updated 7/16/2008 5:14:29 PM ET 2008-07-16T21:14:29

For a moment in history, a moment that lasted 36 days, Florida was the center of the political world, the state whose vote count would determine who would become president of the United States, the most evenly balanced political state in the nation. To students of political history this seemed astonishing. Sixty years before, Florida was the smallest Southern state, with just 5 congressional districts and 7 electoral votes, overwhelmingly Democratic. In 2000 it was the fourth-largest state in the nation, with 23 congressional districts and 25 electoral votes—and about to get 2 more from the 2000 Census. Only 12 years earlier, Florida had voted 61% for then-Vice President George Bush, who carried 66 of its 67 counties. Military-minded Southerners in the northern part of the state, affluent retirees on the Gulf Coast, middle-class conservatives in Tampa Bay and Orlando and around Disney World, Cubans in Miami and Dade County—all voted Republican, easily outnumbering the state’s scattered black communities and its Jewish voters concentrated in Broward and Palm Beach Counties on the Gold Coast. But by 2000 Florida had become a state with political divisions as deep and political preferences as starkly different as any in the nation. Broward and Palm Beach on the Gold Coast voted 65%-33% for Al Gore; Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa Counties, on the western end of the Panhandle around what is called, perhaps unkindly, the Redneck Riviera, voted 68%-30% for George W. Bush. During the 2004 presidential campaign the focus again was on Florida more than any other state, as Republicans and Democrats brought in their nominees and organized to register new voters and get them to vote by absentee ballot or on Election Day. This time Florida turned out not to be close: John Kerry got 23% more votes there than Al Gore, but George W. Bush got 36% more than he had four years before, and he carried the state 52%-47%. Florida was only 1% less Republican than New Jersey was Democratic, though New Jersey was on no one’s list of battleground states. Yet Florida was still closely enough divided—much more closely than the three larger states, that it remains crucial, for both parties. The story of how Florida became the pivot of American politics is a story of growth and change, and over the past 60 years Florida has grown more rapidly and changed more vividly than just about any other part of the United States.

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Florida has an exotic past. It is the only Atlantic Coast state that was not part of the colonial United States; through the exertions of John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, then political allies but later bitter political enemies, it was acquired from Spain in 1819. Starting off as a forgotten swamp and semitropical resort, Florida has emerged as almost an empire of its own, a prototype in many ways of America’s future, with an international flavor and sometimes almost with its own foreign policy. Pivotal has been the rise of air conditioning: in 1950 only 20% of Florida houses had it, in 2000, 95% did. For many years, Florida was the place which millions of retirees looked forward to: the sunny, year-round warmth after eternal gray skies over winter factories and dark offices. But in the 1980s and 1990s Florida’s population of children grew rapidly as young couples, from the South, from various points north and from Latin America, chose to raise their families and make their livings in a booming economy, with jobs and opportunities in communities that did not exist a generation ago. Some 17% of Florida’s population today is over 65, more than the national average of 12%, but not enormously so; and the state’s percentage of those under 18, is 22%, not much below the national average of 25%. For refugees from Cuba and Haiti and immigrants from all over the Caribbean and Latin America, Florida has been a land of freedom and security from authoritarian regimes and totalitarian police states. For Americans and foreigners of all kinds—some 80 million of them—Florida is the place to visit, with lively attractions, year-round swimming, restaurants and rooms to suit every taste and pocketbook. Yet all is not sunny: crime is down, but still a threat; the economic future is, as always, uncertain; the melting pot seems to work slowly and Florida’s Hispanic population seems often to live in a world apart.

Florida is a creation not of America’s elite—though a few millionaires like Henry Flagler and Marcus Plant pioneered tourism here—but a place for which ordinary people have voted with their feet. Before World War II it was the least populous state in the South, with 1.4 million people, isolated, disease-ridden, bigoted, with phosphate mines but no mineral resources, not much agriculture outside its citrus groves, and hardly any manufacturing at all. In 2006 Florida had 18 million people, within reach of New York’s 19 million. It is a state one-fifth of whose economy is based on tourism in a country where tourism is one of the great growth industries; a state with an economy based on services in a country increasingly service-oriented; the state with the largest proportion of elderly and retired citizens in a country where an increasing percentage will live many years in retirement; a state also with a growing number of school children in a country which, replenished by immigration, is growing faster and more robustly than any other advanced nation. It is a state continually replenished with people from out of state, two-thirds of them from the United States, one-third from foreign countries: in just the six years from 2000 to 2006, Florida had a domestic inflow of 8% and an immigrant inflow of 4% of its 2000 population.

