vote to Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman. This makes it a great place to visit, but hardly a national political weather vane. (OK, it's not as wacko as neighboring Vermont, where two major voting blocs are foundation presidents and lesbian goatherds.)
There are so many examples, but I'll share just one. With my morning coffee Monday one of the networks brought me one of those voters-emerging-from-a-car interviews from Concord, New Hampshire, where a comely young woman in stylish winter dress told the interviewer that, "Last time I voted for Obama, but this time I'm leaning toward Ron Paul."
As Dave Barry might say, I'm not making this up. All of this makes you wonder why both national parties have gone to the mat to ensure that Iowa and New Hampshire continue to lead off the voting. There may be a reason for this, but not an obvious one. And almost certainly not a good one. My guess is sheer perversity.
South Carolina, larger and more like the lower 48, will provide more of an idea after Jan. 21. But the first big test in a big state with demographics much like the nation takes place in Florida January 31. Florida, the fourth largest state in the nation, is bearing down on 20 million residents and has more than twice the population of Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina combined. It has more than four million registered Republicans, about the population of Iowa and New Hampshire together.
All the important electoral demographics exist in Florida -- racial groups, social classes, educational levels, political inclinations, etc. -- in very similar proportions that exist in the nation at large. When we know who the winner is in Florida, we'll know something.
Florida will be the first all-Republican primary. Both New Hampshire and South Carolina allow independents to vote in party primaries. (Is this odd or what? If a voter wishes to be "independent," what business does he have helping choose the candidate of a party he is independent of?)
Florida's heft makes it a little strange that hardly any of the national pundits, pollsters, and talking heads have made much mention of Florida in a sea of words and pictures from the two political boutiques that have now had their say. Finally, in the first measurement since fall, comes Quinnipiac with a poll saying that 36 percent of likely Florida Republican primary voters favor Mitt Romney, 24 percent go for Gingrich, Rick Santorum gets 16 percent, and Ron Paul is the choice of 10 percent. Both Rick Perry at five percent and Jon Huntsman at two finish behind don't know at seven percent.
These numbers don't inconvenience the conventional wisdom much. But the wild card is that 54 percent of respondents say they aren't firmly attached to their choice and could decide to go another way before the 31st.
Iowa and New Hampshire have been fun. And they've given newsreaders in the relentless 24-hours news cycle something to talk about. But by Groundhog Day, if Florida voters don't see their shadows, especially those 54 percent who haven't really made up their minds, we may get a real hint if there is going to be at least four years of a Romney presidency or not.