Florida politics: Always critical, always difficult

This was not the Florida that Republicans envisioned months ago.

Back then, two veteran Florida politicians – former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio – dominated the horizon. Politicians across the state lined up behind one favorite son or the other and the only question was: Which one would get the all-important 99 delegates in Florida’s March 15th primary – and with them a potential lock on the nomination.

Instead, here’s what happened: Donald Trump.

It was the New York billionaire who gave Bush the “low energy” label, one of many daggers that deflated Bush’s campaign before it could even get to Florida.

And it was Trump mocking Rubio as “Little Marco” and leading in the polls in Florida over the last-standing son of Miami-Dade.

Now, Bush is out, Rubio is behind, and Ted Cruz is trying to muscle his way in. Because something other than Trump happened. Florida. If recent decades have taught American politics anything, it’s that Florida is not only one of the most important states in primaries AND general elections, but it also can be extremely hard to predict.

Just ask President Al Gore. Or Sen. Charlie Crist.

The mega-state poses a challenge for candidates who must try to appeal to diverse constituencies. While some neighborhoods in the state have names such as Little Havana and Little Haiti, hours away other areas culturally and politically more closely resemble the Midwest (plus palm trees) or even Alabama.

The best way to get a handle on how the state will vote is to look at the I-4 corridor from Tampa to Orlando – a place that developed more recently than some other parts of the state and has a growing population of Latinos and transplanted Midwesterners.

“This is a large and diverse state. It’s somewhat of a microcosm of the United States in general,” said Blaise Ingoglia, chairman of the Florida Republican Party. “The candidate and the campaign that understands those nuances, especially in a state this size with 10 media markets, that is the candidate that is going to win our full complement of delegates.”

There’s not much competition on the Democratic side. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has consistently led Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in Florida.

But the GOP primary is a donnybrook, the drama magnified by the fact that it’s first state where the winner gets all the delegates, and by the fact that Rubio could lose, which would doom a campaign that’s only won one state, Minnesota, plus Puerto Rico.

Rubio’s campaign now argues that much like he was the underdog in his Senate race in 2010, he is the underdog now and will come back to win.

“We have to win here in Florida,” Rubio told a rally Wednesday in the South Florida city of Hialeah. “We always knew it was going to come down to Florida.”

“Obviously if Sen. Rubio can’t win his home state, it’s hard to imagine how he can be considered a viable candidate nationally,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll.

“If he loses to Mr. Trump in the primary, it is much harder for him to claim that he can beat the Democrats in the fall,” said Kevin Wagner, associate professor of political science who is involved with Florida Atlantic University’s polling.

And even if Rubio wins Florida, if he loses Ohio the same day, it’s hard to see a path forward for him.

While I don’t think he would have to drop out with a loss, it may be hard for him to keep the support and raise the money needed to continue if he does not win in his home state.” Kevin Wagner, associate professor of political science who is involved with Florida Atlantic University’s polling.

Then there’s the fall campaign.

Florida may be the third-largest state in population – behind California and Texas. But California is reliably Democratic, and Texas reliably Republican. That makes Florida the largest swing state in the nation.

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Democrats outnumber Republicans in voter registration by about 300,000. President Barack Obama won Florida in 2008 by about 3 percentage points and in 2012 by less than 1 percentage point.

But the only statewide Democratic office holder is U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and both chambers of the state Legislature are dominated by the GOP.

The question for the Democratic nominee is whether that person can drive up turnout similar to Obama, particularly among young and minority voters in the general election.

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The state has about 12 million voters – about 56 percent are white, 15 percent are Hispanic and 13 percent are black. Florida’s Latino population is diverse politically, depending on when they came to Florida and their ethnicity, Matt A. Barreto, co-founder of Latino Decisions polling firm, said in an interview. Barreto is now a polling consultant for Clinton.

That voter tally includes the more right-leaning Cuban-American voters in Miami and the more left-leaning Puerto Ricans in the Orlando area.

After Mitt Romney’s loss to Obama in 2012, the Republican National Committee did an autopsy to guide the party through the next cycle. Among the recommendations: appeal to a more diverse group of voters including Latinos and champion immigration reform.

But after Rubio, a Cuban-American, helped lead the Senate to vote in favor of comprehensive immigration reform in 2013, it died without a vote in the more conservative House. Most of the pack – including Rubio – now steers clear of any talk of comprehensive reform in favor of tough talk about the border. Meanwhile, Trump has called for building a wall between Mexico and the United States and forcing Mexico to pay for it.

Amy Sherman: 954-665-9035, @amysherman1