Election 2012: Lessons from Florida

Even though the outcome wasn't decisive, Florida still matters. Per usual in the 21st century, it is the national bellwether.

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Like a slow, elderly Miami driver who’s always got his turn signal on, Florida continually gives us electoral gridlock. In the nation’s largest swing state, the presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney was still too close to call Wednesday—at dawn the President’s edge was 46,000 votes, about half a percentage point. And even though the outcome won’t be decisive—Obama already wrapped things up in Ohio Tuesday night—Florida still matters. Per usual in the 21st century, the Sunshine State is the national bellwether.

For starters, it’s apparent there that the Tea Party, which critics say has pulled the Republican Party far too far right, is faltering. That conservative movement did produce some leadership potential in Florida, including freshman Republican Senator Marco Rubio. But it also yielded quite a few erratic radicals, especially U.S. Representative Allen West, who in 2010 became the first black Florida Republican elected to Congress since Reconstruction. West, who claimed this year that almost all of the House’s Democratic caucus was communist, was upended Tuesday night by rookie Democratic candidate Patrick Murphy in Florida’s 18th congressional district. (West, who spent an astonishing $17 million in the race, has not yet conceded.)

Another right-wing firebrand, Cuban-American U.S. Representative David Rivera, who faces federal and state corruption investigations, was trounced in the 26th District by moderate Cuban-American Democrat Joe Garcia, whom Rivera had called an agent of Fidel Castro. Conservative U.S. Representative Connie Mack, who was supposed to unseat Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, was routed as well. (One caveat: though Florida right-wingers took it on the chin, the state’s left-wing rowdy, Alan Grayson, got elected to Congress again.)

Tuesday was also a debacle for Governor Rick Scott, whose 2014 re-election chances look even slimmer now. Since his own Tea Party-fueled election in 2010, Scott and his government-eradication crusade have seemed more focused on challenging Obama than on solving Florida’s unemployment crisis. The President’s strong showing on the peninsula, as a result, is a stinging rebuke—especially since Scott tried to blunt Democratic turnout by cutting the number of early voting days this year. (It didn’t work: Obama benefited from early Florida voting in 2012 almost as robustly as he did in 2008.) Just as humiliating was the defeat of almost all of a dozen constitutional amendments Scott and the GOP-led legislature heaped on Florida’s ballot, including measures to restrict abortion rights, cut taxes for wealthy property owners and give lawmakers more control over the state Supreme Court.

Perhaps the most significant rebuff for Scott and Florida’s Tea Party in this election, though, is the fact that Romney rejected their red meat approach as he campaigned in the state. As Garcia told me after his victory speech in southwest Miami last night, “Like most Americans, I think Floridians deep down believe that the bipartisan hole in this country needs to be filled again.” In fact, Romney didn’t catch traction in Florida until he ditched his “severely conservative” primary persona and became Moderate Mitt in October. Even if it doesn’t turn out as a win for Obama, Florida proved once again that despite mid-term convulsions like 2010, the color of its politics isn’t red or blue but purple.

As media like TIME predicted it would, the Latino vote also played a big role in 2012—and in Florida that meant the non-Cuban Latino vote. For decades, U.S. politicians only played to Cuban-Americans there. But while Obama enlarged the 67% share of the national Latino vote he got in 2008—he took 71% last night, which may well have helped him win key battleground states like Colorado and Nevada—just as significant was the 60% of Latino voters he won in Florida, three points more than he got there four years ago. That indicates that non-Cuban Latinos, especially Puerto Ricans in the state’s central I-4 Corridor and South and Central Americans in South Florida, came out for Obama in even greater force than anticipated.

It drives home as well the point that Republicans have to look beyond Cuban-Americans if they’re going to build bridges to the burgeoning Latino bloc, the U.S.’s largest minority, which represented a tenth of the nation’s electorate this year. And that means engaging Mexican-Americans, who make up two-thirds of U.S. Latinos and without a doubt punish the GOP for its hardline immigration agenda.

Still, the bottom line is that the final margin in Florida will be less than a point—a reminder of how split the national popular vote was and how scant the President’s second-term mandate is. Like that slow old driver and his eternal turn signal, Florida is always there as a sobering reminder that change is hard.