Prominent Florida Democrats agree Hillary Clinton is stronger candidate than Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential hopeful, speaks at a campaign event at the Heartland Acres Agribition Center in Independence, Iowa, on Jan. 24. (Max Whittaker/The New York Times)
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential hopeful, speaks at a campaign event at the Heartland Acres Agribition Center in Independence, Iowa, on Jan. 24. (Max Whittaker/The New York Times)
Published Jan. 27, 2016

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has a message for Democratic voters in Iowa and New Hampshire.

"It's okay to be right, but it's more important to win. And if you don't win, you can't govern," Buckhorn said when asked about the excitement Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is generating in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. "When all is said and done — certainly in Florida — Hillary has a much, much better chance of prevailing than Sen. Sanders."

The electoral math is simple: If Democrats win Florida's 29 electoral votes in November, they win the White House. Florida's most prominent Democrats overwhelmingly say Hillary Clinton stands a much better chance of carrying Florida than Sanders.

Like it or not, a self-described democratic socialist like Sanders is simply not a strong Florida candidate, said former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink.

"Absolutely not," said Sink, who recently hosted Clinton at a fundraising reception at her home east of Tampa. "Look at the history of the Democrats Floridians have elected: Bill Nelson's not going to go for a socialist Democrat. I'm not going for a socialist Democrat. Bernie's touching a nerve, and rightfully so, about income inequality. I totally agree with him that that's something this country has to address and fix, but I don't agree with his solutions."

Florida has long been viewed as Clinton country. She and husband Bill have deep roots dating back to when he was an obscure Arkansas governor successfully campaigning to win a state Democratic Party presidential straw poll in 1991. Today, virtually every prominent Democrat in the state is publicly backing Clinton or remaining officially neutral.

"The person the Republicans are the most scared of is Hillary, because she's going to be very tough, particularly in Florida, and specifically in Miami-Dade, which is hometown to a couple of the Republican candidates. I think she would win Miami-Dade against either (Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio)," said Miami congressional candidate Annette Taddeo, who was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 2014. "And from a Florida Hispanic perspective, it's going to be very tough for somebody besides Hillary to get the Hispanic vote. She's known, and she clearly has a track record."

The pragmatic, Hillary-can-win argument is not new. Nor is it necessarily effective.

Even when Barack Obama was challenging Clinton for the Democratic nomination in 2008, supporters of the New York senator and former first lady argued that Clinton — strong with Hispanic voters, seniors and Jewish voters — was far better equipped to win Florida than Obama. Neither of them campaigned for Florida's 2008 Democratic primary, which was declared meaningless by the national party, but Clinton beat Obama by 17 percentage points.

He still wound up carrying Florida in two general elections.

"The more people get to know Bernie the better they like him," said Michael Briggs, a spokesman for the Sanders campaign.

The two most recent polls of Florida Democrats show Clinton leading Sanders by at least 36 percentage points.

In Iowa, at least one poll suggests Sanders is neck-and-neck with Clinton ahead of the caucuses on Monday. Sanders leads most polls in New Hampshire, which neighbors his home state and votes Feb. 9.

Winning those two states could give Sanders a big burst of momentum, but then he faces contests that appear stronger for Clinton: Nevada Feb. 20, a South Carolina primary Feb. 27, and on March 1 the so-called SEC primary in a dozen states, many of them in the South.

"It's possible that Bernie could win the first two — the caucuses in Iowa and the primary in New Hampshire. But once you get into the flow of South Carolina, the SEC primary, and later on in mid March in the Florida primary, Hillary is going to win in Florida and she's going to win big," said Sen. Bill Nelson, a Clinton supporter who suggested "it would be difficult for Bernie to win" Florida in the general election.

"Despite all the partisan politics," agreed Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler, "Florida is a moderate state, and Hillary is definitely less liberal than Bernie."

Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Davis of Tampa said Sanders is an important voice in the party and the U.S. Senate, and his stronger-than-expected challenge will make Clinton a better candidate, but Clinton's gravitas, background and strength are well suited to Florida's electorate.

"Sen. Sanders' self-described position as a socialist does not work in the general election," Davis said.

Sanders' spokesman, Briggs, dismissed that: "Once you look at the ideas he's talking about and get away from the labels, you'll see a great majority of people in the country support his ideas."

Indeed, Democratic congressional candidate Eric Lynn of St. Petersburg said he would be comfortable running with either Sanders or Clinton at the top of the ticket. Sanders is "far more mainstream than either Ted Cruz or Donald Trump," Lynn said.

"Either one of them would fare much better and win against any of the Republicans who might be nominated once they finish their circus of a primary," said Lynn, who said he worked with Secretary of State Clinton as a Defense Department staffer and with then-U.S. House member Sanders when Lynn was a congressional aide focused on veterans affairs.

Among the Democrats running for the U.S. Senate, U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Jupiter is backing Clinton, while Alan Grayson agreed to serve on the Clinton campaign's "Florida Leadership Council" even as he continues to praise Sanders in fundraising emails.

Times staff writer Sara DiNatale contributed to this report. Contact Adam C. Smith at Follow @AdamSmithTimes.