Will Florida hold the key?

Sat, Nov 1, 2008, 00:00

Eight years after the 'hanging chad' election wrangle put Florida - and the US - in the Republican camp, Barack Obama's efforts to get the support of the Sunshine State's hugely diverse electorate on Tuesday could prove decisive

AS BARACK OBAMA looked out over 35,000 people who came out to see him late on a chilly night in Kissimmee, outside Orlando, this week, it seemed he could scarcely believe his eyes. "Look at the size of this crowd," he said. "And at a midnight rally!"

Like many of the massive crowds Obama has attracted throughout his two-year presidential campaign, this one was a picture of diversity - black, white, Hispanic, Asian, young and old. In contrast to rallies for other candidates, there is seldom any anger or outrage in an Obama crowd. This one was all good-humoured optimism, with few boos even when John McCain or George Bush were mentioned.

Obama has held massive rallies throughout Florida this week as he seeks to prise the Sunshine State from its eight-year Republican grip, a move that could wrap up the election in his favour next Tuesday.

Despite the cheerful mood in Kissimmee, Florida is going through hard times and the signs of economic hardship are everywhere.

It was just after 8pm but Trastevere, a little Italian restaurant in downtown Orlando, was already deserted and Jeanie Crawford would soon be heading home with her meagre haul of tips. A slight, boyish figure with cropped, sandy hair and big, sunken eyes, Crawford was riding high until a few months ago, working for one of America's biggest mortgage lenders until the bottom fell out of Florida's housing market.

"I used to work for Countrywide, now I'm here waiting tables," she says. "I'm 33. I stopped waiting tables when I was 23, but now it's all I can get."

After years of extraordinary population growth when more than 1,000 people moved to Florida every day and property prices soared, the state's housing market has collapsed and unemployment is at its highest level for 14 years. Gleaming new office buildings in Orlando stand almost empty and blank storefront windows advertise vacant retail space.

For Rich Blaker, who works as a painter at a hotel outside Orlando, there is just one issue that matters in next week's presidential election: jobs.

"You're talking to a man who turned wrenches for 13 years. I was a mechanic for 13 years and I lost my job. As a result of that, I've had to take another profession that doesn't pay as much," he says. "Under the Clinton-Gore administration, I made a lot more money than I'm making now, and that was 10 years ago. Had it not been for the Clinton-Gore administration, I wouldn't have been able to get a loan to live in the house I live in. For the last eight years, I've seen the Republicans chip away, chip away, chip away. George Bush is probably going to go down in history as one of the worst presidents in the history of the United States of America."

Property booms are nothing new in Florida. More than two and a half million people came to the state in 1925 to buy plots of land, hoping to build a dream home in the sun. A year later, the land boom went bust, driving Florida into the Depression three years ahead of the rest of the US.

The recent property boom coincided with a decade of Republican domination of Florida's politics, where the party provided the last two governors, Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist. George Bush won the state in 2004 and, controversially, four years earlier.

The contest between Barack Obama and John McCain in the state is too close to call, but Democrats believe they could be on the verge of flipping Florida into their column as part of a dramatic political realignment across the country.

Obama is ahead in states such as Virginia and North Carolina, which haven't backed a Democrat in a presidential election since 1964. Iowa and New Mexico are likely to move into the Democrat column and the Obama campaign is confident of its chances in western states such as Colorado and Nevada. If he has a good night on Tuesday, Obama could even pick up Georgia, Montana and North Dakota, and some polls have suggested that the race in Texas will be close.

Democrats are also targeting Republican-held senate seats in Mississippi, Georgia and North Carolina, as well as Virginia, New Hampshire, Minnesota and Oregon. The party expects to pick up more than 30 seats in the house of representatives and its targets include districts in such traditionally conservative places as Idaho and rural Virginia.

Florida is the biggest prize at stake, however, with 27 electoral votes - one tenth of the total needed to win the presidency.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN VOTERS have already turned out in record numbers at early voting venues across the state, but if Obama wins Florida, it could be because of a shift in the allegiance of Hispanic voters. For years, Cuban-American immigrants in southern Florida have been a reliable Republican voting bloc, backing the party by a margin of 90 per cent in return for tough policies against the Castro regime. Older exiles are dying off, however, and Fernand Amandi of the Miami polling firm, Bendixen Associates, says the new generation has different priorities.

"Most of the younger Cuban-Americans, while they have an emotional relationship with their families to Cuba, don't regard Cuba and Cuba policy as the most important issue in their lives. In many cases, it wouldn't rank in the top 10," he says. "They're much more motivated by the economic realities of life here in the United States and the problems that go with not having affordable health care or problems with US policy towards Iraq and other countries, the problems with not being able to get an affordable home. They're much more moved by bread-and-butter economic issues than they are by Cuba policy and are thus more open in this case to the Democratic party point of view and offering alternatives and changes to what has been seen as the failed economic policies of the Bush administration."

