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Magazine / POLITICS

The Florida Conundrum

Can Florida rescue a GOP presidential hopeful who falters in South Carolina? We may find out in 2012.

Counting on Florida: Mitt Romney opening his state headquarters.(AP Photo/Brian Blanco)

photo of Beth Reinhard
September 15, 2011

ORLANDO—For nearly three decades, the Republican presidential nomination process unfolded in a predictable pattern: One candidate won Iowa, another won New Hampshire, and one of the two captured South Carolina—and became the nominee.

Then along came Florida.

This behemoth of a state, boasting as many delegates as the three earliest voting states combined, barreled its way to the front of the primary calendar in 2008. In the earliest primary in the state’s history, Florida Republicans cast their votes for John McCain, echoing New Hampshire and South Carolina and all but sealing the nomination for the Arizona Republican.

 

As the 2012 GOP field heads south to Orlando next week for a nationally televised debate and straw poll, Florida is again jockeying for position right behind the Palmetto State. Emerging is a new rite of passage for primary candidates in which they are forced to juggle grassroots politicking in the earliest-voting, smaller states with the challenges of campaigning in the nation’s fourth largest.

How the GOP hopefuls handle this balancing act will be one of the more fascinating—and potentially consequential—subplots of the primary campaign, affecting their day-to-day schedules, fundraising, and even their message. Paying too little attention to Florida risks the possibility that its larger and more diverse electorate will reject the consensus of the earlier-voting states. Paying too little attention to the early-voting states, however, can leave a candidate limping into Florida too wounded to recover, as Rudy Giuliani found in 2008. The former New York mayor hunkered down in Florida after concluding that he was unlikely to do well in the earlier-voting states. But Giuliani’s lead in the Florida polls evaporated after he bombed in Iowa and New Hampshire. He finished a distant third in Florida and bowed out of the race the following day.

It’s easy to forget how quickly Giuliani fell in Florida. In early December 2007, 30 percent of Republicans named him as their choice, according to the Quinnipiac University poll, putting him 18 points ahead of his closest rival. After he finished a distant sixth in Iowa and fourth in New Hampshire, 20 percent of Florida Republicans still backed Giuliani, leaving him in a dead heat with three other candidates. But after the New Yorker’s dismal sixth-place finish in South Carolina, Giuliani’s support dropped to 14 percent in Florida, Quinnipiac found, just shy of the 15 percent of the vote he garnered on primary day, well behind McCain and Mitt Romney.

Rudy Giuliani thought Florida would be his savior in 2008. He was wrong.

Lesson learned. See Jon Huntsman’s announcement last week that he is relocating some of his staff from his Orlando headquarters to New Hampshire, a tacit acknowldgement that the Florida primary will be irrelevant to his campaign if he doesn’t deliver in New England. “You have to have momentum and victory under your belt before you get to Florida,” said Danny Diaz, who worked for McCain and the Republican National Committee in the 2008 election. “You have to have a head of steam.”

But does that mean a candidate has to win South Carolina, the traditional kingmaker in Republican presidential primary politics, to carry Florida and cinch the nomination? Perhaps not. Or at least that’s what Romney and other candidates are contemplating in this highly unpredictable race. The timeworn South Carolina-as-tiebreaker-model may not hold up in 2012.

Consider this scenario: Fueled by his support among evangelical Christians, Texas Gov. Rick Perry wins the Iowa caucuses but then loses to Romney in New Hampshire, where the former Massachusetts governor’s brand of Main Street conservatism plays well. Perry recovers in South Carolina, where social conservatives—as in Iowa—play a prominent role. Next up, Florida. If Perry wins there, it’s hard to envision a plot in which he doesn’t become the Republican presidential nominee.

But if Romney comes back to win Florida after losing South Carolina, Republicans could be in for a very long race, perhaps their own version of the protracted battle between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. In this scenario, Romney’s loss in South Carolina could be tempered by wins in two other states that might vote before Florida—Nevada and Michigan.

“Whoever wins in Florida will be in a commanding position, but I never say ‘never’ or ‘can’t,’ ’’ said Republican consultant Mike Murphy, who had advised McCain and Romney. “I would say bookies in Vegas would will want 5-1 or better odds against the winner of the Florida primary.’’

Whether Perry (or any other candidate) could stay in the race even after losing Florida would depend on how close he came to winning, his ability to persuade donors to keep the faith, and his prospects in the states voting next. Romney’s team from 2008 acknowledges that his second-place finish in Florida virtually ended his campaign by sapping his fundraising and momentum.

“Florida will more than likely settle the nomination, particularly if you have more than one candidate winning the earlier primaries,’’ said Republican strategist Sally Bradshaw, who ran Romney’s 2008 campaign in Florida and was working with Haley Barbour until he ruled out a 2012 bid. “None of the other states have the ability to establish a front-runner the way Florida does.’’

