Fickle Florida: What Romney’s Victory Says About the Bellwether State’s Mood — and the Nation’s

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks during a rally at Pioneer Park in Dunedin, Fla., on Jan. 30, 2012


We’re used to invasive species in Florida, from Burmese pythons terrorizing the Everglades to unlicensed plastic surgeons injecting our butts with cement glue. In fact, many Floridians are themselves invasive species, being from someplace else. One of the things that can result from this is a confused sense of identity — which helps explain not only why Florida has one of the nation’s highest shares of independent voters, about a fifth of the electorate, but also why the state’s Republicans and Democrats go through chronic “Who are we?” cycles. And those mood swings matter, because Florida is America’s most important swing state.

So to understand why Florida saved former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign by delivering him a win in Tuesday’s primary election, it’s useful to know which phase the Sunshine State’s Republican moon is in right now.

Florida Democrats have often had a hard time deciding whether they want to be old-style Southern Democrats — like the Dem attorney general who once joked about the problem of convicts catching on fire in “Old Sparky,” the state’s electric chair — or more liberal, Miami-style Democrats. (Regardless, these days they usually end up as the state’s losing party.) Likewise, Florida Republicans regularly alternate between a more hard-line Southern conservatism and a more moderate Northern conservatism, the latter brought in by snowbirds and other migrants. Should they be the kind of social and fiscal right-wing Tea Partyers who buoyed former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign in South Carolina earlier this month? Or the less radical, establishmentarian Lincoln Republicans who seem to be abandoning Gingrich for Romney from Pensacola to Key West?

You can credit Romney’s victory to his big-money super-PAC advantage, his barrage of low-blow TV attacks (though it’s hard to cry for an inveterate low blower like Newt) or the parade of Mount Rushmore Republicans, from Arizona Senator John McCain to Hollywood heavyweight Jon Voight, who came to the state to sing Mitt’s praises and slam Newt’s vices. But in Florida, you also have to consider timing and temper.

Take the past decade, when it was difficult to tell which side of the GOP brain was running the state. One day the party was braying at the bedside of Terri Schiavo, railing against secular America’s “culture of death” like Mississippi Evangelicals; the next it was hosting then governor Charlie Crist’s green-and-fuzzy summits on global climate change. (Not coincidentally, it was during that Crist cycle that Establishment Republican McCain won the Florida primary and sealed his 2008 presidential nomination.) But the next thing we knew, Florida Republicans were all but descending on the governor’s mansion with pitchforks in 2010 to drive Crist out of the party and elect Tea Party darling Marco Rubio to the U.S. Senate instead. They also tapped Rick Scott — a right-wing millionaire whose former hospital corporation was once busted for the largest Medicare fraud in history while he was CEO — to replace Crist.

And yet now, in spite of an almost 10% state unemployment rate, Florida Republicans have returned to dutiful, elect-the-electable Establishment sobriety. Even Rubio risked the ire of many of the state’s Tea Partyers by defending Romney from attacks by Gingrich. And why shouldn’t he? Recent polls show that only about a third of Florida Republicans still have a favorable view of the Tea Party, and that reality was a red carpet for a bland patrician like Romney — whose perceived moderateness would have gotten him tossed into the same boxcar with Crist just a year ago. “With the Tea Party out of the way, Romney was able to close the deal in Florida,” a state GOP pollster told TIME this week. Romney, in fact, made no effort to secure Governor Scott’s endorsement — or, for that matter, to even be seen with him.

Sure, some of this reflects the identity crisis of national Republicans and voters in general. But nowhere is the party-identity angst as acute as it is here in Florida. And since it looks like the state has decided to thumb its nose at both GOP and Democratic party leaders and keep its primary in January from here on out — to which one can only say hurrah, since it’s about time we started crowning our presidential nominees in large states that represent messy modern U.S. demographics, as Florida does, instead of letting small, lily-white states like Iowa and New Hampshire do it — candidates are going to have to learn how to read this peninsula of political Sybils more expertly than, say, Moon Colonizer Gingrich did.

What’s more, they’re going to have to learn how to detect the Florida syndrome beyond Florida. The Sunshine State isn’t called the new bellwether state just because it has a lot of independent voters. It’s because, for now anyway, it seems to project the nation’s hopes and anxieties better than anywhere else — and if the last two national election cycles have proven anything, it’s that the country’s recession-battered electorate, especially Republicans, seems as schizophrenic as Floridians are.

So where does this muddled mood leave Romney between now and November’s general election? He can take heart in more than just a Florida primary landslide: polls show him the best bet to defeat President Obama in this crucial state in a one-on-one matchup. Still, Romney shouldn’t linger at his Florida fiesta. If there’s one area where Florida’s bellwether looks can be deceiving, it’s the Latino vote. GOP candidates who win here tend to delude themselves into thinking they’ve locked in the burgeoning U.S. Latino electorate just because they heard ardent applause from Cuban Americans in Miami. But it’s been six years since there were more registered Latino Republicans in Florida than registered Latino Democrats — and the latter today outnumber the former by more than 100,000.

That’s only half the story. The Cubans and Puerto Ricans who make up most of Florida’s Latino population are vastly overshadowed nationally by Mexican Americans, who make up two-thirds of the U.S. Latino community — and who care as ardently about immigration, where they see Romney as an antagonist, as Cubans do about Castro. There is no such thing as one “Latino identity” in that regard. But if Romney and the GOP have learned anything in Florida — where they’ll return in August for the GOP national convention in Tampa — it’s that political identity these days can be as elusive as a Burmese python.

Padgett is TIME’s Miami and Latin America bureau chief.