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Into the crucible
To win Florida takes a candidate who can play to the whole nation.
By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
Published January 27, 2008
Karen Bras, 47, waits for actor John Voight to enter Stetson University to speak on behalf of Republican candidate Rudy Giuliani. Bras is a registered Republican but is still unsure of which candidate she will vote for in the primary. "I think what's at stake ... is the direction of the Republican Party," she said.
Norma Goldstein, 75, a lifelong Democrat, talks with Arnie Shmagin and other members of AARP at King's Point Clubhouse in Tamarac. Seniors turn out in heavier numbers and carry more weight in off-year elections, but more presidential votes come from the 30 to 44 demographic.
[Keri Wiginton | Times]
Kyle Stevens, 27, of Miami Lakes, puts on an "Obama 08" shirt before participating in the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Parade in Liberty City. While many tend to think the Miami area is the key to Florida's vote, it's next to impossible to win the state without winning the Tampa Bay area.
[Keri Wiginton | Times]
Sari Holcombe, from left, and her husband Kelly Holcombe listen to Paula Gorman, 43, speak about ways to garner support Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee at a meetup in Lake City. In a statewide Democratic primary, the biggest share of votes, as much as 30 percent, comes from more conservative North Florida.
[Keri Wiginton | Times]
Clearwater City Auditor and Hispanic-Latino Liason Robin Gomez legally emigrated from Mexico in 1978 with his parents and four siblings. He became a citizen in 1996 and is a regular voter. Without a significant Mexican voting bloc in the state, the immigration debate is seen much differently among Hispanics in Florida than in Western states. Tone can be as important as anything.
Gov. Charlie Crist calls it the state with the prettiest name - Florida, and it is poised once again to make or break presidential aspirations.
On Tuesday, Florida holds its presidential primaries, which will put on display this state's uniquely beautiful political crucible. There is no other state that more closely reflects America.
We have it all, and we have it all in big quantities: rural, urban and suburban voters; coastal and interior residents; good ol' boys and Yankees; blacks, Hispanics and, increasingly, Asians; young and old; social conservatives and ardent liberals; the mega-rich and the impoverished.
And a nearly equal number of Republicans and Democrats, about 4-million each.
It takes a special breed of candidate to win this state, and usually that's just the kind of candidate who wins national elections. Rudy Giuliani built an entire presidential campaign strategy around the simple notion that winning Florida's primary uniquely demonstrates national electability, and he's probably right, even if someone else ends up with the victory.
"There is no other state like it. Florida is really the nation in miniature," marveled Ken Mehlman, the former Bush-Cheney campaign manager. "What the Jeb Bush, George W. Bush, Charlie Crist, Connie Mack Republicans have shown is that you cannot win Florida by just winning Republicans. You have to look at who can attract conservative Democrats, who can attract independents, who can attract Latinos."
Likewise for Democrats, what Bill Nelson, Bob Graham and Alex Sink have shown is that you cannot win by just winning Democrats. Democrats need to attract independents, moderate Republicans and Hispanics.
The Democratic presidential candidates have been snubbing Florida this year when the state is riper for a Democratic win than it has been in years.
Move too far to the right or the left in this state and any statewide candidate is toast. Republicans dominate, but this is fundamentally a centrist state.
How could Florida be anything but the ultimate national bellwether when eight in 10 residents come from somewhere else? Countless Floridians still consider their true home to be someplace like New York, Michigan, Georgia or Nicaragua.
Where Florida doesn't exactly mirror the national statistics - it has a higher percentage of seniors, for instance, and a higher percentage of Hispanics - it signals the trends that are coming to the rest of the country soon enough.
"There are at least five different kingdoms in Florida," said veteran Republican operative Ben Ginsberg of Washington. "Florida is such a big and important state with so many different kinds of people, it really forces candidates to think in very broad and thematic ways."
No one underestimates the political importance of a state this big, but there are many misconceptions about Florida politics. Dispelling those myths can be as revealing about what it takes to win Florida as anything else you look at.
Misconception No. 1: Seniors rule.Carrying Florida is not all about winning Geritol voters. Seniors turn out in heavier numbers and carry more weight in off-year elections, but not presidential ones. In 2004, exit polls showed 19 percent of the presidential vote came from Floridians 65 and older and 27 percent from voters 30 to 44, right in line with the national figures.
Misconception No. 2: Miami is king. "When people think of Florida, they think of Miami," said Democratic pollster Dave Beattie of Jacksonville. "More than 80 percent of Florida is not Miami."
Political pros know the real center of Florida's political gravity is Tampa Bay. Home to as many voters as the entire battleground states of Colorado and Arizona, the Tampa Bay area is an uncanny microcosm of Florida, the microcosm of America.
It's next to impossible to win Florida without winning Tampa Bay. It's no coincidence that all the Republican presidential candidates are spending most of the TV advertising dollars in the bay area, where nearly one in three Republican primary voters reside.
Misconception No. 3: South Florida dominates Democrats.Although they remain an important voting bloc, the liberal, Northeastern transplants who command the condos in Broward and Palm Beach counties don't hold sway over their state party. Those legendary Seinfeld-like characters are disappearing, and in a statewide Democratic primary, the biggest share of votes, as much as 30 percent, comes from more conservative North Florida.
"To win Florida, a Democrat has to start campaigning in the north and move south, rather than base the campaign in the south and move north," said Beattie, who works with Florida's most successful Democrats, Nelson and Sink.
Misconception no. 4: Hispanics vote as one. With Hispanics, people wrongly assume one of two things, either that Florida's Hispanic vote is Cuban and Republican, or that hot-button issues such as immigration reform are viewed by Hispanics in Florida just as they are by Hispanics in New Mexico or California.
Wrong on both counts.
The number of Democratic-leaning Puerto Ricans and other non-Cuban Hispanics is soaring in Florida. Without a significant Mexican voting bloc in the state, the immigration debate is seen much differently among Hispanics here than in Western states. Tone can be as important as anything.
Even Florida's so-called value voters carry a diversity within their group. Former Republican presidential candidate Gary Bauer, president of American Values, noted that winning over values voters takes much more effort in Florida than in more homogeneous states such as South Carolina.
In Florida you find evangelical voters, pro-life Catholics and conservative Jewish voters.
"It's not monolithic and it's not easily led," Bauer said.
As if all these factors don't make it complicated enough, one other element adds to the mix. Population change. Every time Florida's U.S. senators run for office, they have to go before 1-million voters who weren't around the last time they ran.
Rich Northeasterners start buying up more and more property in Sarasota, and before you know it, a longtime Republican stronghold starts electing Democrats. Hispanics start moving north out of Miami-Dade, and condos loaded with aging New Dealers start becoming interested in Latin American policy and Republican candidates.
"I describe Florida as a kaleidoscope," said Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida who studies political and demographic trends in Florida. "With every twist, the population makeup changes. Every tweak of the migration patterns, the makeup of Florida changes. That's why if you try to use yesterday's demographic patterns to try to run today's election, you possibly lose."
Staff writer David DeCamp contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 727 893-8241.