The Sunshine State: Center of the Storm

Photo by Alan Clanton

The Sunshine State: Center of the Storm

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

Tampa, Florida: Of those infamous billions of dollars we can expect to be spent between the two major political campaigns this year, very little will be spent in states outside of the Select Seven: Florida, Ohio, Nevada, Colorado, Virginia, North Carolina and Iowa, more or less in that order. And of those battleground states this year, Florida may be the most critical.

(See PACs and the Seven Members Club, July 28, 2012; also, Swing State Tango, June 17, 2012.)

Both major parties recognize this, and the two campaigns intend to spend what it takes, and—as in past presidential elections—make whatever exertions are necessary to secure the Sunshine State’s critical hefty pile of electoral votes.

Thus it was not a coincidence of scheduling—nor was there some foul-up in the meticulous choreography—when GOP convention planners so carefully ramped up the excitement level Thursday night with so many speakers from Florida.

There was rising star Connie Mack IV, congressman, fourth generation member of a famous Florida family name and the latest within the Mack lineage to hold elected office, telling delegates that Americans “have always been a people with big dreams and limitless potential…after all, this is America.”

There was former governor Jeb Bush, one of the heaviest of the heavy hitters, immeasurably popular with Republicans and independents alike, and, other than a few of the immediate descendants of John Adams, perhaps one of the only Americans who can boast of having a father and brother with seats behind the desk in the Oval Office. “We must make sure that our children and grandchildren are ready for the world we are shaping today. And that starts in our homes, in our communities, and especially in our schools.”

And then there was Marco Rubio, the young Senator from Florida, whose charismatic style and undeniable stage presence makes him one of the most valuable players in an election already too easily defined by both party’s ability to reach out to Latinos. The GOP outreach to native-Spanish speakers (and that of their children and grandchildren) during the convention in Tampa was nearly continuous—a more-or-less constant thread of conversation scripted to show Republicans as the natural home to the economic and political concerns of Latinos. Jeb Bush himself had made a point earlier in the week of keeping the GOP narrative regarding Latinos centered on a centered, moderate course, advising Republicans nationally to “stop being stupid” when it came to their conversation about Hispanics, especially in the context of immigration.

Early GOP debates, notably the ones during the summer and fall of 2011, sometimes wandered into strident territory when it came to the conversation of border security and immigration, with candidates ranging from Michelle Bachmann to Herman Cain to Rick Perry waltzing ever-rightward. But then, with polls tightening over the last few months, many in the GOP saw the danger signs.

Bilingual Jeb Bush, who chose to stick primarily to the issue of education in his address to the convention-goers, had deftly ramped-up the improved GOP rhetoric on the matter in his interview with David Gregory on Meet the Press earlier in the week. “My personal view,” Bush had told Gregory, “is that we need to get beyond where we are. We need to create a climate of border control, and that’s begun to happen. If you look at the numbers of illegal immigrants coming into the country, it’s net zero. And it’s been that way for almost two years.”

Bush was speaking in national terms, and using the border with Mexico as his visual, but the issue has a longstanding place in Florida politics. Like those in Texas, Arizona, New York, Illinois and Colorado, native Spanish speakers are believed to be some of the most sought-after voters for both major parties.

So then, add to that formulation the equally feared political clout of senior Americans in an election year increasingly marked by heated discussions of Medicare, Social Security and dueling health care plans, and one has the easy-to-digest explanation of Florida’s outsized importance in the election arithmetic.

But Florida is far more complex than the age-old cliché suggests: that semi-comic image of a state made up of 49% native-Spanish speakers and 49% retired, mostly transplanted seniors, with the scant few remaining being those who work at vacation resorts and theme parks. In fact, Florida never much resembled this Hollywood hokum.

More ethnically diverse and economically complex than Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts or Pennsylvania, Florida bears a closer resemblance to the dazzling mosaic of demographics found in California, with its mix of agriculture, dairy and farming, alongside massive suburban and exurban sprawl (Dade County, Alachua County, Pinellas County, Clay County, to name a few), abutting large urban centers packed with banking, finance, insurance and health care (Tampa, Jacksonville, Miami). And like California, Florida has a bit of everything: tourism, business, construction, medicine; high technology and defense contractors; active military across the full spectrum of Army, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard; heavy pockets of Catholic voters, Jewish voters, evangelical Christians, contemporary mega-churches, as well as Sikh, Hindu and Muslim enclaves; the progressivism of large college towns mixed in among the vast sprawl of Red State suburban conservatism, and urban or suburban African-Americans spread across the spectrum of economic activity.

And contrary to the notion of a monolithic Latino voting bloc, Spanish-speaking Floridians—first, second or third generation—splinter in almost as many ways as one can imagine; the economic interests of the Mexican-American living in De Soto County diverging sharply from the interests of the Cuban-American living in Miami-Dade, or the interests of the Columbian-American living in Hillsborough County.

This point had been made abundantly clear many times during the week as Latino officials from all over the country addressed the delegates—from Brian Sandoval of Nevada, to the Reverend Sammy Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, to Luis Fortuño of Puerto Rico, to Susana Martinez of New Mexico. Martinez was especially eloquent—and immensely likable—in her speech to delegates and guests.

And the popular Rubio, possibly the GOP’s brightest rising star since Sarah Palin, was deployed by Republican media officials so frequently that he seemed to be a mere blur of energy and activity, continuously trailing a swarm of reporters and photographers The Tampa Bay Times reported Thursday morning that Rubio had completed nine separate media interviews in less than 97 minutes, possibly a national convention record. He even appeared on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.

But it was Marco Rubio’s speech to the delegates, guests, media—and especially television viewers—that mattered most. This was a triple-play of outreach by the GOP: younger voters, smitten perhaps by Rubio’s undeniable charisma and youthful energy; Latinos who will be drawn to Rubio, the only Hispanic member of the U.S. Senate, and his message of hard work, dedication and the American Dream; and Floridians themselves, seeing a Republican Party so willing to elevate to top-tier status their popular young Senator.

But Rubio spent little time telling his own story, and much of his speech on the GOP’s more central theme: highlighting the differences between President Obama’s economic failures and the strengths inherent in a businessman like Mitt Romney.

“Our problem with President Obama,” Rubio told the delegates and activists assembled in the Tampa Bay Times Forum, “isn’t that he’s a bad person. By all accounts, he…is a good husband, and a good father…and, thanks to a lot of practice, a pretty good golfer [roar of laughter from the hall]. Our problem is that he’s a bad president.”

Like the other Floridians on Thursday’s marquee, Rubio stuck to the party line: the American Dream is suffering mightily because of a failing economy, and only through a reining-in of government spending and a reduction in debt can the nation find its way back to good jobs and competitiveness.

It’s a message that Republicans hope will resonate in every state with every voter, and certainly in those battleground states like Ohio, Virginia and Colorado. But on Thursday night—after a parade of prominent Floridians had conquered the stage—it was a theme that Republican strategists hope will carry special weight with those TV viewers across the Sunshine State.