Spotlight City: A Florida Politics Primer

BY Quinn Bowman  April 9, 2010 at 6:02 PM EDT

scity_logo.pngThe PBS NewsHour is gearing up for the latest in its “Spotlight City” reporting series. We’ve been to Pittsburgh, Albuquerque, St. Louis and Kansas City exploring issues that reverberate on both the local and national stage. Now we’re headed to Florida.

Starting April 12, we’ll launch a week of reports from Tampa, in partnership with local PBS station WEDU, where we’ll look at the economy, home foreclosures, health care, taxes, politics and other issues with an eye toward a larger theme of American attitudes toward government spending.

So what do you need to know about the Sunshine State’s politics to get started? The Rundown asked Adam Smith, political editor at the St. Petersburg Times, to give us a primer on Florida and its political scene.

What are some of the big issues facing Florida voters in 2010?

The biggest issue overwhelming is the economy. We have over 12 percent unemployment in Tampa Bay, which is the biggest swing voter part of the state. We’ve got unemployment in over 15 percent in some counties. So that is overwhelmingly the biggest issue. Secondarily, we’ve got an insurance crisis, where a lot of people are struggling to keep up with their property insurance and a lot of companies are trying to move out of the state. The state budget is in shambles because of the economy. And President Obama is talking about changing NASA — thousands of jobs could be lost. It’s a very anxious state these days.

In what ways are some of the bigger problems in Florida related to national issues? Like the foreclosure problem?

Yes they are present here, and even to a greater extent. Florida was hit worse than almost any other state because we are so dependent on housing and real estate and development and that’s what took the biggest baths. So we’ve got an enormous number of people who are underwater on their mortgages, and a great deal of anxiety about when this is going to end, and when we hit bottom.

What are some of the big political races in Florida?

Never in dozens and dozens of years have we had so many open races. What happened is Charlie Crist, once a very popular governor, decided to run for U.S. Senate and so suddenly it was a domino effect where now every single statewide office is an open race. Usually the governor’s race is kind of the marquee race, (and) that’s an open seat. In this case, the Republican primary between Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio is kind of overshadowing everything.

Do you still hear a lot from people who don’t live in Florida about the 2000 election and the court battle that ensued?

Yes. I mean I think that will forever be on peoples’ minds – the “Flor-DUH” and the recount and the screwed-up election. And they did it again in 2004, there were some significant problems in one House race. But lately our elections have really been going pretty smoothly.

What has the state been doing to deal with those election issues?

Well, we no longer have “chads” and not only did we move away from chads, but subsequently we moved away from paperless voting. There was some concern about a lack of a paper trail and can you trust these machines. So if there is a serious recount that’s required, you can go back and see an actual paper ballot.

Florida is generally seen as not only a swing state for presidential elections, but a bellwether state for American politics. Why is that?

Florida is the biggest swing state and the reason is because it’s really a microcosm of America. The population, whether it’s urban, rural, black, Hispanic, seniors – it really mirrors the country as a whole. And you have a lot of people who have moved from different regions of the country. You have a lot of corporations that will test their products in places like Tampa Bay because it’s such a microcosm for America. And that’s the politics too. Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania … Ohio is losing population, we’re still gaining population. Florida is very unpredictable and ever-changing. One Senator running for re-election has a million new voters to introduce themselves to. It’s a very complicated state.

To what degree do you find that the problems with the government are tied to anger toward government?

I think in Florida, again mirroring the rest of the country, there is a very much an anti-incumbent mood. It’s very tough. Yes there is some polling that indicates that swing voters and independent voters are moving away from the Democratic Party. I think it’s really that incumbents that seem to be in trouble. And in Florida, in particular there’s a lot of disenchantment with our leaders because we are a seriously struggling state financially and I think that’s the biggest explanation for why Charlie Crist seems to be in so much trouble suddenly.

What do you think is the most surprising thing about politics in Florida that you don’t think people would know anything about?

That’s a tough question. I think there’s a couple misconceptions. When people think about Florida they tend think about Miami – that’s sort of the sexiest city, that’s the biggest city that people are familiar with. In fact the politics in Florida really, and maybe it sounds parochial, but I think anybody who follows politics in Florida, the political heart is Tampa bay because that’s the biggest media market and it’s the mecca for swing voters. And the truism is you can’t win a statewide election in Florida unless you win Tampa Bay. That’s one of the misconceptions.

I think there’s a view that Florida is all elderly people. And really the voting electorate, if you look at exit polls … seniors mirror the rate nationally for the most part. Those are two of the misconceptions.

How does the geography of the state impact the issues or politics of the state?

Again it’s changing. Especially the growing number of non-Cuban Hispanics, which is really kind of a swing voter chunk of the electorate … about 14 percent, but more and more leaning Democratic. Generally speaking you have south Florida – Miami, Palm beach, Broward county -heavily populated areas, heavily Democratic. Then you’ve got north Florida, the panhandle, which in a lot of ways is the old south that heavily votes Republican. And then you’ve got central Florida stretching from Daytona, Orlando, Tampa, St. Petersburg and that’s what you call the I-4 corridor. That’s the battleground area.

And what’s changing now – a couple things, Cubans in Miami, a long time stronghold for Republicans, that’s becoming less and less so as older Cubans die out, younger ones are more open to Democrats.

Particularly in Orlando and Tampa area, non-Cuban Hispanics, especially Puerto Ricans, those are leaning more and more Democratic.

Which party does the state lean toward?

The state definitely leans Republican. Yes Obama won Florida, barely that time, but that was a cycle when he won North Carolina and Indiana. We are a swing state but we clearly lean Republican, our legislature is overwhelmingly Republican. One of the other significant political issues this year is a ballot initiative that would change how redistricting is done that will probably help Democrats. But the Republicans in this state have long had a far superior political machine apparatus for winning elections. The Democrats have gotten quite a bit better at it after all the money President Obama spent. I think you have to say there’s a Republican advantage, despite the fact that the Florida Republican Party is being rocked by a lot of scandal and in fact a criminal investigation.

How’s the mood in Florida toward President Obama? What are some of the things you hear that readers and citizens say?

I think it mirrors what you’re seeing nationally. We had a focus group of swing voters and undecided voters in the tail end of the last election, we brought them back in recently to talk about Obama, and there was a sense that they still like the guy and they have hopes for the guy, but they are very anxious about what he’s doing and what he’s not doing. There’s some polling to indicate that Floridians are more hostile to the health care overhaul than the rest of the country. We will see how that plays out. That may have something to do with seniors – who if you’re on Medicare, often times you think you have it pretty good and you’re not too interested in a big change. Generally, we mirror the national climate pretty well.

What do you like best about covering politics in Florida?

Because it’s truly unpredictable. And it’s always changing. It’s a colorful state. It’s a very vast state. You’ve got very rural areas, you’ve got very urban areas — you’ve got a little bit of everything — and you never know what’s going to happen in Florida.