Florida: why it’s a whole different ballgame

Purest test yet of where Republican hearts lie.

The stakes are high for next Tuesday's Florida primary and, unlike other states, this one's much tougher to call. Mitt Romney will be gunning for a win in Florida in an effort to restore the sense of inevitability he built around his campaign, while Newt Gingrich will be keen to hold onto the momentum he built during his South Carolina victory last week. Fellow Republicans Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, who decided to forego a campaign in Florida altogether, will merely be hoping to hold on.

Florida is the first contest that approaches the scale of a general election fight and carries a great deal of political weight due to its large size and ethnic, religious and political diversity.

In the 2008 Florida primary 1.9 million Republicans voted, which is double the amount that has cast ballots in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina combined this year. Florida's population is also more diverse and multicultural: candidates will have to appeal to the immigrant-rich Miami region, the more conservative north and the large population of retirees scattered all over the state.

Moreover, about 11 per cent of Republican voters are Hispanic, anchored by a large Cuban-American contingent in Miami and a significant number of Puerto Ricans in central Florida. More than one in ten primary voters is Hispanic, easily enough to swing a close race. John McCain scored the Hispanic vote against Romney in 2008 and this time Romney is taking no chances, airing Hispanic TV adverts featuring well-known Cuban-American supporters.

Crucially, Florida is the first closed primary, meaning only registered Republicans can vote, which makes it a purer test of where Republican hearts lie. Other states allow Democrats and independents to show up on election day and vote in whichever primary they wish, which provided an opportunity for candidates - particularly Ron Paul - to try and court independents.

The Sunshine State also allows early voting and absentee voting by mail. It is estimated that by next Tuesday more than one-third of all votes may already be cast. Romney started chasing absentee voters a few weeks ago while Gingrich has said that efforts are now firmly underway. This system has worked in Romney's favour, since many Floridians voted for him when he had the air of inevitability around his campaign following his victory in New Hampshire. Also, since Republicans have been able to cast their votes at polling stations everyday since the South Carolina primary, each candidate will be vying to win every day's main media story.

Television advertising is also far more important in Florida than it has been in other states due to it being covered by 10 media markets. It is by far the most expensive state to advertise in, making funding of paramount importance - a minimum of $1 million per week is needed. The number, size and expense of the media markets are unlike anything that has been seen before.

Florida can essentially be seen as several different states in one, making it difficult to pinpoint just one key issue to focus on. Candidates are in for a tough ride, as they have to appeal to a huge range of Americans on varying nuanced problems.

The Sunshine State is a winner-takes-all contest, meaning that fifty delegates are up for grabs, all of which will be awarded to the winner of the primary, making the battle critical for frontrunners Romney and Gingrich in their effort to win the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. The winner-takes-all nature will likely mean that Rick Santorum does not devote many resources to Florida because it only has a small evangelical Christian bloc.

With the candidates' attacks against each other getting even nastier, it is easy to see why Florida is fast becoming America's biggest battleground state. A great deal is at stake and the results could go either way.

However, one thing is for sure: whoever is crowned winner in Florida will have the advantage in fundraising and momentum as they look to the rest of the country for votes. Let the games begin.

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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism