Politics & Policy

How McCain Carried Florida

He didn't appeal only to Miami moderates.

When you look at the electoral map of Florida, something very interesting emerges. As expected, John McCain did well in southeast Florida, which is more heavily populated by moderate Republicans. But he also did well in the Tampa Bay area, north central Florida, and Pensacola. How did he do so well in so many places?

First, the endorsements of Governor Charlie Crist and Senator Mel Martinez were clearly important. They are well known and respected Republicans who are generally popular with Florida conservatives — and who seem to have helped nudge those sitting on the fence between McCain and Romney. McCain won by a sizeable margin in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area—Crist’s power base. And Martinez seems to have helped secure a big McCain win in Orlando—his backyard—as well as among Florida’s Cuban and Latino communities.

As was expected, McCain did well among veterans, who helped him to win handily in the panhandle counties around Pensacola, despite the region’s high concentration of evangelical voters.

Some 44 percent of Floridians are over the age of 60 — and they voted for John McCain by a wide margin. What Chuck Norris tried to make a negative may very well have been a positive for the Arizona senator.

Another factor was electability. I base this mostly on anecdotal evidence. Florida conservatives that I know and talk to were looking over their shoulders when they voted. Who can best beat Hillary? Romney is an impressive man, but many conservatives I spoke with felt that he was a bit too stiff and lacks the ability to connect with voters.

Remember, Florida is a generally laid-back state. This is more than just psychobabble. As the successes of Clinton and George W. Bush demonstrate, voters want a president they can see themselves sitting down and having a beer with. Ronald Reagan loved horses and ate macaroni-and-cheese. Voters want someone with uncommon abilities and common sensibilities. To Floridians, Romney seemed too much the elitist. It may be an unfair image, but it’s one firmly planted in the minds of voters.

Several of my politically active friends, who were generally undecided in the days before the election, expressed doubts about the depth of Romney’s conservatism. Whatever a candidate might say on the stump, conservative voters want to see a consistent track record. George W. Bush told Floridians he was a “fiscal conservative” back in 2000, and it may be that they were reluctant to have their hearts broken again.

The final factor, which has been overlooked so far in the news coverage, is that McCain campaigned much more as a conservative down here than he did in Iowa, New Hampshire, or even South Carolina. He emphasized the war on terror, of course, but also his fiscal conservative record. “We’ve got to make the tax cuts permanent” became a familiar refrain in the senator’s stump speech. He opposed the ridiculous idea advanced by Crist for a federal disaster relief fund — that would put all American taxpayers on the hook for hurricane damages affecting those of us who choose to live down here — despite Crist’s endorsement of him.

It seemed like a throw-back to the McCain of more than ten years ago, before McCain-Feingold, global warming, opposition to the Bush tax cuts, criticism of religious conservatives — you know the litany. I was surprised when I looked up McCain’s lifetime American Conservative Union rating and discovered it was an 83, just slightly lower than Newt’s. So it’s hard to say whether conservatives have moved toward McCain, or McCain has moved toward conservatives. But one thing is certain, he needed conservatives to win in Florida.

– Peter Schweizer is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of Do As I Say (Not As I Do): Profiles in Liberal Hypocrisy, now in paperback.


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