(Reuters) - Florida Republicans will go to the polls on January 31 to choose among the party’s candidates hoping to challenge President Barack Obama in the November general election. Here are a few facts about the election:
* With 19 million people, Florida is the most populous of the presidential swing states but it has closed primaries, so only those registered as Republicans before the books closed on January 3 may cast ballots. Republicans make up 36.2 percent of Florida’s 11.2 million registered voters and Democrats make up 40.5 percent. The rest are mostly independents and provide a crucial swing vote in general elections.
* Florida set its election for January 31 in an attempt to increase its clout by voting early in the state-by-state process. That violated Republican Party rules dictating that Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina go first, in February. Those states moved up their elections to keep their favored spots. The party punished Florida with the loss of half its delegates to the Republican nominating convention, which will be held in Tampa, Florida, in August. But Florida still gets 50 delegates, which is more than New Hampshire and South Carolina combined (Iowa won’t award delegates until later). Since Florida awards delegates in winner-take-all fashion, the winner will get a huge boost.
* Florida’s registered Republicans are a less racially and ethnically diverse group than the state’s electorate overall. Hispanics and non-Hispanic blacks each make up about 13 percent of Florida’s registered voters, while non-Hispanic whites account for 68 percent. Among registered Republicans, non-Hispanic blacks account for 1.4 percent, Hispanics account for 11.1 percent and non-Hispanic whites for 83.8 percent, according to the Florida Division of Elections.
* As a state popular with retirees, nearly a third of Florida’s registered voters are 60 or older. Because they show up at the polls in greater numbers than any other age group, older voters wield outsized clout. In the 2008 presidential election, 49 percent of those who cast ballots were 50 or older, according to the AARP and the Florida Department of Elder Affairs.
* State economists said Florida is in the midst of an “abnormally slow” recovery. Its unemployment rate dropped to 9.9 in December, above the 8.5 percent national rate. Florida’s battered real estate market has been plagued by a backlog of foreclosures, prices have been stagnant and credit remains tight. While the volume of home sales has rebounded in some areas, that has been partly due to international buyers with cash.
* Election supervisors began mailing out absentee ballots just after New Year’s Day, and a week of early voting at polling sites began on January 21, the same day South Carolina held its primary. On January 31, polling places statewide will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The western Panhandle is in the Central Time Zone, so polls there close an hour later than those in the more populous Eastern Time Zone. Television networks often call the races while the last Panhandle residents are still voting.
Reporting by Jane Sutton; editing by Philip Barbara