It’s been more than 15 years since the late Tim Russert famously held up a dry erase board with his list of important things political observers should follow to understand the 2000 election. The NBC pundit presciently suggested the entire election would come down to one state. “Florida, Florida, Florida.” As much as a world can change, so too can it remain the same. With one of the most captivating primary seasons in modern history underway, the state asserts its importance again, with more prominent candidates than ever listing Florida as their home state. Amazingly, a debate weeks before the Iowa caucuses allowed seven Republican candidates on stage, and four—Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson and Donald Trump—all live in Florida full- or part-time.
THE VOTERS IN THE SUNSHINE STATE get their moment in the spotlight now. Florida’s presidential primary, scheduled March 15, may not get the lengthy press attention awarded to early states like Iowa and New Hampshire, but with a crowded Republican field lush with Sunshine Staters, many expect the Republican contest to reach fever pitch this month. Florida has grown to be the third most populous state in America, and it’s the largest with a winner-takes-all primary. “Florida is the most important state voting that day,” says Joe Gruters, chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota. “But because it is diverse, it is also important for the general election. My guess is this will be the deciding factor in this election. This will be when we decide a candidate, and to be the nominee, you have to do right in Florida.”
Update: The March 15 primary may not have decided the election, but it did have a dramatic impact. With more than 99 percent of precincts reporting in Florida, Trump won 45.78 percent of the vote ( 1,071,590 votes) to Rubio’s 26.99 percent ( 631,929 votes). Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won 17.13 percent (400,923 votes) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich took 6.77 percent (158,485 votes). Former Gov. Jeb Bush, while out of the running, ended up with 1.85 percent of the vote (43,359 votes). In Sarasota County, Trump won 47.31 percent of the vote, and in Manatee, he won 47.19 percent.
After failing to win his home state in his quest for the Republican nomination for president, Rubio suspended his campaign on Tuesday night. “While we are on the right side, this year, we will not be on the winning side,” Rubio told supporters in Miami. But while the evening was bad news for Florida’s sitting senator, it was a great night for Republican Party of Sarasota Chairman Joe Gruters, the Florida chairman for Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, who became the winner of Florida’s 99 delegates toward the party nomination. Gruters credited the fact Trump had staff on the ground in this state since October. “It was a great night for the team,” Gruters said. “Trump will unite the GOP.”
Hours before Ben Carson will step out of a bus with his named emblazoned on the side and step into Bookstore1Sarasota, the streets downtown have been shut down by a mass of fans. The Palm Beach neurosurgeon technically arrives on the Gulf Coast on a book tour, but throngs of people waving political placards by the side of the road show the presidential race occupies the mind of event attendees today. In another year, getting a short line of people who just want to buy books may be all a candidate that Carson could realistically expect, but the doctor in the early fall saw a stunning rise in the polls, an unmistakable sign that Republicans following the race this year long for an outsider to shake up Washington. And Carson asks, why not? “The political class in Washington has managed to convince a bunch of people that they are the only ones who can solve problems, that that is the only experience that counts,” he tells reporters. “I don’t believe that for one second.”
He also strikes a cord with social conservatives. The line swells with supporters wearing T-shirts decorated with scripture. A family of Amish fans sits in one corner of the store. The press will ask questions today about Cuba, medical marijuana and minority incarceration rates. But the crowd clearly cares most about Carson’s personal values. “He is a godly man,” says Sandra Tracht, a Sarasota Republican. “He will run this country with God’s guidance, always.” Coming weeks won’t be kind to Carson. A fourth-place finish at the Iowa caucuses preceded finishing dead last in the New Hampshire primary. But for a brief moment in early November, the streets of Sarasota flowed with enthusiasm for this east coast doctor.
Update: After a poor showing on Super Tuesday, Carson stated in March that he saw no viable path to the White House and effectively stopped campaigning. Some Republican leaders are encouraging him to join a crowded Republican field to replace Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate. He has since endorsed Trump.
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The Republican nominee for president will ultimately be selected not based on any national polling but on the awarding of delegates’ votes at the Republican National Convention. In some cases, those delegates have a certain flexibility to choose who they like, regardless of what voters in their home state feel, but in Florida, that’s not the case. Strict rules promise the 99 delegates representing Florida at the Cleveland convention this year will all support the candidate that wins the statewide vote held in mid-March.
Now, let’s do some math. Florida’s delegates make up a small portion of the 2,472 who will vote in the convention, but when it takes just 1,237 votes to cinch the nomination, it shows that winning Florida gets a candidate 8 percent of the way there. In fact, that’s the biggest pot of voters available in the entire primary.
But that’s not all. In all likelihood, many of the primaries scheduled between now and mid-June won’t matter if there is already a presumptive nominee. In a different year, that may be true for Florida as well, as the state votes after 26 other states, not to mention Guam, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. But with an unusually crowded field, it seemed most likely as of press time that several candidates will still be actively campaigning in mid-March. Some 14 states vote on Super Tuesday, March 1, but unless one candidate wins most or all of those, the election will still be in play two weeks later when Florida votes. And when so many candidates have Florida ties, including a former governor and sitting senator who have won big contests here before, there is little incentive to quit early.
