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January 24, 2012

Florida Heads off in All Directions – followed by America? Lincoln Allison looks forward to the Florida Republican Primary

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison - Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick - shares his thoughts on what is happening in Florida.

A simple mistake, but with hilarious consequences – to use a favourite family expression. I agreed to meet my wife "at the entrance to Macy's" in the enormous Dolphin shopping mall west of Miami. I meant the entrance through which we had entered; she didn't. My mobile phone had no network coverage. So I paced up and down for an hour while she frantically patrolled the other five entrances having forgotten (apparently) the way to mine. Eventually, a fairly hard-looking security man called Bruno approached me and set about the re-unification of man and wife. When I was blamed for the mistake he looked at my wife and said (jovially), "Yeh, I got one of these at home". Sexism or male solidarity?: construe it as you will!

If it was irritating at the time to be stuck outside Macy's I was grateful afterwards for the forced opportunity to observe people. Neither inside nor outside did I hear a single word of English spoken until Bruno approached me. This was not very surprising because the mall is just west of La Pequena Habana, though these days people of Cuban extraction are almost a minority and there are strong elements of Little Managua and Little Caracas. But all of these people would be classified in American politics and bureaucracy as Hispanic and, standing and watching, it is pretty obvious that this is one of those terms - like Slav and Celt - which was a linguistic term stretched and abused into an "ethnic" meaning. Some Hispanics look like Afro-Americans, some like Native Americans and some like Europeans. Since my looks are well within the broad Hispanic range nobody addressed a remark to me or tried to sell me anything in any language other than Spanish until Bruno showed up.

All of this is a reminder that the USA is not just diverse, but diversifying and I make no apologies for mentioning again Joel Garreau's 1981 book The Nine Nations of North America because it marks the first sustained realisation that America was not the powerful homogenising machine it had been taken for, but that globalisation and unprecedented levels of geographical mobility were actually pulling the USA and Canada apart. In fact, Garreau has Florida, like California, as containing a "national" boundary within it: the southern part of the state, Miami, the Keys and the Everglades are, along with the Bahamas and Puerto Rico, part of "The Islands", while the northern two thirds belongs in "Dixie".

The implications of all this for the tactics and prospects of the 2012 elections are fascinating and complex. Florida is (demographically) the third largest state in the Union. It is also highly marginal: many people will remember how the punch cards, chads and recounts in Florida decided the 2000 election, but the 2010 gubernatorial election was close enough, the Republican Rick Scott winning by a single percentage point. (Incidentally, my wife is convinced that it was the governor himself who greeted us warmly outside the Naples Community Church on Sunday morning - and it turns out that he is a founding member of that church.)

One can easily construct an argument which suggests a Republican victory in Florida in 2012. As with many other states the number of people describing themselves as "conservative" is rising and it can be safely assumed that they will nearly all vote Republican (though possibly most of them would have done so before they described themselves as such). If it really is the economy (stupid) it isn't going well, though news of the international financial crisis does assure Americans that there are lots of economies in worse shape than theirs.

Florideans are serious whingers, though, and the current figure of 83% of them who think that the USA is "heading in the wrong direction" is a record in time and space. (I know it is a very curious concept that a vast country – supposedly full of individuals - is going somewhere, but I think it can only be understood by remembering that the USA is a contested project as well as a real country.)

The Tea Party is strong in Florida, maybe even stronger than anywhere else. The major ethnic minority is unusually sympathetic to the Republican cause because of the Cuban situation. And all of this seems to suggest life may be very difficult for a Democratic incumbent.

On the other hand, put yourself in the position of an orthodox, conservative Republican in contemporary Florida. Say you want to crack down on immigration and you risk alienating millions who want their relatives to be able to come and go. So you have to go round saying that you oppose illegal immigration (who doesn't?) but welcome legal immigrants - and in large numbers. The slightest hint of racism in your attitude to this question will work in President Obama's favour.

Say you want to reduce Medicare and other age-related forms of social security and you risk alienating the vast retired population of the state, but if you don't say that you can hardly be considered serious on the subject of reducing public expenditure. The standard move on this question is to introduce some kind of means testing, but I know what my view would be if it were suggested that my recently acquired old age pension should be abolished while those who had been less effective in preparing for old age could keep theirs. Homo Floridiensis seems to be hyper-typical of democratic behaviour in wanting to reduce public expenditure in general without reducing expenditure on anything in particular.

On the other hand, you don't need to say too much about the problems of the global economy. The posh, WASPish, university-based radio station to which we listened when crossing the swamps was indefinitely concerned with global issues including the Greek and Italian economies and the fate of the Euro, but the Miami press – in both languages – ignored these issues. Foreign news down there means Latin America. Nowhere in the USA does one feel more in “Las Americas” than in Miami.

Let us assume that the Republican Party can come up with a decent candidate in next year's election. This is a tenuous assumption for those who watched November's pre-primary debate, which looked a lot like Dumb and Dumber, suggesting that there are talented Republicans who have made their judgement call and are hanging on for 2015 when there will be no incumbent and the Democrats might implode. But let's suppose a silver tongued squarer of circles who can appeal to both conservatives and a broader audience.

The economic discontents and the broader malaise suggest voters will be initially sympathetic, but he or she will have to contend with a Democratic Party re-invigorated by the prospect of the Tea Party. It was noticeable in the November 2011 elections across the country that, whereas Republican candidates more or less held their own, "conservative" ballot propositions - on "same day" voting registration, on "personhood" and on union rights, for instance - came crashing to earth.

But the key to what will happen in 2012 is surely the realisation that the most important schism is no longer region, class or ethnicity, but generation. Most "seniors" have done well out of the economic system, but most "millennials", meaning people who have come to voting age since 2000, are facing declining standards of living and severe economic insecurity. The two groups differ even in their conception of American identity: over 90% of seniors are "white" whereas fewer than 60% of millennials are and a quarter of those who are married are married to someone classified as being of a different race. Conservatism does not play well with them. So, the deciding factor in the 2012 election, if it's close, may be generational turnout; we know the seniors will turn out fairly diligently and Obama's fate may depend on whether the juniors do.

Florida has brought the date of its primary forward to January 31. This is much to the annoyance of some elements in the Republican Party interested in a late-entry candidate and also to many other states who have brought theirs forward, fearing they will be trivialised if they are post-Florida. Thus the best spectator politics on the planet has kicked off rather early in 2012.


Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is My Father's Bookcase: A Version of the History of Ideas, also available as a Kindle download from amazon.co.uk and from amazon.com.


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