Here's why fascinating state of Florida hosts RNC

Florida has never produced a presidential nominee, but it decided the presidency in 2000. In a screen grab from video, NBC’s Tim Russert uses his trademark whiteboard to explain what the election is coming down to during the early morning hours of Nov. 8, 2000. Russert died in 2008.
Florida has never produced a presidential nominee, but it decided the presidency in 2000. In a screen grab from video, NBC’s Tim Russert uses his trademark whiteboard to explain what the election is coming down to during the early morning hours of Nov. 8, 2000. Russert died in 2008.
Published Aug. 26, 2012

Welcome to Florida, Republican conventioneers.

Let's not mince words: You are in the most important state in America.

You already know this is America's biggest battleground and that if Mitt Romney loses our 29 electoral votes Barack Obama is almost certainly re-elected. But with Florida it's more than that.

This is a mega state so diverse that it mirrors the nation's moods, sentiments and demographics. Florida is America — today's America and tomorrow's.

"It's become a nation-state, just as New York and California were at their peak and Ohio was a century ago," said historian Richard Norton Smith, a venerable chronicler of American politics.

Floridians are Southerners, Midwesterners, Northeasterners. They're also Cubans, Brazilians, Indians and Germans. Nearly two-thirds came from another state, and one in five was born outside the United States.

"Florida is a microcosm of our country," said former Gov. Jeb Bush. "Floridians are from all walks of life, backgrounds and economic levels. It's not just the people. Our economy is diverse and so are our cities, from large urban areas to suburbs to rural agricultural lands."

Demographically Florida matches the country in terms of white, African-American and Hispanic people. It mirrors the country in its proportion of rural, suburban and urban residents. It has a greater proportion of seniors, but in that sense the state reflects what's looming for other states.

"If you look at all the constituencies that are either dynamic or emerging, they're all there," said Ralph Reed, the Faith and Freedom Coalition chair who grew up in Miami in the 1970s and whose parents grew up there decades earlier. "Florida looks today, in political, demographic, political and economic terms, like what the rest of the country is likely to look like in 40 to 50 years."

Bob Graham, Florida's Democratic governor from 1979 to 1987 and U.S. senator from 1987 to 2005, said that gives Florida an elevated obligation.

"We have a responsibility in how we handle some of these issues," Graham said. "We will either be a positive model for how we handle age and international population or we can set a very bad example and lead to a period of turmoil."

So maybe you know Florida for its freak-show nature — the Butterfly ballot, Miami's face-eating zombie, a magnet for mystics, carnies and charlatans — but it's more than fascinating.

Thousands of Republicans will gather in Tampa this week for the Republican National Convention to sort out the nation's problems and possibilities and make Romney their presidential nominee.

Why here?

Because if you're going to declare you're the party to make this nation better, there is no more important nor strategic place to make that point than Florida.

• • •

Miami hosted three national party conventions in 1968 and 1972, but the state back then was known more for its exoticism and in political terms, it was a middleweight at best, with 17 electoral votes.

Today it has 29 electoral votes, far more than any other presidential battleground.

We are America's fourth-biggest state and stalking New York as No. 3. But California and New York are reliably blue-voting states, and Texas still solidly red.

Florida remains the consistent, supersized nail-biter in presidential elections and no Republican since Calvin Coolidge has won the White House without winning Florida.

In the past five contests, Republicans won twice, Democrats twice and they essentially tied in 2000.

Floridians have cast more than 32.5 million votes since 1992 and 52,000 votes — 1 percent — separated the Republican and Democratic candidates.

"It's so big and so competitive that because of the numbers and the Electoral College map, you almost have no choice but to play in Florida in a big way," said Republican consultant Marc Reichelderfer.

Florida has never produced a presidential nominee or even a vice presidential nominee, but it decided the presidency in 2000 and picked the Republican nominee in 2008. The addition of Paul Ryan, an advocate for sweeping Medicare reform, to the GOP ticket elevates Florida's importance even more this year.

• • •

It's easy to lose sight of Florida's sheer size. Two time zones, 10 TV markets, 58,000 square miles, 19 million people.

Driving from Key West to Pensacola is akin to driving from Washington, D.C., to Madison, Wis.

Tampa Bay, the top battleground region in the biggest battleground state, has roughly the same number of voters as Colorado or Arizona. The West Palm Beach media market — third-largest in Florida — has roughly the same number of voters as Nevada.

The political shorthand for statewide elections is to divide the state in three: Republicans win big margins across North Florida, Democrats win big in southeast Florida, and both sides battle for the swing-voter swath known as the Interstate 4 corridor, stretching from Tampa Bay to Daytona Beach. That's home to 45 percent of the electorate.

"It's more like a giant chess board with many squares representing different components of the population," said Graham.

And those squares are ever-evolving.

In 2000, Al Gore surprised observers when he carried Orange County near Disney World by 5,700 votes. Eight years later, as the Puerto Rican population there continued to soar, Obama won Orange with an 86,000-vote margin. Likewise George W. Bush won nearby Sumter County by 2,490 votes in 2000. That Republican margin grew more than fivefold by 2008 as Republican retirees flocked to the Villages.

"Ask yourself, are we America's southernmost state, or are we the northern outpost of the Caribbean?" asked University of South Florida St. Petersburg historian Gary Mormino, author of Land of Sunshine, State of Dreams: A Social History of Modern Florida. "We're 10 media markets looking for a state."