At the start of 2015, the smart money seemed to be on Jeb Bush becoming the Republican nominee for president. A favorite of corporate donors and establishment leaders, he bore the same surname as the last two Republican presidents and a strong history for bringing clarity to the debate stage defending conservative policy. But in a year where Donald Trump entered the race with even greater name recognition and Tea Party voters seemed anxious to reject old school power players, his standing in polls embarked on a raging descent.
But if there remains one place in the nation where his support remains vigilant, it’s Florida. “Jeb has got lots of friends here,” says Tramm Hudson, hours before hosting a $1,000-per-plate dinner at his Longboat Key home Monday. Hudson’s loyalty to the Bushes goes back a long way. He served as Republican Party of Sarasota chairman when Jeb Bush served as governor, and when George W. Bush ran successfully for president, Hudson raised enough money to be branded a “Pioneer.”
Powerful voices in the region, including U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, state Sen. Bill Galvano and developer Pat Neal, all can be found in the Hudson home tonight. Will Weatherford, former state Speaker of the House, crossed the state to be here. If the powerful still trust Bush, Hudson hopes, then the race is not lost. Hudson believes Bush still holds good will with Florida voters, many of whom recall his legendary leadership when hurricanes hit in 2004 or the conservative policies he signed into law including the A-Plus Education Plan and Stand Your Ground.
“People will remember he was able to enact legislation that benefited Florida with tax relief and in terms of education,” Hudson believes. And all that may be true, if the Bush campaign has the wherewithal to arrive in Florida. The only Florida candidate who did not hold a public rally in Sarasota or Manatee county in late 2015, big-money donors reportedly signaled to Bush that if he finished outside the top 3 in Iowa and New Hampshire, they would turn support elsewhere. Bush placed sixth in Iowa, behind former protégé Sen. Marco Rubio and soon-to-drop-out Sen. Rand Paul. New Hampshire saw Bush in fourth place. But if Bush can stay alive, Florida could be a game-changer for a governor who never saw approval ratings here dip below 50 percent. And the day New Hampshire voters went to polls, Hudson was sending out emails calling on supporters to rally for the next primary date in South Carolina.
Update: Bush’s performance in South Carolina was ultimately underwhelming, and the former governor suspended his campaign before Super Tuesday. Hudson had already cast his vote absentee for Bush, but is not encouraging his friends and neighbors to support Marco Rubio in the presidential primary. He has since endorsed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
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Worth noting, just because a parade of candidates have Florida ZIP codes doesn’t mean any of them will win the state. After taking the top slot in the Iowa caucuses, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, proved himself a favorite of social conservatives. “A lot of candidates have Florida connections,” notes Christian Ziegler, Sarasota’s Republican state committeeman. “But if you look at someone like Ted Cruz, voters who consider themselves in the conservative corner will have to take a look.”
Ziegler, who this year was named chairman of the Republican Party of Florida State Committeemen and Committeewomen’s Caucus, has maintained neutrality in the primary this year and offers advice to any campaigns if they ask, but he has praised Cruz for years. When the senator was awarded the Republican Party of Sarasota Statesman of the Year award in 2014, Ziegler introduced the rising star at a rally in Sarasota.
And coming out of the New Hampshire primary, Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s second-place finish offered fresh momentum to that candidacy. Florida candidates finished strong in the early states—three out of five of the top vote-getters in both Iowa and New Hampshire hailed from here—but then Florida has been welcoming to Ohioans and Texans alike. “I don’t know if any of the campaigns have started aggressively attacking Florida just yet,” Ziegler said in early February. “We will have to see.”
As Donald Trump steps out of a helicopter at Robarts Arena, the score for the film Air Force One blares from the loudspeakers. With the pomp and circumstance of royalty, Donald Trump returned to Sarasota, not to accept a Statesman of the Year award from local Republicans but to ask for voters in his ongoing campaign for president. “This is a special place,” Trump said of Sarasota, where his Florida campaign team is headquartered. Gruters this year did something he typically avoids—he made an endorsement and took a job as Florida chairman of Trump’s campaign. The risk is high, but he has become enamored with Trump, as so many Republicans throughout the country have done. “At this point in the country’s history, he is the right person for the job,” Gruters says. Indeed, Gruters caught plenty of flak in the past for bestowing honors on Trump while the New York developer and Palm Beach part-timer was decidedly on the outs with national Republican leadership. Today, the loyalty between Trump and Gruters remains as strong as the relationship between Trump and the establishment remains strained.
But the masses adore the tycoon. A giant elephant stands with the name Trump written on its side, along with the campaign slogan “Make America Great Again.” At such a large and rowdy event, perhaps it was no surprise his supporters with circus roots would make the other grand entrance of the day. Theresa Hill, a Sarasotan with connections in the circus going back three generations, arranged the pachyderm’s arrival the night before, less than 30 minutes after calling the Trump campaign to see if it was interested. She turned to Franklin Murray, a colleague from Central Florida, who said he respected Trump for self-funding his campaign. “He’s not interested in this job to cut the best deals for himself,” Murray says.
