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.
Retirees who populate the communities up and down both coasts are generally well off, though feeling pain from reduced stock portfolios, ultra-low interest rates and high vacancy rates in their condominium and resort communities. Disproportionately Republican, moderate in style, they are likely Romney voters (except for the 3 to 4 percent of the state’s population who are Jews, who remain reliably Democratic even though that has slipped in recent years due to fears that President Obama in his heart of hearts doesn’t truly support Israel). However, the retiree bloc, too, may be up for grabs after Romney’s tax revelations exposed a side of their personal finances they would prefer kept out of the public eye.
Overlaying this complex mosaic is one common reality – all sections of the state have been hard hit by the collapse of housing prices, the ensuing foreclosure crisis, and the ongoing depression in the construction industry. Florida counted just 329,400 construction jobs in the latest Labor Department survey, which is about half of what existed in 2006 and 2007.
“The economy has had a series of improvements in different parts of the state recently,” said Susan McManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida. “But housing is still the big issue. A lot of people would like to sell their homes and can’t.”
The wild card for Republicans in Florida is immigration, where competing policy prescriptions have pitted the diverse Republican constituencies against one another. Downscale Republican voters, who face competition from immigrants in their day-to-day lives, cheered on the tough line sounded by Romney in other states. But that position could lose him votes here among business leaders, who rely on immigrant labor to fill low-wage jobs in the agricultural and service industries.
They exerted their power during the last legislative session, when a bill that would bring Arizona-like restrictions to Florida fell flat. However, mere consideration of the bill convinced thousands of undocumented workers to flee the state.
“We documented the millions of dollars lost because people left,” said Dale Brill, president of the Florida Chamber Foundation, the non-profit research arm of the state business federation. “It made it tougher for farmers to find workers.”
Still, things are improving and that could bode well for the president in the fall. The latest surveys show consumer sentiment in the state has turned positive for the first time since the recession began in late 2007. “Pent up demand is being released with a big boost coming from abroad, especially Brazil,” said Sean Snaith, director of the Institute for Economic Competitiveness at the University of Central Florida. “The theme parks over the holidays were turning people away.
“But people are still hurting,” he cautioned. “When your nest egg is Humpty Dumpty, the only thing you can do to rebuild it is save more – so you’ll see stuttering growth here for a while.”