Newt Gingrich’s Florida campaign penetrated the heart of Mitt Romney territory on Tuesday, appearing before a cheering throng of 6,000 in the Gulf Coast resort town of Naples, which has long been a haven for wealthy retirees from northern and Midwestern states.
The rally, reportedly the largest in city history, said a lot about the shifting sands in what has become a two-man and wide open Republican primary. But it said even more about the diversity of Florida’s complex economy, how it’s five distinct sections have fared during the Great Recession, and how their differing fortunes and nascent recovery will shape the outcome of next Tuesday’s election.
Like California or Texas, Florida, the country’s fourth largest state with 29 electoral votes, up two from 2008, is a nation within a nation.
The farther north one goes, the more southern it becomes. Like South Carolina, parts of Georgia and Mississippi, Florida’s northern tier and Panhandle are semi-rural with lots of branch plant manufacturing that was hard hit by the economic downturn. While there a clear signs of recovery – the state’s overall unemployment rate finally dropped below 10 percent last month – the region’s blue-collar “Reagan Democrats” could provide a solid base for Gingrich unless evangelicals declare a plague on both the frontrunners’ houses and give former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum the nod.
The center of the state, anchored by the Orlando and Tampa-St. Petersburg metropolitan areas, is dominated by tourism (think Disneyworld) and high-tech manufacturing and services (think Kennedy Space Center). Though tourism declined modestly and is now coming back, the final flight of the 30-year space shuttle program last July and the subsequent layoffs of the estimated 8,000 people who depended on it left a major void in the region’s economy. With lingering resentment toward the Obama administration, which failed to replace it, they could find a home in a Gingrich candidacy that embraces “big ideas.”
The state’s agricultural heartland north and south of Orlando, dominated by citrus, livestock and other commodity crops, is plagued by the highest unemployment rates in the state and some of the highest in the nation. Nearly a quarter of the state’s undocumented immigrants, estimated at nearly one million in 2005 with most of them being farm laborers from Mexico, have returned home in recent years.
But their citizen compatriots, who are the permanent agricultural and tourism-related workforce, are not the Hispanic voters that matter in the Republican primary. For that, one has to turn to the cosmopolitan Miami area’s Cuban-American population, which joined with the state’s influential Tea Party in 2010 to send Marco Rubio to the Senate and elect former hospital executive Rick Scott as governor. The south Florida metropolis remains a major crossroads for wealthy Latin Americans and their business interests.
However, Scott’s approval rating plummeted during his first year in office after imposing huge budget cuts on the state’s schools and other services. Though he’s starting to recover, local political observers say the Tea Party’s influence is definitely on the wane as getting the state’s economy moving again has emerged as the number one issue.