The GOP candidates aren’t taking any chances. They’re spreading themselves thinner than in the past to make early inroads in Florida. Among the signs of Florida’s ascendance to the top tier of early primary states: Huntsman’s decision—the first by a Republican presidential candidate—to headquarter his campaign in the state; the scheduling of nationally televised debates in both Tampa and Orlando this month leading up to the state party’s straw poll; Perry’s hiring of a Florida consulting firm immediately after launching his campaign and another three staffers when he confirmed he would participate in the straw poll last week; and Michele Bachmann’s four day, seven-city tour of Florida late last month.

Still more evidence of Florida’s newfound clout: Romney’s seizing on Perry’s impolitic characterization of Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme”—an issue with particular resonance in retiree-friendly Florida. Romney’s campaign is distributing fliers in the state that demand, “How can we trust anyone who wants to kill Social Security?”

MORE THAN A CASH COW

Before 2008, when Florida held its primary in March (by which time the nomination was a foregone conclusion), presidential candidates typically swept through for closed-door fundraisers and didn’t much bother with public appearances. Now, candidates usually pair check-gathering with retail politicking.

“We expect that when they come down here,” said Palm Beach County Republican Chairman Sid Dinerstein, who noted Huntsman’s meeting with Jewish voters in West Palm Beach on Sept. 9. “They’re a lot more ecumenical about being gracious to both check writers and voters.”

Still, the courtship of Florida has its limits, despite the state’s importance in the primary. Most candidates can’t afford it; others are conserving their resources until closer to the election. An aggressive presidential primary campaign in Florida costs $10 million to $12 million. Statewide television ads, at more than $1.5 million a week, account for a big chunk of that. In Iowa, that much money can send 25 pieces of mail to every likely caucus-goer or a buy a heavy statewide run on broadcast and cable television for six weeks. “Money goes a lot further in any of the earlier states than it does in Florida,” said Gentry Collins, a former executive director of the Iowa Republican Party and political director of the Republican National Committee. “Iowa and New Hampshire determine the playing field, so forgoing those states is really not an option.”

In fact, the 2012 candidates appear to be investing little in next week’s Florida’s straw poll, the state party’s mock election known as Presidency V. The field’s frugality is a far cry from the nearly $2 million that Bob Dole, the last winner of the straw poll, poured into courting delegates in 1995. He went on to win the nomination, as did the two previous winners of Florida’s straw poll—Ronald Reagan in 1979 and George H.W. Bush in 1987.

Jon Huntsman put his national headquarters in Orlando, but he ended up shifting some of the staff to New Hampshire.

Despite the straw poll’s perfect track record, two of the major candidates in this election cycle—Romney and Bachmann—have gone so far as to declare that they will not contest the balloting. Huntsman is officially participating, but he announced last week that he was moving some Florida staffers to New Hampshire, “a move reflective of the diminished importance of Florida’s ‘P5’ and the campaign’s focus on success in New Hampshire,” according to a press release from the campaign.

What’s going on here? These candidates are playing it cool for a few reasons. Romney decided months ago not to repeat the mistakes of his 2008 campaign, when he invested early in Iowa and Florida only to come in second in both contests. His decision to bypass the Iowa straw poll in August and the Florida poll in September also deprives rivals of two chances to score bragging rights off the onetime front-runner.

Bachmann, who ran a no-holds-barred campaign to win the Iowa straw poll last month, lacked enough time and money to organize in Florida. Huntsman, whose poll numbers are stuck in the weeds, doesn’t have a chance in Florida unless he can build a beachhead in New Hampshire; disparaging the straw poll’s significance is his thinly veiled attempt to lower expectations in the state where he based his campaign.

Infographic

“The Huntsman team has redefined irony,” snorted state party spokesman Brian Hughes in a written statement. “On the day a campaign that polls near last place calls Presidency 5 ‘diminished,’ the campaign polling in first place [Perry] announces it will vigorously compete to win P5. Florida Republicans will help the ultimate nominee win this state and the White House. Why any campaign would choose to disparage the 3,500 people who represent the core of our state party’s base defies reason.”

But the candidates’ calculated detachment from the straw poll belies the prestige that will inevitably come with winning even a minor contest in the largest battleground state. No matter how much these candidates try to downplay the stakes of Florida’s straw poll, all of their names will be on the ballot, two days after they participate in a nationally televised debate in the same convention hall. About 3,500 activists are expected to participate. Scores of local and national media outlets will be on hand to report the results—no matter whether the candidates stick around long enough to bask in the glory or to rationalize their defeat.