Robarts proves too small a venue for the crowd, and Trump gives two speeches, one to those inside and a second to a group sitting in bleachers just beside the space where his chopper has landed. His stump speech teems with the red meat this crowd adores. “Maybe someday, we’ll have a really smart president,” Trumps says with caustic humor behind every word. “Maybe come January.” He touts a view in favor of the Second Amendment, and says terrorist attacks in Paris wouldn’t have been successful if such rights existed in France; “If you had a couple of guns in the room held by the good guys, you would have had a totally different story,” he says to cheers. And he doubles down on controversial statements about immigration, repeating a claim the Mexican government sends criminals here so the United States will pay the cost to bring justice. “Mexico doesn’t treat us with respect,” he says. “It’s not going to be that way anymore.”
What has surprised most political observers regarding Trump, though, isn’t his prowess at frothing up a crowd. He stunned many by putting an actual campaign organization in place. Ultimately, he couldn’t beat Cruz’s organization in the Iowa caucuses, but in the New Hampshire primary, Trump far outpaced all other candidates and he headed toward the Deep South with wind at his back. All that could change, but Gruters and other political pros seem determined to see Florida’s votes go his way as well.
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There may not be any Floridians in the mix, but Democrats in Sarasota will make a decision on March 15 as well. As of press time, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen, Bernie Sanders remained in a close contest. And locally, supporters for both candidates have worked to raise dollars and support, even though neither candidate was rushing to Sarasota themselves. Christine Jennings, chairman of the Sarasota Democratic Party, has made her preferences known in the contest. She hosted an event in September with Clinton finance director Dennis Cheng in attendance, pulling in $30,000 in an evening. “I think in the long run, Hillary will be the Democratic candidate, and in the long run, Hillary will take Sarasota County.”
But Sanders supporters have hit the streets as well. Just in January, a “March and Rally for Bernie” drew dozens to the Unconditional Surrender statue waving signs with messages like “Feel the Bern” and “Bernie: Not for sale.” National polls in mid-February still showed Clinton with an edge, but Clinton barely eked out a win in the Iowa caucuses while Sanders won New Hampshire by 21 percentage points. Will the race remain tight after Super Tuesday? Regardless, Florida voters backing Clinton and Sanders alike anxiously await a chance to weigh in.
Update: Clinton won the Florida vote with 64.45 percent (1,090,698 votes) to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 33.27 percent (563,071). Clinton won 61.13 percent of the vote in Sarasota and 62.52 percent in Manatee. As a result, Clinton wins 122 of Florida’s pledged delegates for the nomination and Sanders picks up 60.
It’s been a few months since a major campaign rolled into town. Most candidates at this point have pretty much become residents of Iowa. But for Marco Rubio, once a Tea Party favorite and today an increasingly popular choice for establishment leaders, his home state of Florida seems a good place to get some work done. Questioned about whether he can overcome a sub-Trump standing in polls, Rubio points toward his Florida supporters as evidence that situations can always turn around. “You want to talk about polls? When I started running for Senate, I was at 3 percent in the polls,” he says.
Certainly, it’s a story Toni Parsons, a Bradenton Republican, knows well. She fell in love with Rubio’s stump presence when he was still a small-time lawmaker out of Miami, then watched him climb the ranks to state Speaker of the House and, most surprisingly, in a shock upset of then-Gov. Charlie Crist when both ran for a U.S. Senate seat. Rubio won the seat and drove Crist out of the party he once led along the way.
As Rubio stands on a stage for a town hall at Marine Concepts, a business located just north of the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, he carefully lays out a pro-business conservative philosophy he believes the White House ignores. “We have the greatest economic system in history, where poor people can become richer without making rich people poorer,” he says. He later opens the event up to questions, and answers a few that clearly have bite. When someone suggests his poor voting record in the Senate shows a lack of commitment to that job, he says running for president is the best thing he can do for Florida voters.
The performance impresses Harry Walia, a Venice businessman serving as co-chair for Rubio’s finance efforts in this part of Florida. “He has energized the base,” Walia says. “People are excited; they are rooting for Marco.” So long as Rubio can place high in early states, he doesn’t even have to win to remain relevant, Walia says. That seemed prescient when Rubio placed third in Iowa but national media universally declared him the winner in terms of momentum. That dulled when a poor debate performance heralded a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire. But as long as the senator can maintain a competitive stance before Florida, he may have in his home state a genuine opportunity to take over. Will the state that sent Rubio to Washington now give him a shot at the White House? Walia is a believer.
Updated: Rubio, as mentioned above, failed to win Florida and suspended his presidential campaign on March 15, leaving Trump the last Floridian in the race.
Near as March 15 sounds now, much can happen in the first few weeks of March. Texas holds its primary on Super Tuesday, with 155 delegates set to be awarded through contests in congressional districts throughout the Lone Star state. Georgia offers up 76 delegates to be divied a number of ways. But at the very least, political leaders here feel it would be a shame if a prize as great as Florida doesn’t play a major role in choosing a Republican nominee.
PHOTO BY WYATT KOSTYGAN.