Much of Florida is swampland covered by strip-malls – and in a similar attempt to impose order over chaos, Mitt Romney is blanketing the Sunshine State this weekend with negative advertisements bashing his chief rival Newt Gingrich.
Romney, the establishment candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, has money and organisation on his side. But in the wake of a strong South Carolina victory, the insurgent conservative candidate Newt Gingrich has momentum and plenty of grassroots Tea Party activists trying to upset the coronation of King Mitt.
Their chance comes on Tuesday when Florida Republicans hold their primary election – the traditional tie-breaker in the January gauntlet that began with Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. For Romney, the stakes could not be higher.
From the outset, Romney supporters have tried to portray his ascendancy as inevitable. But, confounding that narrative, he has only won one of the first three states: Rick Santorum was recently certified the 34-vote winner of Iowa after a recount which relegated Romney to second place; and although Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, won neighbouring New Hampshire, it was Gingrich who triumphed in conservative South Carolina.
Florida is important not just because it will put one of the candidates firmly ahead, but also because – as the fourth largest state in the nation – it has the diversity that makes it perhaps the best test of electability in the contest against Barack Obama in November. Whoever wins here can justly claim to have won a larger and more typical cross-section of America than the victors of any of the previous three.
It has a healthy representation of Hispanics, now the largest minority group in the United States. And it has a still-underwater economy, recovering slowly from the bursting of the housing bubble and nearly 10 per cent unemployment.Hispanic voters are neglected by Republican politicians at their peril, since their growing numbers across large swathes of the US mean that without their support the party faces a slow death by demographic shift. In Florida, they represent around 11 per cent of Republican voters – making them a crucial swing constituency for anyone seeking the party’s nomination.
Gingrich has won the support of some Hispanic groups by proclaiming his support for reforms to the immigration law which would allow some “undocumented” migrants a chance to work legally in the US.
Romney has denounced such proposals as “amnesty”, a dirty word among most of the Republican base. His campaign calculates that his message on the economy is what will really count – as this is by far the number one issue for Hispanics, as for everyone else in the US. The Sunshine State has been hit hard by the Great Recession.
Four years ago, only five per cent of the local population was unemployed. By August of 2010 that number had reached 12 per cent. Today it stands at 9.9 per cent – improved, but well over the national average of 8.5 per cent, and double the unemployment rates of Iowa and New Hampshire.
Moreover, the housing crisis is particularly in Florida: the average home has lost more than half its value over the past four years, leaving many owners underwater on their mortgage and producing some of the highest foreclosure rates in the nation.
This adds immeasurably to a sense of voter frustration, boarding on fatalism.
“It hurts,” said Joe Burkott, 66, told me at a rally for Romney in Cape Canaveral. “I lost $100,000 on my house. My daughter’s house is in foreclosure. I’ve got five kids in the area, and this is a hard time.”
He had travelled from nearby Rockledge, a town of 20,000 people, to weigh up the alternatives to the current president. But he added: “You can’t blame it all on Obama; I blame it on Congress.
“I don’t think we should have bailed out the banks. We should have bailed out the people. I’ve heard that if the government would have put the bailouts towards the people they could have given every family $250,000 each and we could have bailed ourselves out. I could have paid off all my bills and the debt on my house and car.”
When frustration is high, misinformation gains popular traction. Demagogues always do well in economic downturns. And in the intense last days of the Florida primary all the candidates are indulging in the kind of red meat rhetoric that fires up the base.
Newt Gingrich seems only to refer to the president as “Obama” – avoiding the honorific as part of the effort to cast the current occupant of the Oval Office as an un-American radical.
Mitt Romney’s stump speech invariably includes a riff on how “sometimes I wonder whether the president really understands America”. When he says it, the implication is more innocence than outrage, a seemingly sociological statement about how little the culture of Main Street America is understood by the first president raised off the mainland, in Hawaii.
But how it is heard, and intended, is decidedly different. The implication is that this is the first alien president, someone unfamiliar if not outright hostile to our town square traditions – all subtly echoed in the “Restore America” and “Save the Soul of America” rhetoric from Romney.
And it finds an eagerly accepting audience. “Obama doesn’t understand America,” Katheryn Sarka readily agreed after hearing Romney’s speech at Cape Canaveral. “Obama is against our Constitution and our Declaration of Independence.”
Yet for all Romney’s apparent confidence in focusing some of his fire on President Obama, there are deep fears in his campaign about what happens next. His relentless attack ads against Gingrich, which have earned Florida television companies a generous slice of the Romney campaign cash, show how nervous his team really is at the lukewarm backing he is receiving from many in the party.
Among his rivals from his failed 2008 Republican contest, only John McCain has endorsed him to date, a sign of lingering personal distaste for his transactional approach to politics.
And meanwhile the Florida polls have swung around erratically. Days before the South Carolina primary, Romney had a 25-point lead over Gingrich. Two days after Gingrich won that state, Romney was suddenly nine points behind.
This weekend, as Romney appeared to regain his lead in the polls after two aggressive debate performances, all the talk is of his campaign’s resurgence.
Rick Santorum and Ron Paul – despite strong debate performances and devoted supporters – are relegated to second-class status in coverage because of their distant poll numbers.
The narrative of momentum has taken on a life of its own, which is why the stakes are so high: not all primaries are created equal. If Gingrich pulls off a historic upset against Romney on Tuesday, his Florida win will knock the bottom out of the Romney candidacy’s rationale.
But if a few thousand Florida votes switch the other way, a very different narrative will be established – presenting Romney as the man on his way to becoming the inevitable nominee.
This cannot be the best way to pick a president of the United States. And yet this is the system we have, time-honoured, however flawed.
Traditionally, the candidate painted by conventional wisdom as front-runner always ultimately wins the Republican contest – and Mitt Romney is clearly cast in this role.
But there is a slight sliver of doubt this year, a shudder of distaste and dislike bordering on outright anger from the agitated conservative base, holding out the possibility that this time it might be different.