Florida delegates reap benefits of state's must-win status

Florida delegates Pam McAloon, left, and Tina Harris dance during first day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Monday. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Florida delegates Pam McAloon, left, and Tina Harris dance during first day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on Monday. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Published Jul. 21, 2016

CLEVELAND — Sorry Utah and California. For all your charms, the cold truth is that when it comes to presidential elections you can't hold a candle to Florida.

That's a big part of the reason California's delegates to the Republican National Convention are housed at a water park an hour away from Cleveland, and the loyal Republicans of Utah are sleeping in Akron.

And that's why Florida's 99 delegates this week have some of the best seats in the Quicken Loans Arena, where on Wednesday night they cheered three local favorites addressing the nation: Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, and, by video, Sen. Marco Rubio.

"I know Donald. And I'm proud to know Donald. He will appoint conservative justices who will defend, rather than rewrite, our Constitution," said Bondi, the only top-tier Florida Republican who endorsed Trump before the state's March primary. "Are you ready to send ISIS a message that we're really coming after them? When Donald Trump is president, he will." (Her speech was not shown on CNN.)

Scott is a famously awkward speaker, but the governor of America's biggest swing state landed a coveted convention spot (even if it was during the often-overlooked opening hour).

"I cried with the grieving moms and dads and brothers and sisters of the 49 people slaughtered by an ISIS-inspired terrorist," Scott said of the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando. "This war is real. It is here in America. And the next president must destroy this evil. Donald Trump is the man for that job."

America has a one-person, one-vote electoral system, but with the Electoral College not all votes are equal. Nobody has any doubt, say, that Utah will deliver its six electoral votes to Donald Trump and California will deliver its 55 to Hillary Clinton. So both major parties will spend hundreds of millions of dollars to persuade voters in six to 10 battleground states, and Florida is the mother of them all with 29 electoral votes.

Barring a dramatic shakeup in the electoral map, it is nearly impossible for any Republican to reach the necessary 270 electoral votes without winning Florida.

That means Florida convention delegates tend to get special attention. Top-tier speakers show up at their breakfasts, including Rudy Giuliani on Wednesday and Ben Carson on Tuesday, and the Republican National Committee gave them prime convention hall seats.

"You know Florida's importance on the national stage from where we are. We are front and center — right behind Mr. Trump's New York delegation," Republican Party of Florida Chairman Blaise Ingoglia, a state representative from Spring Hill, said after a breakfast that included blistering takedowns of Clinton from Giuliani and pundit Dick Morris. "Everyone knows we are the most important swing state in the nation, and you're seeing that not only in the speakers that are here (at delegation breakfasts) and the speakers on the main stage, but how Florida is being treated."

Four years ago when the Tampa Bay Times Forum housed the convention, the RNC punished the Florida GOP for scheduling its primary earlier than allowed. Florida delegates were banished to one of the more distant hotels, Innisbrook Golf Resort.

This year, they are about 25 minutes away in the suburb of Independence.

Florida's role in the nomination process was all the more complicated this year because the Sunshine State produced two top-tier candidates, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. Many of the Floridians who nominated Trump Tuesday, have longstanding relationships with Bush and Rubio.

Scott Peelen, an alternate delegate from Orlando, is attending his fifth convention.

"Almost half of us here were for Jeb and half of us were for Marco, and our guys got clobbered — 'Little Marco' and 'low-energy Jeb' — so the fact that we're coalescing around this guy after what he did to our two guys I think reflects the flexibility of the Republican Party and the ability to absolutely despise Hillary Clinton," Peelen said. "We're frightened of what she'll do to us."

Tampa CPA Robert Watkins, a longtime party activist and fundraiser who also goes way back, said he senses the delegation uniting behind Trump.

"I really believe it's Trump's time," said Watkins. "He seems like a leader and agent for change — good change, and I believe he's going to win this thing."

The average of recent Florida polls compiled by shows a dead heat in Florida, with Clinton ahead by less than a percentage point.

"Again it's all going to come down to Florida, Florida, Florida," Peelen said. "Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Orange, Hillsborough and, maybe, Pinellas counties are all going to go for Hillary. The other 61 counties in Florida have to, in big margins, all go to Trump for him to win."

Contact Adam C. Smith at Follow @adamsmithtimes.