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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The Randian Republican who could rein in Trump isn’t a coward – he’s much worse

Paul Ryan's refusal to condemn Trump is not caused by terror or fear; rather, it is a cynical, self-serving tactic.

Poor ol’ Paul Ryan. For a few brief hours on 27 January, a week after the inauguration of Donald Trump, the Wikipedia entry for “invertebrates” – which defines them as “animals that neither possess nor develop a vertebral column (commonly known as a backbone or spine)” – was amended to include a smiling picture of the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives.

The online prank reflected a growing consensus among critics of Ryan: confronted by a boorish and authoritarian president plagued by multiple conflicts of interest, the House Speaker has behaved in a craven and spineless manner. Ryan, goes the conventional wisdom, is a coward.

Yet as is so often the case, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Ryan’s deafening silence over Trump’s egregious excesses has little to do with pusillanimity. It’s much worse than that. The House Speaker is not a coward; he is a shameless opportunist. His refusal to condemn Trump is not caused by terror or fear; rather, it is a cynical, self-serving tactic.

Long before Trump arrived on the scene with his wacky “birther” conspiracies, Ryan was the undisputed star of the GOP; the earnest, number-crunching wunderkind of the right. He was elected to Congress in 1998, aged 28; by 2011, he was head of the House budget committee; by 2012, he was Mitt Romney’s running mate; by 2015, he was Speaker of the House – and third in line for the presidency – at the grand old age of 45.

The Wisconsin congressman has been hailed in the conservative media as the “man with a plan”, the “intellectual leader of the Republican Party”, the “conscience” of the GOP. Yet, again and again, in recent years, he has been singularly unsuccessful in enacting his legislative agenda.

And what kind of agenda might that be? Why, an Ayn Rand-inspired agenda, of course. You know Rand, right? The hero of modern-day libertarians, self-described “radical for capitalism” and author of the dystopian novel Atlas Shrugged. As one of her acolytes wrote to her: “You have the courage to tell the masses what no politician told them: you are inferior and all the improvements in your condition which you simply take for granted you owe to the effort of men who are better than you.”

Ryan is an ideologue who insists on giving copies of Atlas Shrugged to interns in his congressional office. In 2005 he told a gathering of Rand fans, called the Atlas Society, that “the reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand”.

Rolling back the evil state while balancing the budget on the backs of the feckless poor, in true Randian fashion, has always been Ryan’s primary goal. Even Newt Gingrich, who served as Republican House Speaker for five years in the 1990s, once decried Ryan’s proposals to privatise Medicare ­– the popular federal health insurance programme that covers people over the age of 65 – as “right-wing social engineering”.

These days, Ryan has a useful idiot in the White House to help him pull off the right-wing social engineering that he couldn’t pull off on his own. Trump, who doesn’t do detail or policy, is content, perhaps even keen, to outsource his domestic agenda to the policy wonk from Wisconsin.

The Speaker has made his deal with the devil: a reckless and racist demagogue, possibly in cahoots with Russia, can trample over the law, erode US democratic norms and embarrass the country, and the party, at home and abroad. And in return? Ryan gets top-rate tax cuts. To hell with the constitution.

Trump, lest we forget, ran as an insurgent against the Republican establishment during the primaries, loudly breaking with hard-right GOP orthodoxy on issues such as infrastructure spending (Trump promised more), health-care reform (Trump promised coverage for all) and Medicaid (Trump promised no cuts). It was all a charade, a con. And Ryan knew it. The Speaker may have been slow to endorse Trump but when he did so, last June, he made it clear that “on the issues that make up our agenda, we have more common ground than disagreement”.

A year later, Ryan has been vindicated: free trade deals aside, Trump is governing as a pretty conventional, hard-right conservative. Consider the first important budget proposal from the Trump administration, published on 23 May. For Ryan, it’s a Randian dream come true: $800bn slashed from Medicaid, which provides health care to low-income Americans, plus swingeing cuts to Snap (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme, aka food stamps), Chip (the Children’s Health Insurance Programme) and SSDI (disability insurance).

In Trump, Ryan and his fellow anti-government hardliners in Congress have found the perfect frontman to enact their reverse-Robin Hood economic agenda: a self-declared, rhetorical champion of white, working-class voters whose actual Ryan-esque policies – on tax cuts, health care, Wall Street regulation and the rest – bolster only the billionaire class at their expense.

Don’t be distracted by all the scandals: the president has been busy using his tiny hands to sign a wide array of bills, executive orders and judicial appointments that have warmed the cold hearts of the Republican hard right.

Impeachment, therefore, remains a liberal fantasy – despite everything we’re discovering about Russia, Michael Flynn, James Comey and the rest. Does anyone seriously expect this Republican-dominated House of Representatives to bring articles of impeachment against Trump? With Paul Ryan in charge of it? Don’t. Be. Silly.

Mehdi Hasan is a broadcaster and New Statesman contributing editor. He is based in Washington, DC

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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