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Johnson Discusses Political Landscape In Fla.


Here's a big difference between the Florida primary and everything that's gone before. Florida is big. Add up the population of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina and you get around nine million. Florida's population, over 18 million. So long retail politics, hello multiple major media markets. And so much for simple characterizations of the state's electorate, the most subtly variegated picture of the different varieties of, say, South Carolinian looks monochromatic compared to the tapestry that is Florida.

Well, David Johnson is a former executive director of Florida's Republican Party. He worked as a political consultant on Jon Huntsman's campaign and he joins us now from Tallahassee. Welcome to the program.

DAVID JOHNSON: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: And when you look at a map of Florida and you sit down and describe the state to a candidate who's running there, what are the different regions that you see?

JOHNSON: Well, we do have 10 major media markets. And the first thing that you notice is where the primary turnout's going to come from in a Republican primary. Nearly 50 percent of the vote in any statewide primary comes from a combination of two major media markets on I-4, the Tampa/St. Petersburg market and the Orlando media market. So, first and foremost, the famous I-4 corridor really does matter in a Republican primary.

SIEGEL: And to reach people in the I-4 corridor most effectively, you advertise out of Tampa/St. Pete and out of Orlando?

JOHNSON: Absolutely. They're buying a lot of broadcast television. They're buying a lot of cable television. And in a Republican primary, focusing largely on FOX News, we'll find that 70 percent of the Republican primary voters say that they do watch FOX on a regular basis.

SIEGEL: And who are these people? How do you describe the Republican primary electorate in Florida?

JOHNSON: Well, first, look at the age and ideology. Seventy percent of these folks consider themselves to be strongly or somewhat favorable of the goals of the Tea Party. Eighty percent consider themselves to be conservative. Our primary electorate, historically, will be a bit older than the three previous states. Forty percent of the primary voters are over 65. They're churchgoers. About 62 percent describe themselves as pro-life. And it's a more conservative primary electorate than, of course, we will see in the general election in November.

SIEGEL: But it would sound as if a candidate is going to get labeled as a northeastern Massachusetts moderate, not a great thing to be in Florida.

JOHNSON: Well, Governor Romney, if that's who we're speaking of, Robert...

SIEGEL: Yes, it's (unintelligible).

JOHNSON: That's - I thought so. And those labels will be a challenge for him and they were in 2008. Of course, he has been on the ballot before.

SIEGEL: When Republicans vote in Florida, inevitably some reporters go to West Miami or Eighth Street and they talk about the Cuban-American population there. Significant or a very small part of the primary electorate?

JOHNSON: Well, it's actually very significant. The Hispanic vote in Florida in a primary can be 10 to 12 percent of that vote. And as we saw in the 2004 Republican primary when Mel Martinez won the nomination, a very high turn-out in Miami-Dade where the vote moved in a large direction towards one candidate, it can be very telling and very important to building a vote margin.

SIEGEL: Well, you've been a consultant to candidates in Florida. So, I want you to give away a little bit of it for free right now. If you were consulting with Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich and you had a simple message to convey to each of them, what would it be?

JOHNSON: Well, first, for Speaker Gingrich, his message is obviously based on connecting with a Republican voter electorate that's very angry. Some polling that I saw for another client in the late fall showed that only 2 percent of the Republican primary voter felt the country was going in the right direction and people are mad. They want someone that will take the fight to the president.

SIEGEL: So the guidance to Newt Gingrich is anger can work in Florida, tap into it. And to Mitt Romney?

JOHNSON: Governor Romney is running a very sound mechanic campaign. You know, in Florida, we are an early voting state, absentees are very important. Currently, 240,000 Florida Republicans have already voted and that campaign is putting a lot of emphasis on ground game, on identifying favorable voters and turning them out. And of course, if these races get very, very negative - and I believe that they are going to get quite rough - some voters may determine that they want to vote for one of the other two candidates. So, those are still factors that are out there.

SIEGEL: Well, David Johnson, thank you very much for talking with us.

JOHNSON: Happy to be here today, Robert. Have a great day.

SIEGEL: David Johnson spoke to us from Tallahassee. He's a former executive director of the Florida Republican Party. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.