It has been my contention for the past decade that when it comes to politics, as Florida goes, so goes the nation.
Think about the 2008 presidential election. First, following the CNN-YouTube debate, the last major Republican debate to be held before the Iowa caucus, our firm polled Floridians for the Florida Chamber of Commerce. We asked respondents who won the debate. A then-unknown candidate was the clear winner, and the boost he received in Florida gave Mike Huckabee a win in Iowa just over a month later.
The tipping point in the Republican presidential contest was Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's endorsement of John McCain in that state's GOP primary. Soon afterward, McCain won an upset victory in New Hampshire. It propelled him to the nomination.
Then in November 2008, a large, disenchanted contingent of independent voters, who in prior years had tilted Republican, switched sides and put Florida in the Barack Obama column.
This past year our polling firm, InsiderAdvantage, was named one of the three most accurate national pollsters for that 2008 race. That distinction came to us from the polling guru that Time magazine named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the world. So now the heat is on us to get 2012 right, as well.
That's why I'm focused on an apparently obscure state Senate special election race in a region dominated by greater Jacksonville. By coincidence, this nationally syndicated column is based out of that city's newspaper, the Florida Times-Union. The election is to replace a distinguished senator who died a few weeks back.
How could this comparatively small election be so important? Because it summarizes every aspect of what will become a national battle for the future direction of the Republican Party.
Let me set the stage. No Democrats are in the race, so the winner of the Sept. 15 Republican primary will become senator. Among the major GOP candidates running is a longtime party establishment leader, former state speaker of the House John Thrasher. He enjoys the support of many elected officials, as well as that of former Gov. Jeb Bush. Thrasher was a tight ally of Bush, and of Bush's family and the Bush political network.
The other major player in the race is businessman Dan Quiggle. He's a political upstart who has virtually no ties to the Republican heavyweights. Quiggle's chief qualification is that he once worked for Ronald Reagan once Reagan had left the White House. Quiggle is running on a conservative activist platform that seems to have propelled him into a dogfight with Thrasher. Quiggle is a new face, and he heads up the Florida chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a national group devoted to fighting taxes and big government.
Clearly something is going on in Florida. This is a tug-of-war that will be repeated in Republican primaries now through the 2012 presidential race.
Team Quiggle has released polling numbers that show him leading the race by nearly 9 percent.
But hold on. Our InsiderAdvantage poll of the race, conducted this week, shows things much tighter. Quiggle holds a one-point lead. That's well within the survey's margin of error. So for now, voters are evenly split.
So, you might say, this is just another close race between two Republicans, right? Absolutely wrong. These guys might as well be surrogates for the big dogs who will be running to determine the path the GOP takes in the future on a national stage.
Thrasher has all sorts of experience as a party leader, a former top legislator and a very successful lobbyist. He is older than Quiggle, but has a distinguished and attractive appearance. He represents the conservative but pragmatic side of the GOP that was exhibited by both President Bush 41 and President George W. Bush. Thrasher won't likely rock any boats, but he will continue to carry the GOP baton.
Quiggle has a slightly more youthful look. He seems to be relying heavily on his avid involvement in recent conservative "tea parties" and on his support of concepts related to tax-and-spend government. Among those most supportive of Quiggle are those who identify themselves as "conservatives." Many of them support the "Fair Tax" advocated by many conservative talk show hosts, such as Neal Boortz and Sean Hannity.
The net significance of this seemingly modest political square-off — it might draw 15,000 voters — is that it likely will tell us if the GOP establishment that has controlled the party in recent years will stand, or whether Republican voters might buck their own system, roll the dice, and test the unknown.
Unlike pollsters who produce polls to please their clients, ours are conducted to meet very rigorous media standards. And our poll says, "watch this race." It's anyone's ballgame and may indicate bigger, future events for the Republican standard.
Matt Towery is author of the new book, "Paranoid Nation: The Real Story of the 2009 Fight for the Presidency." He heads the polling and political information firm InsiderAdvantage.