Depending on your point of view, a presidential campaign in Florida is a mirror of America, a sounding board for the citizens, a punch line for a comedian, a windfall for consultants—or all the above, rolled into the perfect political storm.
Right now Florida is riding the wave before the March 15 presidential primary, a winner-take-all event with 99 delegates at stake. The date and the delegate boon were finalized almost a year ago by the Republican-led legislature, long before the season developed its current conditions.
That was back when former Gov. Jeb Bush was thought to have Florida locked up. Then another Florida favorite, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, joined the fray. And Donald Trump. And Ted Cruz. And an African-American Republican, Ben Carson. And a woman, Carly Fiorino. And more, to form a jostling field of a dozen serious GOP candidates.
Democrats, with two major candidates—Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders—have fewer choices, for better or worse.
But soon enough—or not, again depending on your point of view—nominees will emerge, and the spotlight again falls on Florida, one of a half-dozen key swing states, with 29 electoral votes up for grabs in November.
Most states’ presidential outcomes are fairly easy to predict. Others, not so much. In the last 10 presidential elections, Florida went Democrat four times—including the last two elections—and Republican six times.
Democrats have the edge in voter registration, with 38 percent vs. the Republicans’ 35 percent. But in addition to the GOP presidential wins, Republicans still won the full Cabinet and governor’s mansion in the last two statewide elections—the same years Obama won the state’s presidential vote.
Given other states’ likely outcomes, most experts say it’s almost impossible for Republicans to win the presidency without winning Florida. Democrats have other ways to get there, but for the GOP, Florida is a seriously big deal.
Florida victories, meanwhile, are almost always very close, often less than 2 percent. In Obama’s 2012 victory over GOP candidate Mitt Romney, Obama won Florida by less than 1 percent, the smallest victory margin in the nation. But regardless of size, a win is just that—a win.
So: Florida is important, and it’s competitive. How does a candidate win?
People in the business say if they knew the answer to that question, they’d be billionaires (a million wouldn’t be enough) or president.
But everybody has some ideas.
On the most practical, business level, it takes good consultants and good polling, says Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida professor who specializes in Florida elections. A good consultant would be one who knows and understands Florida’s unique culture, as many national consultants do not.
A good consultant knows about the attitudinal differences among Hispanics; how a Cuban, a Puerto Rican and a Nicaraguan are likely to have very different opinions on immigration issues, or how a Haitian-American might differ politically from an African-American. When so many Florida voters come from so many different places, broad classifications won’t work here like they might in other, less diverse states.
A good consultant knows where in Florida Democrats dominate voter registration, but Republicans always get elected. And he or she knows the regions where voter population is small and easily ignored, but the turnout rate is unusually high, producing more actual voters than places with more people.
“You’re working with smaller numbers here, but those small numbers make the difference in statewide elections in Florida,” MacManus says, pointing to past elections decided by a few thousand votes or less.
Good polling is needed everywhere. “Really good polling is a vanishing commodity, and it’s alarming how many bad polls are out there and how much attention they get,” MacManus says.
One problem is that many pollsters simply take people at their word when they’re asked if they vote. (For meaningful political polling, pollsters want to interview only voters. If you don’t vote, they don’t care.) Everybody always says they vote, even if they don’t. Using lists showing who voted reliably in the past would be better, MacManus says, but that takes time and money.
More strategically, MacManus says, another wrinkle in this election cycle has been the candidates’ constant attacks of each other. Usually, candidates first have an “introductory” period, when they tell voters about themselves and their beliefs. The attacks come later.
This time, the attacks started immediately. “People are really turned off by that,” she says. “They’re not hearing why they should vote, they’re hearing how bad the other guys are. There’s less reason for voters to be ‘for’ somebody.”
She’s not alone in that concern.
Two of Florida’s leading political statesmen and former elected office holders—Republican Porter Goss and Democrat Bob Graham—share her worry, despite their party differences.
They also agree Florida is a good reflection of the nation, and success here is critical for anyone with an eye toward the White House. And they offer some of the same ideas about how to get there, despite their differences concerning who can best do that.
Their comments about what presidential candidates need to know about Florida, and what they could do here to improve their chances, provide unique insight into the election process in a unique state.