Florida in recent years has had one of America’s most buoyant economies—it has gained jobs consistently over the last 10 years except during the three months after September 11—though its economic base often seems a mystery to outsiders. This is an economy based heavily on small business—98% of businesses have fewer than 100 employees and in the 1990s Florida ranked number one in small business starts—with a significant high-tech sector (fifth in the country) and retirees, who account for 52% of Florida’s consumer spending and pay 47% of its property taxes (though some of this may be in jeopardy, as retirees head to other states). Florida’s economy is also based on international merchandise trade, which increased from $24 billion in 1987 to $81 billion in 2004; while foreign investment increased from $9.5 billion to $34.3 billion in 2002. Miami for three decades has been the economic and commercial capital of Latin America, as well as its mecca for political exiles. You can fly nonstop from Miami to just about any place in Latin America, both English and Spanish are commonly understood, and it has been the one place where many Latins could be sure their money and their persons were safe from government takeover. Recent ructions in their countries have brought thousands of Argentinians, Venezuelans, Bolivians and Ecuadorans, some very affluent and some struggling, to south Florida; Puerto Ricans and other Latinos have also been moving into central Florida, and Cubans now account for less than half of Florida’s Hispanics. And other immigrants have come in as well, especially to the Gold Coast: Russians, Arabs, Haitians, Jamaicans and others from the Caribbean.

What may be fragile in Florida is civil society; Florida can be disorderly and chaotic. Most people here do not have deep roots in the state, most communities sprang into existence within living memory and, if Florida gives people more freedom and options than they may ever have imagined, it has also given them more disruption and crime than they surely anticipated. Many of Florida’s great fortunes were made elsewhere, and brought here partly because the state has no income or inheritance taxes.

This new Florida, like today’s America, has no real center. Its largest urban focus, Miami, is geographically off to one corner and culturally uniquely Cuban, with its eyes increasingly on Latin America and its local politics subject to ridicule. The rest of the Gold Coast, Broward and Palm Beach Counties, with 3 million people (one-sixth of Florida’s population), is also atypical, with a population drawn heavily from New York (the largest migration between any two states is from New York to Florida) and other Northeastern metro areas, plus non-Latino migrants from Miami-Dade, large numbers of Jews and huge retiree condos lining the ocean front. Then there is Central Florida, the I-4 corridor from Tampa-St. Petersburg through citrus and tourist country and Orlando. This is mostly family, not retiree, country, living off high-tech industries as well as tourism: A year-round rather than seasonal megalopolis of 4.8 million people. Most newcomers here are from the United States, not from abroad. There is also the Gulf Coast, the affluent and burgeoning communities south of Tampa Bay and the more modest retirement counties to the north. Growing even more rapidly is the area along the hard-sand-beach Atlantic Coast between Jacksonville and Daytona Beach. Very Southern culturally is the western Panhandle, the Redneck Riviera around Pensacola and Panama City.

Politically, this all adds up to a Florida that is closely divided between the parties and politically volatile. The trend in state politics since the 1990s has been toward the Republicans, who captured the state House in 1994, the state Senate in 1996, and the governorship in 1998 and now hold all the statewide offices and have big majorities in the legislature—26–14 in the Senate, 79–41 in the House. Similarly, Republicans have established an 16–9 margin in the U.S. House delegation. They have been helped by term limits and by shrewdly adapting to local terrain. Redistricting, which Republicans influenced in 1992 and controlled in 2002, helped: heavily black and Jewish areas are concentrated in a few districts, to the point that nearly two-thirds of Democrats holding legislative and House seats are black or Jewish.

The trend in national politics in the 1990s was toward the Democrats. Bill Clinton lost the state by only 41%-39% in 1992 and carried it 48%-42% in 1996. Al Gore actually had a higher percentage when he lost the state by the excruciating margin of 48.85%-48.84%. Most of the change was due to movement toward Democrats on the Gold Coast and in the I-4 corridor from Tampa-St. Petersburg to Orlando. Drops in crime and welfare rolls deprived Republicans of issues in these metro areas as they did in the big metro areas of the Northeast, industrial Midwest and West Coast, and after 1995 the tax issue was taken off the table; cultural issues like abortion and gun control favored Democrats. Also, the increasing Jewish population in Broward and Palm Beach Counties moved the Gold Coast toward Democrats; Joe Lieberman campaigned there and drew enthusiastic crowds in 2000. In the I-4 corridor, what had been a big Republican margin for Bush in 1988 was transformed to a Clinton margin in 1996 and a standoff in 2000. The biggest drop in the Republican percentage in any county in Florida between 1988 and 2000 was in Osceola County, which contains part of Disney World and the Disney-sponsored “new town” of Celebration. In the 1980s, Disney World was still an epitome of traditional conservative values; by 2000, Disney was hosting Gay Day.

The closeness of Florida’s political divisions was shown not only in the 2000 presidential race but in the two races for open Senate seats. In 2000, when Republican Connie Mack retired, Insurance Commissioner and former Democratic Congressman Bill Nelson beat Republican Congressman Bill McCollum 51%-46%. In 2004, when Democrat Bob Graham retired, Republican former HUD Secretary and Orange County Commission Chairman Mel Martinez beat former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor 49%-48%. Both winners made inroads in the other party’s strongholds. Nelson, with his Florida roots and accent, lost the part of the state outside the Gold Coast and the I-4 corridor by only 52%-46%. Martinez, who was born in Cuba, ran ahead of George W. Bush among Miami-Dade’s Cubans and lost the Gold Coast by only 57%-41%. The open race for governor in 2006 was also reasonably close. Republican Attorney General Charlie Crist beat Democratic Congressman Jim Davis 52%-45%. Crist lost the Gold Coast 59%-40% but won the I-4 corridor 54%-43% and won 59%-38% in the rest of the state.

