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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Martin McGuinness's long game: why a united Ireland is now increasingly likely

McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

In late 2011 Martin McGuinness stood as Sinn Fein’s candidate in Ireland’s presidential election, raising all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

Raised in a tiny terraced house in the Bogside, Derry, he would have ended up living in a 92-room presidential mansion in Dublin had he won. A former IRA commander, he would have become supreme commander of Ireland’s defence forces. Once banned from Britain under the Prevention of Terrorism Acts, he would have received the credentials of the next British ambassador to Dublin. Were he invited to pay a state visit to London, a man who had spent much of his youth shooting or bombing British soldiers would have found himself inspecting a guard of honour at Buckingham Palace.

McGuinness would certainly have shaken the hands of the English team before the Ireland-England rugby match at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin every other year. “I’d have no problem with that,” he told me, grinning, as he campaigned in the border county of Cavan one day that autumn. Though a staunch republican, he enjoyed the “Protestant” sports of rugby and cricket, just as he supported Manchester United and enjoyed BBC nature programmes and Last of the Summer Wine. He wrote poetry and loved fly-fishing, too. Unlike Gerry Adams, the coldest of cold fish, McGuinness was hard to dislike – provided you overlooked his brutal past.

In the event, McGuinness, weighed down by IRA baggage, came a distant third in that election but his story was astonishing enough in any case. He was the 15-year-old butcher’s assistant who rose to become the IRA chief of staff, responsible for numerous atrocities including Lord Mountbatten’s assassination and the Warrenpoint slaughter of 18 British soldiers in 1979.

Then, in 1981, an IRA prisoner named Bobby Sands won a parliamentary by-election while starving himself to death in the Maze Prison. McGuinness and Adams saw the mileage in pursuing a united Ireland via the ballot box as well as the bullet. Their long and tortuous conversion to democratic politics led to the Good Friday accord of 1998, with McGuinness using his stature and “street cred” to keep the provisional’s hard men on board. He became Northern Ireland’s improbable new education minister, and later served as its deputy first minister for a decade.

His journey from paramilitary pariah to peacemaker was punctuated by any number of astounding tableaux – visits to Downing Street and Chequers; the forging of a relationship with Ian Paisley, his erstwhile arch-enemy, so strong that they were dubbed the “Chuckle Brothers”; his denunciation of dissident republican militants as “traitors to the island of Ireland”; talks at the White House with Presidents Clinton, George W Bush and Obama; and, most remarkable of all, two meetings with the Queen as well as a state banquet at Windsor Castle at which he joined in the toast to the British head of state.

Following his death on 21 March, McGuinness received tributes from London that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. Tony Blair said peace would not have happened “without Martin’s leadership, courage and quiet insistence that the past should not define the future”. Theresa May praised his “essential and historic contribution to the extraordinary journey of Northern Ireland from conflict to peace”.

What few noted was that McGuinness died with his ultimate goal of a united Ireland arguably closer to realisation – albeit by peaceful methods – than at any other time since the island’s partition in 1921.

The Brexit vote last June has changed political dynamics in Northern Ireland. The province voted by 56 per cent to 44 in favour of remaining in the European Union, and may suffer badly when Britain leaves. It fears the return of a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and could lose £330m in EU subsidies.

Dismay at the Brexit vote helped to boost Sinn Fein’s performance in this month’s Stormont Assembly elections. The party came within 1,200 votes of overtaking the Democratic Unionist Party, which not only campaigned for Leave but used a legal loophole to funnel £425,000 in undeclared funds to the broader UK campaign. For the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, the combined unionist parties no longer have an overall majority. “The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished,” Gerry Adams declared.

Other factors are also working in Sinn Fein’s favour. The party is refusing to enter a new power-sharing agreement at Stormont unless the DUP agrees to terms more favourable to the Irish nationalists. Sinn Fein will win if the DUP agrees to this, but it will also win if there is no deal – and London further inflames nationalist sentiment by imposing direct rule.

McGuinness’s recent replacement as Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland by Michelle O’Neill, a personable, socially progressive 40-year-old unsullied by the Troubles, marks another significant step in the party’s move towards respectability. As Patrick Maguire recently wrote in the New Statesman, “the age of the IRA old boys at the top is over”.

More broadly, Scottish independence would make the notion of Northern Ireland leaving the UK seem less radical. The Irish republic’s economic recovery and the decline of the Roman Catholic Church have rendered the idea of Irish unity a little less anathema to moderate unionists. And all the time, the province’s Protestant majority is shrinking: just 48 per cent of the population identified itself as Protestant in the 2011 census and 45 per cent Catholic.

The Good Friday Agreement provides for a referendum if a majority appears to favour Irish unity. Sinn Fein is beginning to agitate for exactly that. When Adams and McGuinness turned from violence to constitutional politics back in the 1980s they opted for the long game. Unfortunately for McGuinness, it proved too long for him to see Irish nationalism victorious, but it is no longer inconceivable that his four grown-up children might. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution