Florida is a land of opportunity, a microwaved megastate. This has been a place, historically, where great fortunes could be won and lost, where huge pink hotels rise suddenly on barrier islands and instant cities appear amid the palmettos. Hustlers have loved this place, as have smugglers and pirates, and presidential candidates can do very well here.
Swing states don’t get any bigger than this. The state’s 29 electoral votes could prove decisive in the November general election. But events in recent days, as Republican candidates have bounced around the state and bopped each other with attack ads, have demonstrated the challenges of campaigning in Florida.
It’s hard for candidates to break through to an electorate that’s not always engaged. The campaign becomes a battle of the broad brushstroke, of blunt words and TV sound bites. Politics here can be as shallow as the Everglades.
Mitt Romney is up in the latest polls, but Newt Gingrich seemed to be winning just a few days ago. As Tuesday’s Republican primary vote nears, the situation has been fluid. That will likely remain true in the runup to the general election, with Florida hanging like a juicy mango on everyone’s electoral map.
This is a state full of what political science professor Susan MacManus of the University of South Florida calls “casual voters.” Many people are immigrants from countries that don’t have clearly defined political parties, and they’re swing voters by nature. Many people are lightly engaged in the process, because they have other things on their minds. This past week, the temperatures across the state were in the 70s. Sailing weather. Tee time.
A diverse state
There are many Floridas, scrambled together. If you don’t like one, drive 30 miles and you’ll be in another. You can get cultural whiplash driving down roads that are ruler-straight, lacerating the swamp and scrub.
Half an hour from Sarasota, you’ll be in cowboy country. Here comes a character wandering up to the mini-market in Myakka City. He’s a little rough around the edges, with long hair in braids. It’s Tom Harmon, 61, an airboat operator at a state park. Who does he like in the presidential race?
“I don’t give a [hoot],” he says. “Who can you trust?”
Put him down as “independent.”
Everything and everyone here is on the move, including the ground. This is why, as you’re driving, you might see a billboard for a law firm with the Web site “Sinkhole.com.” Florida is geologically new, built on a limestone platform that was once the bottom of a shallow sea. The porous ground can swallow a car or the corner of a house. Hence the sinkhole lawyers.