Residents in Jacksonville couldn't care less about water shortages in Tampa Bay, just as residents in Panama City couldn't care less about Cuban exile politics in Miami.

"More a crowd than a community," former Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay used to say.

That sheer size and diversity makes Florida enormously challenging, for campaigns and for governing.

"You're constantly having to balance between Dade and Duval or Orange and Hillsborough and Pinellas," said former Republican Gov. Bob Martinez of Tampa. "Which sea port are you going to support? Which airport are you going to support? To which university do the disbursements go?"

"Florida is complicated as hell," Martinez said. "And that's part of what makes it so fun."

• • •

Name a pressing issue facing the country and Florida is ground zero.

Entitlement reform? More than 20 percent of the state's population, nearly 3.9 million people, rely on Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.

The economy? One in eight Florida homeowners is more than two months late on a mortgage and more than 45 percent with mortgages owe more than their homes are worth.

Education? Gov. Bush made Florida a national leader in revamping to improve accountability and the state is still debating the approach of high-stakes testing.

Foreign policy and defense? Florida is home to 29 major military bases and installations, and nearly 1.8 million veterans and active-duty military personnel.

Immigration and diversity? Florida has been embracing it, and grappling with it, for decades.

Thundering against the Dream Act for the children of illegal immigrants can win lots of votes in Sarasota County, but it can lose lots of votes in Miami-Dade and Osceola.

Energy production? This tourist mecca relies on affordable fuel prices to keep vacationers coming, but also is still recovering from a serious oil spill that did billions of dollars in damage to Florida's economy.

"We're dealing with all the issues, whether it's voter registration, foreclosure issues, Medicaid, unemployment, regulation, education, we've got them all," said Republican Gov. Rick Scott. "And if you do well in Florida you've basically dealt with all the ethnic groups of America, figured out how to solve their needs."

Former Sen. Graham said that at least as important as the example Florida sets for the country, is the question of how the country affects Florida — especially in terms of entitlement reform.

"For the last half century Florida has been growing at an average rate of 300,000 a year and of that number about half are at or near retirement," Graham said. "Many of those elderly people were able to come to Florida because of programs like Social Security and Medicare that gave them the assurance they could afford to leave their home and move to Florida and lead the good life."

It would be "disastrous for Florida," Graham said, if that retirement security diminishes, or entitlement expenses are shifted to the states.

Others, including conservative Gov. Scott, argue it would be disastrous for Florida not to have the flexibility to rein in soaring Medicaid costs and for the country not to finally get a grip on Medicare and Social Security spending.

"Whether it's a conservative attempt to diminish government and rely more on the private sector — or its liberal opposite — Florida becomes a battleground and a breeding ground and that's what's important. It's a function of its diversity and complexity," historian Smith said.

• • •

The economic crisis knocked Florida on its heels, and some Floridians contend the state has passed its peak. It's no longer the low-cost state it used to be, with many retirees struggling to pay for escalating property insurance bills. The quality of life in some areas is threatened by overtaxed infrastructure and poor planning. The supply and cost of water looms as a major issue, and the state is one big storm away from economic calamity.

Still, the Sunshine State remains a lure for dreamers, entrepreneurs and optimists looking for a second chance or new life. It offers beaches, sunshine and opportunity.

Few people personify the Florida promise better than Gov. Scott, who moved to Naples nine years ago after being ousted as CEO of a health care corporation that paid the largest settlement for Medicare fraud.

With little more than a dream — and $72 million of his own money — Scott in 2010 became governor of America's most important state. Don't even hint to him that Florida is past her prime.

Scott is focused on improving the economy and how to turn the page on a particularly rough period. It's the same thing every political leader in the country is talking about and likely the heart of the message at this week's convention: Help is on the way.

Scott, though, makes the case that no state in the country is better positioned for the future than Florida.

"If you only did business in America and you wanted to be in a low-cost, low-tax state, it might make sense to be in Dallas," said Scott.

"But if you're a global player, which most people are trying to become, Florida is positioned better than any other state in America: 15 seaports; Miami is the second-biggest financial center in America, second to New York City, and if you travel in Latin America, it's more important than New York City; people already want to move here because they like our weather and our beaches; and when you talk to shippers they know they have to do business on the East Coast, and the best place to do business is absolutely Florida because it's closest to the Panama Canal," Scott said, growing animated. "No ifs, ands or buts about it, this is the best place in the world if you want to build a company."

Assuming he's right, and Florida growth revs up again, it means swing state Florida's influence will only grow.

"It's a trend that I don't think has peaked yet," historian Smith said of the migration patterns into Florida. "So whether we like it or not, we can expect more of a disproportionate influence accorded Florida."

So why hold the Republican National Convention in Florida? As you now know, it's certainly not for the August weather.

America's biggest swing state is a must-win for your nominee, and there's a chance the extra energy and enthusiasm generated this week gives him added momentum here.

But more importantly, the way Romney is introduced to America from the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the way the rhetoric this week is framed on the economy, entitlements and diversity, could be pivotal to how Florida votes.

Win over Florida, win over the nation.

Adam C. Smith is the Tampa Bay Times' political editor and can be reached at Charles Mahtesian is POLITICO's national politics editor and can be reached at POLITICO and the Tampa Bay Times have partnered for the 2012 presidential election.