Adam C. Smith: Florida not a given for Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio would have advantages over other Republican candidates when it comes to trying to win Florida in 2016, but it wouldn't be a guarantee. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images, 2010)
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio would have advantages over other Republican candidates when it comes to trying to win Florida in 2016, but it wouldn't be a guarantee. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images, 2010)
Published April 3 2015
Updated April 3 2015

Bad enough that Florida is by far the most populated state never to produce a president. This diverse, mega battleground most resembles America, but we haven't even produced a presidential nominee, despite the underdog campaigns of Reubin Askew in 1984 and Bob Graham in 2004.

Odds are better than ever, however, that 2016 will be different.

Even if we prematurely write off former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, now living near Destin, and surgeon/conservative activist Ben Carson, retired to West Palm Beach, we still have two leading Republican contenders: Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, both of Miami-Dade County.

As unsettled as the Republican primary electorate looks, history makes Bush the safest bet to win the nomination based on his financial advantages and widespread support in the GOP establishment.

So what happens to Florida's battleground status with a favorite son at the top of the ticket? Very little.

Bush and Rubio may have advantages in Florida that others don't — they've won statewide, they have established political networks, they speak Spanish — but it's not enough to alter Florida's status as the ultimate state for nail-biter elections.

Certainly few people understand Florida's electorate better than Bush, who worked to deliver the state to his father, his brother or himself in seven of the nine election cycles between 1988 and 2004, succeeding five times (though the Supreme Court had to weigh in once).

"Jeb obviously would be a lot more difficult to beat than Rubio because Jeb is reasonable, Jeb is compassionate … and he is running as a general election candidate in the primary," said Orlando trial lawyer John Morgan, a leading Democratic fundraiser. "But no matter what, it's going to be another one of those 1-percenter election nights."

No Republican since Calvin Coolidge has won the presidency without Florida, and Bush's Florida-based political team is under no illusions that it will be anything but another epic battle in 2016.

"Any candidate regardless of their connection to Florida has to fight for it to win here," said Republican consultant Brian Hughes of Tallahassee, who is not working on the Bush or Rubio campaigns. "It's just the nature of this state. We're big, we're diverse, we have a lot of media markets, and it's really like four states in one. Florida makes you work for it."

Part of what makes Florida such a challenging state politically is its fast-changing and ever-growing nature. Statewide candidates must constantly introduce themselves. Bush, for instance, won his two gubernatorial races by huge margins — nearly 11 percentage points in 1998 and 13 points in 2002 — but Florida is vastly different now.

The Florida Democratic Party still has the voter files from those Bush elections and can pinpoint which voters are still around and which aren't. Only 28 percent of currently active Florida voters participated in either of Bush's past two elections and only 13 percent of today's registered voters are Republicans who voted in those 2002 or 1998 gubernatorial races.

"There has been so much growth in Florida, that 13 years since his name was last on the ballot, only around 18 percent of registered voters in Florida ever could have voted for Jeb," Joshua Karp of the Florida Democratic party extrapolated.

Nor have Bush or Rubio ever run in a presidential election year, when Democratic turnout is far higher than in off-year elections.

Barack Obama narrowly won Florida in 2008 and in 2012 after mounting the largest and best-funded campaigns ever seen in the state. That Obama barely eked out a win against Mitt Romney, who had antagonized many Hispanic voters with his clumsy talk of self-deportation, might suggest Bush or Rubio at the top of the ticket would all but ensure Florida's 29 electoral votes for the GOP.

"Nothing in life is a lock. But Jeb Bush beats Hillary Clinton in Florida hands down. I don't care what the polls say today," said former House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, suggesting Rubio would be formidable, too, but has less broad appeal.

What the polls say today is that Clinton vs. Bush is a toss-up. A Quinnipiac University poll released this week showed Clinton leading 45 percent to 42 percent, while a Public Policy Polling survey released last week found Clinton leading 47 percent to 44 percent. She led Rubio by 2 percentage points in both polls.

Bill and Hillary Clinton have a particularly keen interest in Florida, dating back to 1991 when he won a non-binding straw poll among state party activists, which he credited with giving him a crucial push to the nomination.

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a longtime Clinton adviser, recounted in 2007 how it still burned Mr. Clinton that he lost Florida in 1992, after his campaign focused on North Carolina in the final days instead of Florida, which he lost to George H.W. Bush.

In the 2008 primary, many Democrats, including leaders of Obama's campaign, doubted Obama would be as competitive in Florida as Mrs. Clinton, given the perception that she was stronger with seniors and Hispanic and Jewish voters here.

"And there was that same talk in 2012," recounted John Morgan, a top Obama money-raiser. "People were talking about dumping Joe Biden and putting Hillary on the ticket to carry Florida."

The New York Times recently noted that Bill Clinton remains preoccupied with his wife winning Florida in 2016.

She can win the White House without Florida's 29 electoral votes; Bush almost certainly can't. His team understands the state well enough to know it can't afford not to be preoccupied with carrying Florida as well.

Recently, Bush political adviser Sally Bradshaw jokingly gave a new title to Pablo Diaz, one of the veteran Florida operatives working on Bush's Right to Rise political committee: director of homeland security.

Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.

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