RUBIO’S ROLE

Florida’s early primary was the brainchild of an ambitious, incoming state House speaker back in the spring of 2006. Long before Marco Rubio defeated then-Gov. Charlie Crist to become a U.S. senator and the early favorite for a vice presidential nod in 2012, he started pushing for an early Florida primary that would threaten the nominating-process monopoly relished by Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

Typically, by the time Florida’s primary rolled around in March, the three smaller states had already written the ending to the story. Rubio, the first Cuban-American leader of the Florida House, argued that the state’s size and diversity made it ideal for vetting potential nominees—especially because it is so pivotal to winning the White House in the general election.

Rubio immediately locked down the support of top elected officials and leaders from both state parties eager to boost their influence over the nominating process. The bill to move the primary to late January passed in May 2007.

“No candidate can afford to neglect Florida. It’s a great litmus test.” —Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon

Rubio’s vision started coming into focus. The 2008 Republican presidential candidates campaigned across Florida in earnest, spending money that campaigns had traditionally socked away for Iowa and New Hampshire and taking positions on homegrown issues from the space program to a national hurricane fund. In a sign of Florida’s newfound clout, presidential candidate and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee abandoned his opposition to the Cuban embargo—one day before eagerly accepting Rubio’s endorsement.

Meanwhile, the early primary date set off a battle within both national parties. The states anointed by the Democratic National Committee to host the earliest primaries—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada—banded together to extract pledges from the major candidates to boycott Florida until after its rogue primary. The DNC stripped Florida of all of its delegates to the 2008 nominating convention, making Clinton’s victory in the state’s primary purely symbolic.

The Republican spat was more civilized. The early states did not seek payback, and the Republican National Committee cut the delegates awarded to the winner of the Florida primary only by half. At the convention, a forgiving RNC seated all of the Florida delegates, although only half of them technically cast votes. Florida had officially joined the traditional early states as a fellow kingmaker.

“It makes sense, considering the gravitational forces of a state with 27—now 29—electoral votes,” said state House Speaker Dean Cannon, who recently endorsed Perry. “No candidate can afford to neglect Florida. It’s a great litmus test.”

FRITAS AND BUD LITE

The percentages of Florida’s GOP voters who identify themselves as liberals (11 percent), moderates (28 percent), and conservatives (61 percent) are remarkably close to the figures for the national electorate (9 percent, 27 percent, and 63 percent, respectively), according to 2008 exit polls. In contrast, Iowa has far more conservatives (88 percent) than the national mix, while New Hampshire has fewer conservatives (55 percent).

Although Florida is fairly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, the state has favored the Democratic presidential nominee only three times since 1976 (unless you ask the grudge-carrying Democratic activists who insist that Al Gore beat George W. Bush in 2000, hanging chads be damned). The GOP dominates both chambers of the state Legislature and the executive branch, as well as the congressional delegation. “I would characterize Florida as a center-right state,” said Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who has boasted of leading one of Florida’s most conservative chambers in decades. “If you go too far to the right or too far to the left, you run into problems.”

The state’s Republican electorate doesn’t match up as closely with the national figures on other benchmarks. The 2008 exit polls showed that Florida was less white (by 6 percentage points), more Hispanic (also by 6 percentage points), and less evangelical (by 5 percentage points). Florida also was home to a much greater proportion of seniors (by 10 percentage points).

As Romney put it during his most recent visit, “Florida is almost like a microcosm of the whole nation. You wake up, you’re in Little Havana. You go for breakfast, you’re in Brooklyn. Drive a couple of hours, and you’re in the Midwest. Drive a couple more hours, you’re in the Deep South.”

But Florida’s diversity means much more than the opportunity to sample authentic frijoles negros, corned beef, and collard greens all in one road trip. The different constituencies create openings for different candidates. The state’s smaller proportion of conservatives and evangelicals could benefit Romney and Huntsman, both Mormons with moderate records on some social issues. Romney is also trying to mine votes in the large elderly population by exploiting Perry’s position on Social Security. On the other hand, Perry’s experience with Hispanic outreach in Texas (he got 38 percent of the vote in his 2010 reelection bid) could help him make inroads in Spanish-speaking parts of the state.

Florida’s unmatched diversity was evident in Bachmann’s four-day swing last month. Her stops included a sub shop in the Jacksonville area, a GOP stronghold where an African-American Democrat was recently elected mayor in an upset; a retirement community in Polk County, another Republican enclave; a gathering of Christian conservatives in Orlando; a mega-church near Tampa that has hosted former Gov. Jeb Bush and former President George W. Bush; a rally in Sarasota, a GOP-friendly-county-turned-battleground after Obama kept McCain’s margin of victory to only 211 votes; and two landmarks in the Cuban-American community in Miami.

