Can Kerry swipe Florida from the Bush brothers?

A guide to the swing states.
Aug. 17 2004 3:00 PM

Florida

800,000 Cubans, 3 million old people, and my girlfriend's dad—the keys to victory in the Sunshine State.

The problem with Florida this time is that it was so crazy-close last time: 537 votes—you may recall hearing something about it. Now Cubans, retirees, gays, veterans, albinos, agoraphobics, Zoroastrians—every group thinks it can swing the state. And so every group demands to be heard. It's a tough burden for the campaigns: Do you know the kind of resources it takes to get out the agoraphobic vote? That said, not all the groups matter the same. Here are the 2004 Florida keys to victory:

Cuban-American community leader Joe Garcia
Cuban-American community leader Joe Garcia  
Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

1. Cubans.  Last time around, Bush took 82 percent of the Cuban vote here. That is an astonishing figure—it's better than he did in Crawford, Texas. Will he do it again? To find out, I go to lunch with Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation.

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Garcia takes me to the famed Versailles restaurant in the heart of Miami's Little Havana. Our meal gets interrupted again and again as Cuban dudes stops by to chat. Garcia—gracious community bigwig that he is—shakes some hands, drops some gossip, and compliments one guy's (bright yellow) guayabera shirt. "A girl bought that for you, right? You like it, but a girl bought it for you."

During breaks in this networking—and between bites of fried chicken—Garcia explains Bush's 2000 dominance. One word: Elián. Clinton had done relatively well with Cuban voters in '96 (he got 38 percent). But Elián flat-out killed Gore. The saga was "an almost Jungian moment" for Cuban-Americans, says Garcia. "We all thought, there but for the grace of God...." Because Cubans who made it out (and even those who were born in the United States) feel in some ways they are Elián—blessed to have somehow escaped from the Castro regime. Watching as the little boy was forced (at gunpoint, no less) to return to Cuba ... well, it was agonizing. They blamed Clinton. And Gore paid the price.

But there's no Elián this time, and that alone will swing some votes back to Kerry. Perhaps more important, there's a growing split among Cuban voters that trends in Democrats' favor (as Ann Louise Bardach explained in this recent article). The older Cuban exiles are die-hard Republicans—obsessed, as ever, with crushing Castro. Newer arrivals from the island (who often left family behind) and American-born Cubans, however, still favor the embargo but are ready to try a slightly softer approach.

They're furious over new regulations (backed by Bush) that restricted visits to relatives back in Cuba and make it harder to send them money. To the new-school Cubans, this seems pointlessly harsh. "Sending $300 to your grandma in Cuba doesn't change the dynamic with Castro," says Garcia. "It's bad politics and bad policy." He says CANF advised against these rules, but the Bushies thought they knew better. "They were throwing raw meat to the right-wing base," he says, "but it turned out they energized the wrong side."

Advantage: Kerry. Bush will certainly win the Cuban vote here, by a wide margin—but not nearly as wide as in 2000. And in a race like this, every vote blah, blah, blah. (I can't bring myself to say it. I'll let Garcia run the numbers for you: "If one-half of 1 percent of the Cuban community had stayed home in 2000—not voted for Gore, but just stayed home—we'd be talking about Gore's re-election right now.")

2. Puerto Ricans. Forget the Cubans, some people say. When it comes to Hispanic votes this year, it's all about Puerto Ricans. Their numbers in Florida are ballooning, and (unlike with Cubans) they're all U.S. citizens, thus eligible to vote.

So come with me now to Orlando. We're at the offices of El Nuevo Dia—the city's daily Puerto Rican newspaper. END launched here last year to serve the exploding Puerto Rican population. All along the I-4 corridor (the highway that runs east-west through Orlando and Tampa *), Puerto Ricans have arrived in droves to work in the tourism industry.

Puerto Rican-American community leader Samuel Lopez
Puerto Rican-American community leader Samuel Lopez

With growing numbers, of course, comes growing political power. Samuel Lopez—maybe more than anyone else—is the man who will wield that power. Lopez heads the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and also leads a group called United Third Bridge (described as the "NAACP for Puerto Ricans"). He's here today at END to hype his upcoming "Empowerment Summit." It's in Orlando in September (timed for effect on the election), and Lopez wants heavy promotion in the paper.

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