800,000 Cubans, 3 million old people, and my girlfriend's dad—the keys to victory in the Sunshine State.
In the time I spend with Lopez (at END and in his van driving around Orlando), I get a sense that—at least for him—the election this fall is less about the outcome than about Puerto Rican power. I ask him which issues are important to Puerto Ricans (expecting to hear about health care and education), and Lopez responds by demanding more Puerto Rican judges, better committee roles for Hispanic congresspeople, and a Puerto Rican astronaut at NASA. He complains that "African-Americans got all the glory at the convention." Finally, he claims—with the self-importance of local power brokers everywhere—that whichever candidate confirms first to speak at his Empowerment Summit (neither has done so yet) will be guaranteed a win in the I-4 corridor and thus will win the state.
Advantage: ProbablyKerry. Puerto Ricans tend to be pretty Democratic, though they're also a "volatile" bloc, according to a Florida politics expert I spoke with: To some extent they will (as Lopez's comments suggest) favor the candidate who courts them most assiduously. Here's where Gov. Jeb Bush is a tremendous asset. His wife is Hispanic, he converted to Catholicism, and he knows the community well and speaks fluent Spanish. If Kerry ignores the Puerto Rican vote, Jeb just might steal it away for his brother.
3. Old People. The senior citizens are getting pretty hot under their floppy, cabana-shirt collars. They hate Bush's new prescription drug plan and would rather get cheap drugs from Canada and Mexico. There's outrage that AARP, in league with insurance companies, sold them out.
Advantage: A tiny bitKerry. Older, pension-dependent seniors (for whom the drug plan is most important) trend pretty Democratic, anyway. The younger retirees—who are more 401(k)-dependent—will vote their pocketbooks.
4. Naderites. Nader will play less of a role this time. Why? Consider this series of events: I call the Nader campaign in D.C. … and I get a busy signal. I call again … and again get a busy signal. I assume at this point they're checking e-mail on a dial-up. When I finally get through and ask to reach their Florida campaign headquarters, I'm told, "There isn't any Florida campaign headquarters. But you can talk to this lady." I'm given this lady's name and number. When I call this lady, she says she's in Connecticut and knows nothing whatsoever about Florida.
Advantage:Kerry. I doubt the Nader campaign becomes a big factor here because there is no Nader campaign here.
5. My Girlfriend's Dad. My girlfriend's dad—a retiree on the Gulf Coast and a wonderful guy, I might add—voted for Bush last time. But this time, outraged by Bush foreign policy, he'll be pulling the lever for Kerry. You hear a lot in the media about this type of voter. And with good reason. If there are indeed millions of Bush-2000-but-Kerry-2004 people out there, it spells doom for Bush. The CW is that while many will make this Bush-to-Kerry switch, almost no one who voted for Gore will now flip to Bush.
Not so fast! So says Susan MacManus, poli-sci professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa (and an oft-quoted commentator on Florida politics). MacManus predicts that for every Florida voter like my girlfriend's dad, there's an equal and opposite voter who will switch from Gore 2000 to Bush 2004. The people she has in mind are moderate Dems who think that Bush is better at fighting terrorists. Indeed, a friend of mine—who's been campaigning for a Democratic congressional candidate in Sarasota—says he's come across at least a few folks who fit MacManus' model. (Anecdotally, I've also heard of another type of left-to-right switching voter: rabidly pro-Israel Jews, drawn to Lieberman in 2000 but swayed this time by their approval of the war in Iraq and of Bush's pro-Sharon policies.)
Advantage: I have to think a little bit Kerry. I see MacManus' point, but my eyes are telling me she's overstating her case. Yes, there will be switchers in both directions, but I can't believe they will balance each other out.
6. The Voting Machines. "This election is not about issues or candidates. It's about the machines." So says Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, chair of the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition. She predicts that Florida will be decided by a mixture of error and fraud.
First of all, she says, many voters—especially African-Americans—have so little faith in their vote being counted that they may not even vote at all. Activist groups (and people like Michael Moore) say they'll be on hand in Florida on Election Day to make sure nothing funky goes down. They're wasting their time, says Rodriguez-Taseff. On the surface, this election will run quite smoothly. The chaos will all be happening behind the scenes. For instance:
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.