The Sunshine State is important in presidential elections for several reasons, but one of them is simply that Florida is the land of butterfly ballots, hanging chads, and Katherine Harris (and her makeup). Florida is therefore symbolically important and all eyes are always on the state whose controversial election in 2000 decided the presidency by 537 votes.
9. Road to the White House
The road to the White House runs through Florida, which happens to be the largest swing state in the country. For example, with the exception of the 1960 and 1992 races, ever since 1928 the winner of Florida won the White House. With 11.2 million registered voters and 29 electoral votes this November, whichever candidate wins Florida has an easier path to victory.
Florida is the perfect bellwether state... in so many ways. Florida has large African American, Latino, and Jewish populations. It is famous for the many sun-lovers who retired to Florida, but the state also has a lot of young voters. So too does Florida have a lot of veterans. Indeed, every electorally-important demographic is well represented in Florida. Moreover, ideologically, north Florida resembles the American South and south Florida resembles the Northeast. In fact, the joke here in paradise is "the farther north you go, the father south you are." The icing on the cake is that parts of central Florida -- where not just Disney, but where citrus, dairy, and agriculture are king -- resemble the Midwest. Therefore, elections in Florida are always interesting and hard to predict. Because it is such a transient state and has been growing so rapidly, candidates find themselves running in districts where a significant percentage of voters are new. So, in Florida, politics is like the weather. If you don't like the result, simply wait a little while...
7. Registered Voters
During the 2008 election, there were a whopping 658,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in Florida. This Democratic advantage has dropped, as a few thousand voters switched parties in the past four years and many more voters in Florida are now registering as Independents. But, for 2012 the Democrats still have an edge in registered voters (40.5 percent to 36 percent).
6. GOP Tsunami
The Democratic advantage in voter registration has not helped them at the ballot box. The 2010 midterm election produced a Republican tsunami. Republicans swept all five of the state-wide races in 2010: Governor, Senate, and three elected "cabinet" positions. They added to their majorities in the state legislature, where they now enjoy veto-proof supermajorities in both chambers (81-39 in the House; 28-12 in the Senate). And the Democrats are now down to just six members in the state's congressional delegation of 27. Why? Democrats ran many weak candidates in 2010 and party faithful are often heard quoting the great satirist, Will Rogers, who once quipped: "I'm not a member of any organized party -- I'm a Democrat." Still, the painful irony for Democrats is that Florida, under Republican control, has been one of the worst run states in the nation. Even though Floridians were frustrated, in 2010 they elected many more members of the very party that has been running the state. Another reason for the Republican majority is...
Playing politics when designing legislative districts is, sadly, an age-old problem in American politics, dating to the early 1800s when the practice's namesake, Elbridge Gerry, manipulated districts in Massachusetts. Both parties all across the country are guilty of gerrymandering. However, the Republicans in Florida have been especially adept (and the Democrats especially inept) at carving out advantageous seats. The redistricting process in Florida has helped Republicans gain seats. Still another reason for Republican control is...
4. Voter "Reform"
The Republican Party has been pushing measures to crack down on alleged cases of voter fraud, namely preventing illegal immigrants from voting. Not without coincidence, these laws have been passed in swing states like Pennsylvania, Virginia, and, of course, Florida. The result is that it has been harder to register voters and, in November, it will be both difficult and confusing for certain groups of people (the elderly, poor, African Americans... ) to vote. The impact on the election will have little to do with preventing fraud but it will reduce Democratic turnout by thousands. In close states like Florida, these new voting measures may decide the outcome of races.
3. The Jewish Vote
Geopolitics plays a role in Florida -- in two ways. First, north Florida, the panhandle, and southwest Florida are very conservative, while the Interstate 4 corridor running across the middle of the state is evenly split. That leaves only the densely populated counties of southeast Florida as Democratic territory. So, no Democrat can win Florida without robust turnout and a decisive margin of victory in those counties (Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade). Not without coincidence, this is where most of the state's 750,000 Jews live. Which brings me to the second point about geopolitics: The Jewish community votes overwhelmingly Democratic. Obama, like most Democrats, easily carried the Jewish vote (78 percent) in 2008. However, this time around there is a lot of negativity and fear surrounding Obama's legitimately strong record of support for Israel. If the misinformation erases Obama's advantage among Jewish voters, Romney will carry Florida.
2. The Senate Race
With the Republican wins in 2010, one of the few Democrats left standing in Florida is Senator Bill Nelson. The Republicans would like nothing more than to beat Nelson, completing the GOP sweep of the Sunshine State. Ordinarily, a long-serving, moderate senator would be a sure bet for reelection, but given the Republican gains in Florida, the anti-incumbent fervor around the country, and several multi-million dollar ad buys by conservative super PACs against Democrats in Florida, the race is competitive. In fact, Nelson's lead in the polls has evaporated in recent weeks and many polls now show Republican Connie Mack several points ahead. Because Republicans need only a net gain of four seats in the U.S. Senate, this seat may well be the most important in the nation.
1. Crazy from the Heat
According to polls, Florida has the most unpopular governor in the country. At the least, Rick Scott will not help Republicans or Mitt Romney in Florida this November. For instance, there is much a popular and powerful incumbent governor can do to help candidates of his party. This was the case for Democratic governor Bob Graham and Republican governor Jeb Bush.
However, not only has Scott failed to reach out to Democrats and Independents in his state, but the political novice who won a surprise victory in 2010 does not even reach out to fellow Republicans. Scott was elected by the Tea Party and governs only for them. Governor Scott has brought lawsuits against the federal government, refuses to recognize Obama's health care reforms, fired public employees, slashed education budgets, and has turned down federal funding for desperately needed public infrastructure and jobs programs, viewing such assistance as socialism. The Scott Factor is such that, when Mitt Romney campaigns in the state, he, like Florida's Republicans, must avoid Scott.
Elections are always interesting and important in Florida, and 2012 will be no exception!
Robert P. Watson, Ph.D. has published 34 books on politics and history and serves as professor and director of American Studies at Lynn University in Florida, site of the third/final presidential debate on Oct. 22.