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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Bernie Sanders is America’s most popular politician – and he’s coming after Donald Trump

Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision. As of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020.

“I like Bernie Sanders,” my four-year-old niece in Texas said to me last month. “Why isn’t he president?” More than six months on from the defeat of Hillary Clinton, it’s a question that countless frustrated progressives across the United States continue to ask aloud.

Remember that the election of Donald Trump was not the only political earthquake to shake the US establishment last year. A 74-year-old, self-declared socialist and independent senator from the tiny state of Vermont, in a crumpled suit and with a shock of Einsteinian white hair, came close to vanquishing the Clinton machine and winning the Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders began the campaign as the rank outsider, mocked by the former Obama strategist David Axelrod as the candidate with whom Democratic voters might “flirt” and have a “fling” before settling down with Clinton. By the end of the campaign he had won 13 million votes and 23 states, and raised more than $200m.

In this dystopian age of Trump, it is remarkable that Sanders is now by far the most popular politician in the US – and this in a country where “socialist” has long been a dirty word. Increasing numbers of Americans seem nevertheless to “feel the Bern”. As such, Sanders supporters cannot help but ask the big counterfactual question of our time: would Trump be the president today if he had faced Bernie rather than Hillary in the election? Throughout the campaign, polls showed him crushing Trump in a head-to-head match-up. In a poll on the eve of the election, Sanders trumped Trump by 12 percentage points.

Democratic voters were told repeatedly that Clinton was more “electable” – but had they opted for Sanders as their candidate, there would have been none of the backlash over her emails, Benghazi, Bill, her Iraq War vote, or her Goldman Sachs speeches. So did the Democrats, in effect, gift the presidency to the Republican Party by picking the divisive and establishment-friendly Clinton over Sanders the economic populist?

I can’t prove it but I suspect that Sanders would have beaten Trump – although, to be fair to the much-maligned Clinton, she, too, beat Trump by nearly three million votes. Also, one-on-one polls showing Sanders ahead of Trump in a hypothetical match-up fail to tell us how the independent senator’s support would have held up against a barrage of vicious Republican attack ads during a general election campaign.

Then there is the matter of race. Clinton, despite deep support in African-American and Latino communities, was unable to mobilise Barack Obama’s multiracial coalition. Sanders would have done even worse than she did among minority voters. Trump voters, meanwhile, were motivated less by economic anxiety (as plenty on the left, including Sanders, wrongly claim) than – according to most academic studies, opinion polls and the latest data from the American National Election Studies – by racial resentment and an anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim animus. Sanders, who at a recent rally in Boston defended Trump voters from accusations of bigotry and racism, would probably have struggled as much as Clinton did to respond to this “whitelash”.

Nevertheless, Sanders, unlike Clinton, had a clear and coherent vision and I would argue that, as of now, he is the best hope the Democrats have of retaking the White House in 2020. His support for greater Wall Street regulation, debt-free college tuition, universal health care and a higher minimum wage is not only morally correct and economically sound but also hugely popular with voters across the political spectrum.

The Democrats have a mountain to climb. They have to find a way to enthuse their diverse, demoralised base while winning back white voters who are concerned much more by issues of race and identity than by jobs or wages. A recent poll found that the party had lower approval ratings than both Trump and the Republicans as a whole.

Yet press reports suggest that at least 22 Democrats are thinking about running for president in 2020. This is madness. Few are serious contenders – thanks to the dominance of the Clinton machine in recent years, the party doesn’t have a deep bench. There is no new generation of rising stars.

The only two people who could plausibly prevent Sanders from winning the nomination next time round are the former vice-president Joe Biden and the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren. The good news is that all three of these Democratic contenders are, to varying degrees, economic populists, willing to stand up passionately for “the little guy”. The bad news is that the Democratic base may fantasise about a young, dynamic Justin Trudeau or Emman­uel Macron of their own but, come the 2020 election, Sanders will be 79, Biden 77 and Warren 71. (Then again, they’ll be up against a sitting Republican president who will be 74, behaves as if he has dementia and refuses to release his medical records.)

Bizarrely, that election campaign has already begun. On 1 May, Trump released his first official campaign ad for re-election, 1,282 days before the next presidential vote. Biden visited New Hampshire last month to give a speech, while Warren is on a national tour to promote her new bestselling book, This Fight Is Our Fight.

Sanders, however – riding high in the polls, and with his vast database of contacts from the 2016 race as well as a clear, popular and long-standing critique of a US political and economic system “rigged” in favour of “the billionaire class” – is the man to beat. And rightly so. Sanders understands that the Democrats have to change, and change fast. “There are some people in the Democratic Party who want to maintain the status quo,” he said in March. “They would rather go down with the Titanic so long as they have first-class seats.”

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 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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