What if a presidential election came down to the strangest county in the weirdest state in America? For better or worse, that's Miami-Dade, whose vote Nov. 6 will go a long way in determining who wins America's biggest swing state. • If we see an enormous Miami-Dade margin of victory for Barack Obama as the returns come in, it probably means he wins Florida's 29 electoral votes and another presidential term.
But this is Miami, so it's likely we'll have to wait on the vote tally because some precinct worker is stuck in traffic behind a delivery truck parked for no clear reason on the interstate express lane. Or stuck behind a grisly crime scene, perhaps involving face-eating. Maybe behind paparazzi stalking a misbehaving celebrity.
Miami-Dade defines Florida to much of America: super models and mega yachts, Elian Gonzalez, the poorest of the poor, old Cuban exiles in guayaberas sipping espresso.
But the rest of Florida tends to view the state's most populous county with wary suspicion: a foreign territory with chronic public corruption problems, the nastiest campaigns and the occasional Santeria sacrifice leaving animal parts on sidewalks.
"That's okay. We've learned to live with being misunderstood and viewed as a different and strange part of Florida," chuckled Ana Navarro, a Republican consultant in Coral Gables. "I'm not sure we'll ever understand those good ol' Southern boys in North Florida."
There's a reason the Obama campaign has 12 offices in Miami-Dade, and the Mitt Romney operation has four. Size matters and so do demographics. The county is home to 1.2 million voters, including 540,000 Democrats and 371,000 Republicans. Only about one in four is non-Hispanic white voters.
Four years ago, Obama won Miami-Dade by more than 139,000 votes — nearly 60 percent of his statewide victory margin and the biggest margin of any Florida county. Compare that with John Kerry in 2004, who won here by nearly 49,000 votes, and Al Gore — damaged by the Clinton-Gore administration's decision to return Elian to Cuba — who in 2000 won it by about 39,000.
Broward County has long been viewed as the ultimate Democratic stronghold in Florida, but Obama won 7,100 more votes out of Miami-Dade than he did in Broward, a first in modern history.
To many veterans of Florida politics it was an astounding Miami-Dade outcome. The bad news for the president? If he fails to match it this November, Florida's 29 electoral votes may flip to Romney.
Obama's support among white voters is likely to dip across the state. Few Democrats will predict with a straight face that he will match his 2008 performance in places like Sarasota, Polk and Lee counties.
Squeezing every last vote out of Miami-Dade is critical to Obama's prospects.
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Of course, you know Miami is heavily Hispanic, but it's easy to miss just how much so.
More than half of the county's residents were born in another country, and more than 7 in 10 speak a language other than English in their homes. Sixty-five percent are Hispanic. Nearly 20 percent are African-American. Only 16 percent are non-Hispanic whites.
It gets more complex. For all the attention on Cuban-Americans, other Hispanics, including Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Colombians and Puerto Ricans, are an ever-growing share of the population. In many cases these groups have conflicting interests and priorities.
"If you're a Latino person, you probably feel comfortable going anywhere in the county because you're in the majority," Judney Pierce, a 26-year-old Haitian-American student explained after an Obama voter registration event at Florida International University last week. "But if you grew up in north Miami like me, you tend to stay in your own community where you have your own stores and things."
Don't underestimate the importance of black voters in Miami-Dade. In 2008, the county's Democrats cast about 175,000 early votes, 7 percent more than Republicans cast in early and absentees combined. Nearly half of those Democratic early votes came from African-Americans.
Toss in Jewish voters, gay voters, old timers who still drawl "My-a-muh" when talking about Miami, and it makes for a volatile social fabric and incredibly complex challenge for both governing and campaigning.
"I feel like when I'm in Tampa there are a lot of people who feel similarly, or are all watching the same issues. I feel the same way in Jacksonville or Palm Beach and other communities," said former Democratic state Sen. Dan Gelber of Miami Beach, who traveled the state running unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2010. "Dade County has so many different pulses. It doesn't have as common a heartbeat as other places."
An effective campaign understands it had best not run a radio ad featuring a Cuban accent on a station catering to Puerto Ricans. Or that Central Americans care about immigration and Colombian-Americans want to hear more about trade policy than about Fidel Castro.
And you can throw out assumptions about conventional campaign tactics here.
Obama's young, idealist organizers recruiting volunteers in 2008 quickly learned that even many of their most devoted campaign workers expected to be paid. Capitalism and politics intersect here. When investigators looking into the campaign finances of U.S. Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, asked one of his operatives why she used cash instead of checks in making at least $190,000 in payments for get-out-the-vote efforts, she was succinct: They take cash.
Likewise in August when Romney campaigned at a Miami juice shop, Democrats crowed that El Palacio de los Jugos was owned by a convicted cocaine trafficker. The reaction in Miami? Yawn.
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Demographics can determine political destiny, and the electoral trends in Miami-Dade are ominous for the GOP. It has long been a Democratic stronghold, but as reliably Republican Cuban-Americans become an ever-shrinking part of the electorate (they accounted for about 75 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2000 and less than 60 percent in 2008), the prospect of an overwhelming Democratic advantage in this mega county threatens to shift the entire partisan balance of Florida away from the GOP.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink in 2010 spent almost no money on Hispanic media or grass roots campaign efforts in Miami-Dade, but in a Republican wave election she still beat Rick Scott here by nearly 70,000 votes.
Democrats quietly worry about losing ground from 2008 in many parts of Florida. But even with the tougher political climate many see the potential for Obama to match or even improve upon his Miami-Dade blowout.
"A year ago, because of skepticism about the economy, I would have admitted that I was worried," said Freddy Balsera, an Obama adviser who often appears on local Spanish-language TV talking up the president. "But today I really do feel like 2008 can be matched, because people are getting it now and because of the campaign's investment in the community, people knocking on doors. President Obama has probably done more events in Miami-Dade this year than Alex Sink did in the year she was running for governor."
Obama logs in another Miami campaign stop Thursday.
One big difference: Cuba is practically off the table as a political discussion, Balsera said. Instead people are talking about issues like entitlement reform and tax policies. Cuban-Americans are staunchly conservative in many respects, but they don't share many Republicans' skepticism about safety net social programs.
"On social programs, God forbid you touch them, because all these senior centers in Miami-Dade are full of Cuban-American Republicans who rely on these programs,'' Balsera said.
Still, Republicans have a much more robust Miami-Dade campaign than John McCain did in 2008, and some potent messengers to tamp down Democratic claims that Romney may gut Medicare. Miami-Dade's Marco Rubio is featured in a TV spot talking about his 81-year-old mother depending on Medicare and how Romney and running mate Paul Ryan will protect it.
Inside the Armando Badia Senior Center last week, the sound of dominos clacking on tables drowned out Democratic retiree Wilda Connor, a native of Honduras who has lived in Miami most of her life.
"Medicare is very important to me, and I've been hearing that Obama took billions of dollars out of Medicare to pay for Obamacare. That bothers me a lot,'' she said, repeating a frequent line of attack by Republicans.
She is a Democrat who intends to vote for Romney.
A few miles away at FIU, 21-year-old Leonardo Curiel has been working hard to persuade young Cuban-Americans that, contrary to what their parents may say, the Democratic Party is a better fit for them. A Venezuelan who moved to Florida at age 12, he has had some success though he laments he won't be able to vote for Obama himself. He won't become a citizen until a few weeks after the election.
"But I've registered so many students to vote that I feel like I've done my job, my civic duty," Curiel said.
Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo and Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Adam C. Smith can be reached at [email protected]