Florida’s primary colors: The whole palette of humanity

It’s the anti-New Hampshire. Up there, everyone seems to be in the state legislature and on a first-name basis with Mitt, Newt, Rick and Ron. Down here, you can ask someone about the campaign and the answer might be — this is an exact quote from a voter in Sarasota, identity withheld out of courtesy — “What campaign?”

Which is one reason Florida is so enticing to a presidential candidate. It’s up for grabs.

Florida is a land of opportunity, a microwaved megastate. This has been a place, historically, where great fortunes could be won and lost, where huge pink hotels rise suddenly on barrier islands and instant cities appear amid the palmettos. Hustlers have loved this place, as have smugglers and pirates, and presidential candidates can do very well here.

Swing states don’t get any bigger than this. The state’s 29 electoral votes could prove decisive in the November general election. But events in recent days, as Republican candidates have bounced around the state and bopped each other with attack ads, have demonstrated the challenges of campaigning in Florida.

It’s hard for candidates to break through to an electorate that’s not always engaged. The campaign becomes a battle of the broad brushstroke, of blunt words and TV sound bites. Politics here can be as shallow as the Everglades.

Mitt Romney is up in the latest polls, but Newt Gingrich seemed to be winning just a few days ago. As Tuesday’s Republican primary vote nears, the situation has been fluid. That will likely remain true in the runup to the general election, with Florida hanging like a juicy mango on everyone’s electoral map.

This is a state full of what political science professor Susan MacManus of the University of South Florida calls “casual voters.” Many people are immigrants from countries that don’t have clearly defined political parties, and they’re swing voters by nature. Many people are lightly engaged in the process, because they have other things on their minds. This past week, the temperatures across the state were in the 70s. Sailing weather. Tee time.

A diverse state

There are many Floridas, scrambled together. If you don’t like one, drive 30 miles and you’ll be in another. You can get cultural whiplash driving down roads that are ruler-straight, lacerating the swamp and scrub.

Half an hour from Sarasota, you’ll be in cowboy country. Here comes a character wandering up to the mini-market in Myakka City. He’s a little rough around the edges, with long hair in braids. It’s Tom Harmon, 61, an airboat operator at a state park. Who does he like in the presidential race?

“I don’t give a [hoot],” he says. “Who can you trust?”

Put him down as “independent.”

Everything and everyone here is on the move, including the ground. This is why, as you’re driving, you might see a billboard for a law firm with the Web site “Sinkhole.com.” Florida is geologically new, built on a limestone platform that was once the bottom of a shallow sea. The porous ground can swallow a car or the corner of a house. Hence the sinkhole lawyers.

Driving up Route 27, just outside of Lake Wales, you’ll see a warehouse sign that says “Broke & Poor Surplus.” The place sells vinyl siding, or perhaps you’d like a “Redneck Wind Chime” made from Budweiser bottles. Matt Kirkland, 37, the manager, doesn’t know a soul who voted for President Obama last time. But he realizes there are people out there who are part of a completely different political culture, and that Obama could win the state. “It’s a big, diverse state. That’s the thing. You just don’t know. It’s just crazy.”

No one used to call Florida diverse, or a microcosm of America. But today it has about 19 million people, including about 3 million African Americans and more than 4 million Hispanics. The housing crash has slowed growth recently, but Florida is still expected to surpass New York soon to become more populous than any state other than California and Texas.

Florida now defies simple categorization. It has never been “the South,” except in the northern tier of the state (and other pockets: just east of Tampa, next to I-75, a titanic Confederate flag waves above a memorial to the rebel dead).

Yes, it’s the land of retirees, more all the time, with thousands of them living in what to a candidate looks like voter farms, massive developments with upward of 5,000 residents. But only about a fifth of the state’s residents are retired.

The state has gotten a little more conventional over time, more manicured. For every tourist trap advertising alligator-wrestling or live mermaids, there are 100 Applebees and Olive Gardens. But it still is the Florida that inspired the novels of John D. MacDonald and Carl Hiaasen, a place of corruption and violence and sensuality. It’s full of eccentrics who have drifted down into the state as if someone had grabbed the country by the shoulders and given it a shake.

Political geography here begins with the interstates.

