Opinion/Editorial by Frank Orlando, instructor of political science, Saint Leo University

The 2016 presidential election may be nearly three years away, but in Florida, the crown jewel of the electoral map, it’s never too early to start comparing the candidates vying for the country’s highest office.  Florida has been the most closely divided state in the Union in two of the past four elections, and figures to be just as close heading into the 2016 electoral cycle.

An often overlooked factor is the growing role that the state of Florida plays in deciding who will ultimately win the Republican and Democratic Party nominations.  Prior to the 2008 election, the Florida Legislature voted to move the Florida primary date up the calendar before Super Tuesday in order to increase the importance of the state in the nomination process.  In 2008 and 2012, Florida played a big role in John McCain and Mitt Romney securing the GOP nomination, respectively.  It seems likely that 2016 will follow that trend, as Florida looks to be heading toward a primary date early in March at the latest.

New polling from Saint Leo University shows us the relative strength of the candidates that are most likely to be competing for the top spot in the Sunshine State.  On the Democratic side, Hilary Clinton seems to be in a commanding position, should she decide to run.  89% of Florida Democrats believe that they could support the former Secretary of State for the Democratic nomination, while only 34% of likely Democratic voters could support the next highest Democrat on the list, Vice President Joe Biden.  Ms. Clinton’s strong support should come as no surprise to those who observed her comfortably carrying Florida in the 2008 Presidential primary against opposition from the eventual nominee, Barack Obama.

The Republican picture is much more crowded, especially due to the fact that two of the possible Republicans on the ballot call Florida their home.  Over forty percent of Florida Republicans disclosed that they could see themselves supporting either former Governor Jeb Bush, or current Senator, Marco Rubio.  Presidential candidates often perform well in primaries in their home states (recall Mitt Romney’s victory in Massachusetts) and often go out of their way to claim roots in an as many states as possible (recall Mitt Romney’s victories in Michigan and Utah).  Among the non-Floridians, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has the most to smile about.  He only trails Jeb Bush by six points and Marco Rubio by four on the “would you support” question, and is well ahead of his fellow “foreigners”.  The fact that Mr. Christie is performing so well in a state where he has never been on the ballot is positive news for those in his inner circle.  If Rubio or Bush or both decide to run, Christie seems to be the most likely candidate to gain a momentum boosting close finish in a state where he should be outmanned.  If he is fortunate enough to not face either of Florida’s native sons, he has to be looked at as the favorite according to these results.  A victory or closer than expected finish in the largest state in the primary calendar to that point is likely to secure headlines and donations through the month of March.

So what of the general election?  Assuming that Hillary Clinton secures the Democratic nomination, she will be a formidable opponent for her Republican opponent in Florida come November 2016.  Ms. Clinton is viewed favorably by 22% more voters than she is viewed unfavorably (Memo to all of us, look at gender/race crosstabs next time to see what is driving this!).  Chris Christie is the Republican with the strongest favorability differential among both national and statewide figures at +26.  Marco Rubio (Another memo, we didn’t do a favorability on Jeb Bush) is the only other prospective nominee with a high chance of running viewed more favorably than unfavorably (+3).  All other Republicans (Paul Ryan (-1), Rand Paul (-9), Ted Cruz (-17)) are under water with voters.  While Chris Christie is viewed more favorably than Hillary Clinton among independents (+26 v. +16) and does better with Democrats (+6) than Hillary with Republicans (-47) it remains to be seen whether he can maintain these strong numbers through a bruising primary and drawn out general election campaign.  Remember that John McCain entered the 2008 campaign cycle as a maverick willing to work across the aisle, and ended the campaign favorability ratings among moderates and democrats that were about the same as other national Republicans.

2016 is a long time away.  Structural factors such as the economy will vary, likability of individual candidates will wax and wane with the headlines, and decisions to enter the race will sway support back and forth.  Still, in a state that has arguably had the most leverage in General Elections since 2000, and a state with growing influence on the nominating campaign, it’s never too early to gauge the speed of the horses in the race.

To view poll results click here.