Porter Goss: “Show Up with Substance”
• Florida is such a microcosm of the country it’s a fair test of how candidates will do nationally. But immigration and elder issues are particularly important here. Immigration is so complicated, with so many affected groups and nuances, finding common ground is hard. But Florida has a big immigrant population and a significant block of voters who care about this issue.
• President George W. Bush read the tea leaves correctly on the Hispanic vote in Florida, and without that he would not have been president. Many people questioned whether the second-generation Cuban voters were as conservative as their elders and whether they would go Democratic. Bush judged where that community was and took a harder, more conservative line. He got tremendous support from Florida’s Cuban community at a time when many Hispanics were leaning more Democratic.
• To make their mark in Florida, candidates have to show up and get involved, not with just slogans and rhetoric, but with substance that shows they understand the problems of today.
• TV advertising is not as important in Florida as it used to be. The social network effectiveness astonishes me. The downside is that people too often do not take the time to verify what’s accurate. But it still takes a lot of money to get elected.
• If I were campaigning for president, I’d get to the important groups—like agriculture, banking, real estate, business—and let them do some networking for me. You’ve got to have followers in every camp. These groups have money and influence; the more help a candidate can get from them, the better. But those people have to believe you are serious. They don’t want to hear slogans.
• People are coming to Florida, and there are reasons for that. It’s not just low taxes; other states have lower taxes and don’t do so well. Florida has had some good governors; there are efficiencies here between the executive and elected branches you don’t see in other places. Presidential candidates could tap into that.
• Turnout—making sure your supporters actually go vote—is so important. It takes organization, and it’s harder now because people are so angry with government. There are two schools of thought on that: Are voters so disgusted they say, ‘To heck with them all’ and don’t vote at all, or are they so angry they go vote for someone on the edge? In Florida, a large turnout will probably help the home-state candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. With a small turnout, that’s probably less true.
• After the primaries are over, the candidate who can do the most healing in Florida will probably win. When Ross Perot ran and caused such splits in the parties, there was no healing. The Perot people never came back. We’ll probably need some healing.
• It’s always the middle that decides an election. One-third of the voters will go one way, another third will go the other way, and it’s the middle group that decides. The question is how to find that middle group. In Florida, it’s not as obvious as party registration; it’s a different mix. But they all want to be represented, and a candidate can’t give up on them. If you can’t represent everybody, you probably should not be running.
Bob Graham: “The Ground Game Is Important”
• Right now, as we head into the primaries, it seems that the candidates have been more focused on talking about each other than on reaching a broader audience with issues.
• How well Donald Trump does in Florida will be very much affected by his performance in Iowa and New Hampshire. The question is whether people see him as just a microphone, as the means of registering their discontent, or if they think he is someone who could actually be president. Floridians don’t want to cast a vote just to send a message; they want to elect a president. If Trump is seen as just sending a message, his support will wane.
• Florida is one of the states that’s most reflective of the entire country: There’s a large minority population with a large segment of Hispanics, there are older voters, there are rural areas and urban areas, there are people from the Midwest, from the South, from the Northeast. Florida comes close to being a mirror of America, and what they do to win in Florida is what they have to do to compete on the national canvas.
• There are still some specific issues that are important, where the emphasis is somewhat higher in Florida than elsewhere. About 20 percent of the population is over the age of 65, but that converts to about one-third of the actual voters, so matters like Medicare and Social Security are very important.
• Immigration is a big issue here, but more politically complicated. About 15 percent of our population is Hispanic, and that number is growing. Some Hispanics support a comprehensive immigration bill with a path to citizenship. But many are from Puerto Rico; they have citizenship and they are eligible to vote the minute they arrive. Then there’s the voting segment that’s opposed to expanding immigration with a path to citizenship.
• The environment, especially water issues, is something else Floridians have great concern about, and something where the federal government and president have a large role to play.
• Florida is traditionally considered a very media-oriented state, one where you must raise a lot of money to run a lot of TV ads. That’s still true, but now we have more emphasis on social media and more personalized connections. The effort to identify your voters and make sure they get to the polls to vote is more complicated in Florida, and more expensive. But that’s part of what it takes now. Social media and turning out your voters—what’s called the ground game—is important and requires organization.