The wide-ranging terrain forced Bachmann to tailor her stump speech to each audience in a way that Iowa and New Hampshire’s more homogeneous communities would be less likely to expect. At the Solivita retirement community, she addressed the group of about 300 people town-hall style. She sounded off about the budget deficit, federal spending, and entitlement programs before fielding questions from gray-haired residents in golf shorts and tennis visors. Bachmann only briefly mentioned her opposition to abortion rights.

“A lot of people here are not as religiously oriented, so she needs to play that down,” said Skip Stellfox, vice president of the community’s Republican club and a former New York management consultant. He supported Romney in 2008. “He’s got real-life business experience, as opposed to our president,” Stellfox added.

Just hours later, at the Florida Family Policy Council dinner in a hotel ballroom, Bachmann delivered a deeply personal speech laden with biblical references about her miscarriage and religious awakening. “I’m so glad that she shared her faith so vocally instead of giving us talking points,” said retiree Cathy Luney, who said she wasn’t interested in hearing another tirade against Obama.

Not only is Florida challenging the presidential candidates to appeal to wildly diverse audiences, it is forcing them to recognize the state’s priorities. In the revised playbook for aspiring nominees trying to navigate both Florida and Iowa, the chapter on the Everglades comes right after the one on ethanol—as Bachmann learned during her Florida trip when she was rebuked for saying she would consider drilling for oil and natural gas in the national park.

Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., a member of the congressional Tea Party Caucus that Bachmann founded, called her remarks on the Everglades “an incredible faux paus,” according to local newspapers. Former state Rep. Adam Hasner, a U.S. Senate candidate, told one media outlet, “There is no current plan to drill in the Everglades—and nor should there be.”

Bachmann’s gaffe recalled an incident during the 2008 campaign when Romney’s efforts to impress a heavily Cuban-American crowd backfired when he invoked a trademark slogan of Fidel Castro’s. The Cuban dictator has ended his speeches with the phrase Patria o muerte, venceremos—“Fatherland or death, we shall overcome”—for decades. Romney mistakenly identified the phrase with a “free Cuba.”

“Understanding that you are dealing with very different constituencies across Florida is one of the biggest challenges,” said Republican fundraiser Ana Navarro, who is advising the Huntsman campaign on Hispanic issues. “You have to know and understand your audience to stay on firm ground in Florida.”

PLAYING COY

Now, if only Florida had a firm primary date.

Mounting tension with the only four states blessed by the Republican National Committee to hold contests in February—Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada—prompted Florida state lawmakers to charge a committee with making the awkward decision by Oct. 1. The state law shepherded by Rubio sets the date as the last Tuesday in January, which would wreak havoc with the RNC’s proposed calendar.

It feels a lot like 2007. Top Florida lawmakers insist they have no desire to leapfrog the traditional early-voting states. At the same time, they have no qualms about violating the intent of the RNC rules reserving the month of February for those four states. The national party is threatening, once again, to take away half of the delegates awarded by the Florida primary to the nominating convention.

For the party faithful who work the phones, canvass neighborhoods, and wave placards on street corners, attending the convention is like going to the Super Bowl. They don’t want to give up the parties, their seat on the convention floor, or the chance to proudly cast a vote for their party’s standard-bearer.

“It’s indicative of what’s going on in Washington, in that local representation is being ignored—and that’s wrong,” said Polk County Republican Chairman Jimmy Nelson. “Our delegates come from our precincts and our counties that are the foundation of our political system.”

But after Florida’s successful experiment with an early primary in the last election, state leaders are not deterred by the national GOP’s penalties. History shows that one candidate typically locks down enough delegates to emerge as the presumptive nominee fairly early in the primary season, precluding a fight on the balloon-festooned convention floor in the late summer or early fall.

“We could lose delegates, but most every person I talk to around the state, with very few exceptions, says they are gladly willing to give up delegates in order to vote early,” said Haridopolos, the state Senate president. “If we have a say in who the nominee is going to be, that’s much more consequential than just confirming that person at the convention.”

The site of the 2012 convention, by the way? Tampa. Florida officials are confident that the national party wouldn’t embarrass its hosts by booting Florida’s delegates from the floor.

Meanwhile, the states vying for the earliest and most influential primaries are playing a mean game of chicken. Being the first to pick a date gives other states the chance to jump out in front. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer announced earlier this week that her state will flout the RNC’s rules and vote on Feb. 28, a bold decision certain to prod Florida, and possibly Michigan and Georgia, to pick dates earlier in the month. The leapfrogging will continue as New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada are expected to nab even-earlier spots on the calendar. With Arizona laying down a February marker, New Year’s in Iowa is looking more likely.

Go right ahead. Get a running start. The Sunshine State will sit back and wait its turn, content with the knowledge that it will either effectively end the Republican presidential race—or prolong it. Either way, Florida can’t be ignored. 

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