State's diversity test for hopefuls


Published: Saturday, January 31, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 30, 2004 at 11:15 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE - The Democratic presidential candidates will eventually have to get serious about Florida.
It may not happen in the state's late-hour March 9 presidential primary. But it will certainly happen on Nov. 2 when one of them will face President George W. Bush, who barely carried the state in 2000 despite the presence of his brother in Tallahassee.
What the Democrats will find is that they're not in Iowa anymore, literally or demographically.
With 16 million residents, Florida is the nation's fourth-largest state. Three South Florida counties - Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach - claim nearly 5 million residents, a larger population than Iowa and New Hampshire combined.
Florida is more racially diverse. Compared to New Hampshire with a black population of less than 1 percent, Florida is at 14.6 percent. One of its fastest growing groups are Hispanics, who account for 16.8 percent of Florida's population, compared to Iowa's 2.8 percent.
For those reasons, many believe Florida is a more accurate political barometer for national candidates.
"It's a mini-America," said Karl Koch, a Democratic political strategist and chief of staff to U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa. "When you come to Florida, you have to factor all that in."
Democratic candidates will also find a state party that has been in a decline for some time. Republicans control the governor's office, the state Cabinet, the Legislature and a majority of the congressional delegation. Democrats still hold the two U.S. Senate seats, although Sen. Bob Graham is retiring after this year.
Over the past decade, Democrats have modestly increased their registration from 3.3 million voters to 3.9 million. But that has come as the Republicans have jumped from 2.7 million voters to 3.6 million. Non-affiliated voters have tripled from 500,000 to 1.6 million.
The keys to victory for Democrats in Florida elections usually rest on three geographic regions. They must win by a large margin in Southeast Florida and remain competitive in the Interstate 4 corridor, between Pinellas and Volusia counties, while hoping not to get beat too badly in rural North Florida.
"That's the formula," Florida Democratic Party Chairman Scott Maddox said.
Another key for the Democrats is turnout. The more voters who go to the polls, the better the party does.
"With a low turnout, the Republicans win every time here," said Jim Kane, a Broward-based pollster.
Those points are well illustrated by two recent campaigns.
In 2000, Al Gore nearly defeated George Bush and won the presidency, because he secured a margin of well over 300,000 votes in Southeast Florida while remaining very competitive in the I-4 corridor. But he lost the race, and the presidency, by 537 votes following a controversial recount that lead to a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the results.
Democrats were not as competitive in the 2002 governor's race. Democrat Bill McBride secured only a 100,000-vote margin out of Southeast Florida, a result attributed in part to a lower turnout, while he decisively lost the I-4 corridor to Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother. Bush easily carried the state by a 56 percent to 43 percent margin.
The two races also underscored another critical battleground for both parties, an expanding Hispanic population around Orlando, including an influential Puerto Rican voting bloc.
Although the majority of the voters are registered as Democrats, they will support Republicans, said Sergio Bendixen, a Miami pollster and a leading authority on Hispanic voters.
"The Central Florida Hispanic vote is now one of the most sought-after swing votes in America," he said.
In 2000, Gore became the first Democrat presidential candidate to carry Orange County since World War II, largely because he ran very strongly among Central Florida Hispanics.
But Gov. Bush, who speaks fluent Spanish, reversed that trend in the 2002 governor's race, claiming both Orange and adjacent Osceola County.
Bendixen said the governor, who remains a popular figure among Hispanic voters in Florida, could be a factor in securing that vote for his brother in this year's presidential race.
"He's one hell of an ambassador for the president," Bendixen said.
Complicating the Democrats' competition for the different regions in Florida is the fact that the voters are far from homogeneous in their beliefs, although they may all share the same party registration.
In this election, support for the war in Iraq could vary widely between Democrats in conservative North Florida and more liberal, urban voters in Southeast Florida.
"I think the anti-war message works very well in South Florida, but tends to get a more mixed message in Tampa and Orlando and particularly in the Panhandle," Kane said.
But the Democrats may be able to successfully exploit other issues in the state.
Bendixen said, at this point, he sees the war in Iraq, the economy, the quality of public schools and health care as the driving issues in the presidential campaign. The race will require a successful candidate to convince the large bloc of middle class voters that he can best handle those issues, he said.
But he said a decisive issue could be the rising cost of health insurance. And it's an issue that may play well in Florida where 2.8 million residents have no coverage.
"So many people who have it now are in danger of losing it," Bendixen said. "It's now not only the lower socio-economic groups that are in trouble, but it's the middle class."
Kane said health care would be a key issue for both Democrats and Republicans in Florida because of the state's aging electorate. He said Florida has one of the oldest electorates in the nation, with the average age approaching 60. "The safest issue for these people to be able to resonate across the state are Social Security, health care and Medicare," he said.
Another factor for the Democrats in Florida will be appealing to black voters, with the largest voting blocs in Miami, Jacksonville, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale.
Kane said black voters account for about 21 percent of the vote in a Democratic primary.
And in a general election campaign, Kane said the party will have to mount an aggressive get-out-the-vote effort to make sure those voters get to the polls.
"You've got to have the troops on the ground," Kane said. "Democrats can't win in Florida with a straight media campaign."
Despite the geographic and ideological differences among voters, Maddox, the party chairman, said Democrats can appeal across the state.
He cited his own campaign for attorney general in 2002, when he narrowly lost a primary election. The former Tallahassee mayor noted he carried more liberal Broward County while also carrying conservative North Florida.
"I didn't change my message any," he said. "I just talked about the issues that Floridians were concerned with.
"Whether you live in Liberty City in Miami or Wakulla County, you're concerned about health insurance, good public schools, a sensible foreign policy and a good economy," he said.

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