A pivotal role in Florida politics—and government—has been played by Jeb Bush. In 1994 he challenged incumbent Governor Lawton Chiles and, after Democrats targeted elderly voters with a last minute claim that Bush would (somehow) cut Social Security, he lost 51%-49%. If he had won it might have been the Florida rather than the Texas Bush as the Republican nominee in 2000, with who knows what consequences for history. In 1998 Jeb Bush won 55%-45% and, with the help of a heavily Republican legislature, proceeded to make a record that made him arguably the best governor of his time. Over the opposition of the teachers’ unions, he improved the rigor and accountability of the schools and provided alternatives for those in schools that kept failing; he resolutely and continuously cut taxes; he overturned, to great protest, racial quotas and preferences; he involved local governments and the private sector in accommodating growth with enhanced infrastructure and limits on the exploitation of groundwater and swampy land; he prepared meticulously for the natural disasters which are part of Florida’s natural heritage. He achieved overwhelming approval for his response to hurricanes and, if his brother’s FEMA was unprepared for Hurricane Katrina, it may have been because it was used to dealing with hurricanes in which the response was handled by Jeb Bush and competent state and local Florida public servants. After the controversy over Florida’s electoral votes in 2000, Democrats targeted Jeb Bush for defeat, although he had no role in counting the votes; in fall 2002, DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe said that the Florida governor’s race was the national party’s number one priority. But Bush was reelected by a 56%-43% margin, and at the same time, Republican Charlie Crist was elected attorney general, replacing the last Democrat holding a non-federal statewide office, and Republican margins in the U.S. House delegation and the state Senate and House were increased. Then came the 2004 presidential election, in which Florida was supposed to be close, yet was carried by George W. Bush by a 52%-47% margin—380,000 votes in this large state.

In 2006 Jeb Bush was obliged by term limits to retire as governor and Florida politics, in a year that turned out to be good for Democrats, was up for grabs. The Republican nominee for governor was Attorney General Charlie Crist, known as tough on law enforcement but as less conservative on other issues than Jeb Bush. The Democratic nominee, the winner by only 47%-41% in the primary, was Tampa Congressman Jim Davis, also from the I-4 corridor. The Senate race was a contest between incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Katherine Harris, the secretary of state who did play a pivotal role in the Florida 2000 controversy, and who won the Republican primary with 49% of the vote; if Republicans had not, for political reasons of their own, abolished the state’s runoff law, she might have been replaced by a stronger candidate. Nelson won as expected, by a 60%-38% margin, and Democrats had downballot successes, picking up 6 seats in the state House and having their nominee Alex Sink, wife of the 2002 gubernatorial nominee, win the statewide office of chief financial officer. But Crist was elected governor by a 52%-45% margin over Davis, carrying 59 of the 67 counties—losing only the three Gold Coast counties, four counties in and around the state capital of Tallahassee and the county containing the University of Florida. Democrats gained two congressional seats—one where the Republican incumbent, Mark Foley, had been disgraced and resigned; the other a Gold Coast oceanfront seat which John Kerry had carried in 2004. Crist in his first months as governor charted a somewhat different course from the rigorously conservative Jeb Bush. But Florida’s basic affinity for the Republican party seemed, on balance, intact—in what is on course to be in just a couple of years the nation’s third largest state.

Two more things are worth noting about Florida politics. The first is that politics here is not driven by an elderly population terrified of losing government benefits. To be sure, the elderly are a larger percentage of the electorate here than in any other state, 19% in 2004, but the difference is not overwhelming; most new residents come here to work, not to retire. Florida has the five congressional districts with the most Social Security recipients in the nation; Republican congressmen with elderly districts who have supported changes in the Social Security system have been reelected in all but one case by wide margins. In 2000 and 2004 George W. Bush called for personal retirement accounts in Social Security and according to exit polls carried the over 65 vote in Florida by a 52%-46% and 51%-48%. The elderly tend to vote in line with long-established partisan preferences, not in panicky response to the latest campaign ad on Social Security.

The second point is that the environment is an increasingly important issue in Florida, but one that may not cut in a partisan way. People come to Florida partly because of the kind of place it is; migrants from New York or Illinois may not have cared much about environmental issues when they lived there, but they came to Florida in large part because of the climate and setting, and don’t want to see oil drilled on the Gulf Coast or the Everglades paved over. This is a change from history. The Everglades were seen as a nuisance for years. In 1845, when Florida was admitted to the Union, the legislature called for “reclaiming” the Everglades, and in 1850 Congress passed the Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act. The Army Corps of Engineers started building a dike across Lake Okeechobee in 1930 and for nearly 50 years worked to straighten the Kissimmee River and build dikes and channels to reclaim land for farming. But with the 1947 publication of The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who died in 1998 at 108, Floridians began to appreciate the Everglades, which is essentially a flow of water south, from the Kissimmee River near Disney World, through Lake Okeechobee down to Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Governor Jeb Bush worked with national politicians of both parties on a gigantic, multiyear project to reverse the projects of the past and restore the Everglades.

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