Republican enthusiasm gap is worry in battleground state
MIAMI (Reuters) - Republican voters gave presidential hopeful Mitt Romney a resounding victory in Florida but they turned out in lower numbers than in the previous primary in 2008 and were only lukewarm about their party's candidates.
The number of Republicans who voted on Tuesday - 1.7 million - was down 14 percent from 2008, in a worry for the party in a swing state that will be crucial for the November election battle with President Barack Obama.
The drop in Republican turnout came despite an increase of 25,000 registered Republicans in Florida from four years ago.
"They are voting with their feet and simply not showing up," said Christopher Mann, a political science professor at the University of Miami.
Romney won 46 percent of the vote to closest rival Newt Gingrich's 32 percent in Tuesday's primary election.
But Florida Republicans were hardly swept off their feet by the former Massachusetts governor. In exit polls, four in 10 said they were not enthusiastic about their choice of candidates, according to exit polls.
Voters may have been turned off by the barrage of nasty ads unleashed by the candidates and the Political Action Committees supporting them, said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon polling.
The lack of excitement might not translate into indifference in the November general election, when Republican voters get to pick between their party's nominee and the Democratic president.
"Right now the Republicans are like diners sitting in an Italian restaurant and they are choosing between two pasta dishes. Come the fall they will be choosing between Italian and sushi ... things that are radically different," said Mann.
If Florida voters are not ecstatic about the Republican candidates, they are also less enthralled with Obama than they were when he won the battleground state in 2008 with a slim margin of less than 3 percentage points.
Obama's Florida approval rating edged down to 43.6 percent in a Gallup survey released on Tuesday and as an incumbent he can't run on hope - or change - this time.
"He actually has to run with a record to defend rather than just attack (former President George W.) Bush and attack Republicans," Coker said.
ECONOMY SLOWLY TURNS
As in the rest of the country, the November election outcome in Florida hinges on the economy.
Two-thirds of Florida Republican primary voters said the economy was far and away the most important issue and there have been signs of improvement. Fifty-eight percent of Tuesday's voters said their family financial situation was holding steady, while 29 percent said they were falling behind economically.
Consumer confidence among Floridians surged in January to its highest level in nearly four years. Optimism has risen steadily in recent months, both in Floridians' outlook for their personal finances and their expectations for the national economy, according to University of Florida economists.
Florida's unemployment rate, while still high, is dropping. It was 9.9 percent in December, compared with 8.5 percent nationwide. But it has dropped by more than 2 percentage points during the last year and Florida has added jobs for 15 consecutive months, after losing them for three years.
Florida was one of the states hardest hit by the worst housing slump since World War Two. Real estate analysts say the picture is starting to look a little less glum but is still far from sunny.
Home sales volumes are rising, especially in South Florida's condo market, buoyed by foreign buyers with cash, but a huge backlog of foreclosured homes is headed to market at bargain prices, keeping prices down.
Forty-four percent of Florida's mortgaged homes are worth less than what the owners owe, double the rate nationwide, though the number has been shrinking, according to November data from CoreLogic.
And a quarter of Floridians own their homes free and clear of any mortgage, including a majority of the over-65 population who are most likely to vote, according to AARP.
But homes overall are still worth half of their value at the peak of the housing boom in November 2006, so even the mortgage-free are feeling the pain.
"It's not just underwater mortgages and foreclosers, it's property values. All of those things have to come back in Florida for people to really feel secure," Coker said. "I just don't see it going to flip that quickly."
THE FEEL-GOOD FACTOR
With the election just 10 months away, there's little chance of dramatic gains in the housing market or the job situation, especially with all the soldiers and sailors headed home from war to look for work in military-heavy Florida, he said.
The consensus is that a better economy would help Obama while a stagnant or worsening one would favor the Republican nominee. But the question may be how much better things have to get, and perception may matter more than statistics, said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
"If people think things are getting better based on what they see with their own eyes, that's more likely to change their votes for the president than if the Labor Department says unemployment numbers are down," Brown said. "What has a bigger impact is how voters feel."
Pundits draw similarities to President Ronald Reagan's re-election in 1984. His Republican Party took a beating at the polls in 1982 because the economy was terrible and the unemployment rate topped 10 percent.
It had dropped to a still-high 7.4 percent by the 1984 general election - but that was enough to persuade voters things were moving in the right direction, Brown said.
"It was clear things were improving. People could see it and feel it all around them. And Reagan won by the largest landslide in American history," he said.
The recent recession, defined as two consecutive quarters of economic shrinkage, lasted 18 months and ended in June 2009. Yet four out of five voters still think the nation is in recession Brown said. "If it feels like a recession to them, it won't matter what the statistics say," he said.
Obama echoed that sentiment on Wednesday when he asked Congress to approve a $5 billion to $10 billion effort to help U.S. homeowners refinance as part of a wider package of proposals to shore up the depressed housing market.
"What's at stake is something more than just statistics," Obama said. "It's personal."
Obama has sought to contrast his efforts to help U.S. homeowners refinance to the position held by Romney, who has said U.S. foreclosures should be allowed to run their course.
(Additional reporting by David Adams and Terry Wade; editing by Todd Eastham)