The one everyone talks about is I-4, the east-west highway slung like a gunslinger’s belt across the peninsula’s midsection. For presidential candidates, it is ferociously contested ground, Florida’s equivalent of the 100 miles between Richmond and Washington during the Civil War.

I-95, rarely more than a dozen miles from the Atlantic Ocean, is the feeder of all those liberal Northeasterners going down to the Gold Coast. (Marketers have since invented such concepts as the Treasure Coast, Space Coast and First Coast.) Southeastern Florida is rich in Democrats; it’s where Al Gore focused much of his effort to get a recount in 2000.

I-75 enters the state near its subtle central ridge, and is the conveyor of conservative Midwesterners. It picks up traffic coming from the west on I-10, and carries it down to the Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan area and then on to the coastal cities of the southwestern part of the state — Sarasota, Fort Myers, Naples. Call that the Republican Riviera. It’s where Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum stumped almost as soon as they deplaned in Florida after the South Carolina primary.

“We get Chicago. We get St. Louis. The Wisconsin folks,” says Michael Klauber, proprietor of Michael’s On East, a resplendent restaurant in Sarasota with an interior designed to evoke the great ocean liners and supper clubs of the 1930s and 1940s. “I love the fact that we get the Midwesterners. They definitely love their beef.”

Outside in the atrium, waiting to hear Gingrich speak at a $500-a-plate luncheon (a separate event in an adjoining room required a $2,000 offering), contractor Mary Forristall says she’s disgusted with Obama and with what she feels is an effort to redistribute wealth in America.

“When was America all about everyone being equal?” she asks.

The power of pragmatism

Of course, there are all types, all beliefs, a Babel of tongues, and any political map is an oversimplification.

“The fact is, Florida is more like a concentrated, multipiece puzzle,” says Bob Graham, who successfully campaigned as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate and the governor’s mansion. “You may have exactly the same piece, which let’s say is retired military, which can show up in the Panhandle, it can show up in the suburbs of Jacksonville, the suburbs of Orlando, or in south Dade.”

Advice for a candidate: “What you want to try to do is understand the difference between the Cuban community in Miami and the Cuban community in Tampa. You need to understand the difference between a 70-year-old average-age community whose primary inhabitants are people who grew up as UAW members from Michigan, as opposed to a similar looking place of people who were former bank vice presidents from Indiana.”

Obama won the state in 2008, Bush won it in 2004, and people still argue about who won in 2000. Voter registration slightly favors Democrats, but some of them are Panhandle conservatives who in the general election reliably vote Republican. The GOP controls the governor’s mansion and most of the seats in the state legislature. One U.S. senator is a Republican, the other a Democrat.

The Miami Cubans skew Republican, the Tampa Cubans skew Democratic. But there are more layers of complexity. Miami is home to people from countries across Latin America. And in Tampa, the Cubans are also of Italian and Spanish stock — descendants of the cigar-factory workers. Like the group of guys who meet al least once a day on the patio outside the West Tampa Sandwich Shop, a regular stop for stumping politicians.

“We fix the world two or three times a week, but I don’t know what happens to it,” says Rex Rodriguez, 69, a retired utility company worker.

If there’s a common thread in Florida, the experts say, it’s pragmatism. The pundits say the Republican voters on Tuesday will likely go for whoever they think can beat Obama. And although the state is skewing Republican in recent years, Democrats can still win by taking a centrist stance. This is the message of Bill Nelson, the Democratic U.S. senator running for re-election:

“What you do is you talk common sense. You talk American values. You talk bipartisanship and consensus-building and nonideological-rigidity. That’s how somebody wins in the state of Florida,” he said. “People in Florida want their government officials to govern between the 40-yard lines, not outside the 20-yard lines on either side of the field.”

But maybe they want something else. Like salvation. Evangelicals are a force here. One afternoon last week Gingrich made a stump speech outside River Church, a Pentacostal megachurch next to I-75. The pastor, Rodney Howard-Browne, gave a fiery introduction:

“I pray that all the lukewarm people will get on fire!” the pastor said. “The Devil will not have America! Absolutely not!”

Howard-Browne said he came to Florida from South Africa 24 years ago as a missionary. His church now has 2,500 members. They speak in tongues and cast out demons.

He’s an American citizen, and he’ll vote Tuesday, he says. But, he added, “Right now I’m just looking.”

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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