Hispanic voters, the fastest-growing group in the US and more than 12 per cent of all voters, were a key part of Karl Rove's vision of a permanent Republican majority and Bush won 45 per cent of their votes in 2004. Bush worked hard for Hispanic votes, supporting bilingual education and supporting immigration reform that would allow millions of immigrants to stay in the US. McCain supported comprehensive immigration reform too, but most Republicans campaigned against what they described as an amnesty for illegal aliens.

"I think when political historians will look back on why the Republican party's brand deteriorated so quickly and so suddenly, one of the main things that will be pointed to is their almost suicidal embrace of the anti-immigrant rhetoric that dominated the debate for the past couple of years," says Amandi. "In the mind of many Hispanics, voters and immigrants alike, it tarnished the Republican party as a hostile group and a hostile party to them. And you're seeing the price for that at the ballot box. The first sign of that was in 2006 when a lot of the gains the Republican party made in the 2000, 2002 and 2004 elections were almost erased overnight. And I think we'll see that again in 2008."

Bush's success in expanding the Republican base in 2004 persuaded many analysts that the party had indeed found a winning formula in its cocktail of small-government economics, cultural conservatism and a hawkish national security policy. Events soon helped to discredit the Bush philosophy among many voters.

However, as Hurricane Katrina made Americans yearn for a more competent, caring government and the war in Iraq soured the national appetite for military adventures.

Bernadette Budde, a political strategist for the Republican-leaning Business Industry Political Action Committee, believes that Bush's success in 2004 was overstated and that Republicans have been misreading the electorate ever since.

"The first thing they need to be aware of is: who are the voters? And when you have a very large voter pool, the idea that you could ever micro-target your way to victory is an idea they're going to have to get out of their heads," she says.

"The electorate is huge, their concerns are enormous, but the voters have been trying to tell the Republicans that it's been the economy since the 2004 election, and they haven't listened. So to get back to basics for the Republicans would mean to get back to the issues of the economy, to get back to the idea that we have a very large and growing electorate, that it's made up of people with multiple points of views on issues but that you can assemble them into an effective coalition."

From the start of his presidential campaign, Obama has sought to broaden his coalition of support beyond the traditional Democrat base, reaching out to religious voters, independents and disaffected Republicans. A number of prominent conservatives have endorsed Obama, including neoconservative Ken Adelman, a former sidekick of Donald Rumsfeld, and End of History author Francis Fukuyama. Billionaire investor Warren Buffett is also backing Obama, and Budde believes McCain's characterisation of the Democrat as a left-wing radical doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

"Well, it would be off the mark if you take a look at what's in the Democratic platform that he's running on or even the campaign rhetoric that he's used. I mean, Obama is talking about growth," she says.

"He may have asterisks that he attaches to what he means by free trade and he would talk about fair trade. But overall tax policy . . . yes, if you are in the top 5 per cent, you may think that he wants to redistribute your wealth, but there's also reason to think that there's a great understanding there of how tax policy affects corporate investment decisions. And when he talks about capital gains taxes or credits for people who keep jobs here, those can be interpreted as very pro-business."

IF OBAMA WINS ON TUESDAY, he could have the support of a huge Democratic majority in the house of representatives and the first filibuster-proof majority in the senate for decades. Such an alignment would allow the new president to introduce a far-reaching agenda of economic change at a time when the global financial crisis has left the American public receptive to new ideas and hungry for greater economic justice.

In an interview with ABC News this week, however, Obama made clear that he will seek to craft legislation in a way that appeals to Republicans, even if he doesn't need their votes.

"You know, it's easy to draw lessons from defeat, because that's sobering. But in some ways, I think, in this election, it's going to be even more important for Democrats to come in with some modesty and humility if we win. And recognise that, first of all, a lot of the incoming Democrats come from swing districts and they have positioned themselves as centrists," he said.

"If we want to move forward in the kind of bold way that frees ourselves from dependence on foreign oil and prevents our economy from being hamstrung again by high gas prices and deals with global warming, we're going to have to have everybody working together. The same is true on health care. The same is true on education. So on a whole host of these issues, I think we need Republicans, not just as showpieces.

"In some cases, Republicans have good ideas. And, you know, I've always been more than happy to steal good ideas from whatever the source."

Budde believes that, even if the electoral map changes so that Democrats remain in the ascendant for a number of election cycles, there will be no major realignment on the issues. She suggests that policy debates will happen within the Democratic majority rather than between the parties but that the ideological shift will be less significant than many Democrats may hope.

"The Democrats in 2006 (much better than 2004) and again in 2008 have been not only tolerant but have been very receptive to points of view from their candidates that haven't been ideologically rigid or always in alignment with those three sectors that always made up the Democratic party: labour, environmentalists or trial lawyers," she says.

"They're running with candidates who don't agree with the major principles espoused by those three organisations and yet they're going to wear the Democratic label, come to town and sit with the Democratic caucus, with other Democrats who are going to have a great diversity.

"I keep using the word diversity to describe the Democratic majority, and people who see it or treat it as if it's monolithic - including the speaker of the house and the majority leader of the US senate - are going to be sadly disappointed."