15 August 2012
For a political junkie, moving from Sydney to Florida in the middle of a presidential election season is a head-spinner. An American living in Oz, I followed the most riveting Republican primary season in years from the other side of the globe, staying up until the wee hours to catch breaking news (it was 2 a.m. in New South Wales when Rick Perry surprised everyone by dropping out and endorsing Newt Gingrich). I livestreamed some twenty debates and tried to explain the byzantine delegate system to Aussie friends who had never heard of the electoral college.
(Though to be fair, plenty of Americans have no idea what it is, either.)
As the general election heats up, I’ve moved from the periphery to the center. And I mean the center - there is no place in America more vital to the election than the state of Florida. It’s the swingingest of swing states, the most embattled of battlegrounds. It’s where, in 2000, ‘hanging chads’ and ‘butterfly ballots’ entered the national lexicon. It’s where that election was decided by a few hundred votes - or just one, if you count the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Bush v. Gore, which ultimately determined the winner of that year’s presidential race. At the moment, it’s the purest tossup on the electoral map.
A candidate can win the election without winning Florida, but none has in the past twenty years. It’s a must-win for Mitt Romney, which is why both sides are flooding the state with money, ads, and time on the ground.
I arrived in Miami on Saturday, the day Romney announced Tea Party darling Paul Ryan as his running mate. Forty-eight hours later, Romney turned up in Miami as well. Sans Ryan.
No one expects running mates to be joined at the hip for the duration of the campaign. But just two days after the ticket was announced, Ryan was in Iowa and Romney in Florida.
There’s a reason, and it has to do with Florida’s two most influential voting blocs: seniors and Hispanics. Paul Ryan’s central message of entitlement reform could either be a boon to the Republican ticket or a fatal liability. Medicare (government healthcare for the elderly) and Social Security are the third rail of American politics, because seniors – a critical voting group – reject any change to the programs. Ideological differences don’t matter. Even conservative seniors feel entitled to these programs (which led to the bizarre Tea Party rally cry “Keep your government hands off my Medicare”).
The Ryan plan essentially privatizes Medicare for everyone under 55. It guts one of the major social programs of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, turning comprehensive healthcare coverage for the elderly into a voucher program. This does not play well with seniors. And thanks to year-round warm weather, Florida is home to a disproportionate number of senior voters.
Romney wants voters to cheer Ryan as a serious reformer, a fiscal conservative who will make tough choices to get America back on track. But that’s an uphill battle. Buzzfeed compiled the front pages of Florida newspapers from the past few days, and the picture isn’t pretty. “Ryan Could Hurt Romney in Florida,” warned the front page of the Miami Herald. “Medicare Revamp Draws Immediate Fire,” noted Florida Today.
Mitt Romney knows he has to work hard to combat this impression. That was evident when he introduced Ryan in Virginia on Saturday. “Unlike the current president who has cut Medicare funding by $700 billion,” he said, “we will preserve and protect Medicare and Social Security.” Will seniors in Florida buy that message? The Romney camp is gambling that they will.
Hispanics were also weighing on Romney’s mind as he made his way through the Sunshine State Monday. In the evening he held a rally at El Palacio de los Jugos, a popular Cuban restaurant in Miami’s Coral Terrace neighborhood. (GOP candidates usually stop by the Versailles Restaurant to court the conservative Cuban vote in Miami. El Palacio, though popular, is owned by a convicted cocaine dealer, which is not the sort of sideshow the Romney campaign needs at the moment.) Much of the signage was in Spanish, including a massive banner reading Juntos con Romney (“Together with Romney”), the name of the nominee’s Hispanic Steering Committee.
Ryan’s absence seemed calculated here as well. Many Hispanics had hoped Romney would pick Florida Senator (and Cuban-American) Marco Rubio for the number-two slot. Rubio joined Romney at the rally to show his continued support for the ticket. It was better not to have Ryan there to remind attendees that Romney instead opted for a young white Midwesterner.
Paul Ryan raises other touchy subjects for the Cuban community here. The Wisconsin congressman has in the past opposed the American embargo of Cuba. While support for the embargo is not as strong in the Cuban community as it used to be – only around 50% of Cuban-Americans support the embargo, compared to 87% in 1991 – the Romney camp is clearly wary of the issue. During his visit Monday, Romney affirmed Ryan now backs the embargo.
That the campaign spent the day doing damage control in a must-win state does not bode well for the Romney-Ryan ticket. But Romney seems to have decided Ryan is worth the risk, bringing to the ticket the enthusiasm and vision Romney himself has been unable to inspire. Whether that’s enough to overcome doubts among voters here in Florida is yet to be seen.
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