Florida Voters Spurn Bush, Rubio for Trump

Florida Voters Spurn Bush, Rubio for Trump
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MIAMI — Donald Trump walks into a bar ...

In any other year, this might have been a windup for a joke. But on this evening in late October 2015, Trump is no punch line. And had Trump rivals Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio been present when Trump entered the room — flashing his smile, shaking hands indiscriminately, with everyone rushing to find their phones to capture this rare moment — they wouldn’t be laughing. 

Because, on this night, Trump walks into a bar and restaurant at his Trump National Doral resort in Miami having just delivered a stemwinder to thousands of supporters who want to nominate him to be the Republican Party’s candidate for president. And he did it in Rubio’s and Bush’s hometown in the state that elected them to office, a state that now prefers Trump.

What is happening nationally is happening in Florida, too: Voters are rejecting more traditional candidates, including Bush and Rubio, in favor of political newcomers without filter — even if it means eschewing home-field advantage to root instead for the visiting team.

“They’re too political,” Donald Shepherd, a 38-year resident of Jacksonville, Fla., said of Bush and Rubio. “It’s all about the politics, about the money, about the friends, about the cronies.”

“The people of Florida are sick and tired of politicians,” echoed a Miami man who identified himself only by his first name, Eddie.

Both men said they plan to support Trump. They’re not alone: The RealClearPolitics average of Florida polling shows Trump leading Ben Carson, the second-ranking Republican, by eight points, and Rubio and Bush by at least 10.

At a rally Saturday in Jacksonville, Trump invoked these numbers with characteristic glee.

“Trump is No. 1, Rubio way behind,” he said to enthusiastic cheers. “You talk about a guy who’s sweaty, now he’s really sweating.”

As a primary state, Florida more closely resembles Texas than it does Iowa or New Hampshire: It is big and diverse, and thus campaigning there is done primarily through targeted paid advertising and earned media, rather than through retail politicking.

This type of state can be particularly susceptible to media-driven momentum stemming from victories in the early primaries. During the 1984 Democratic Primary, for example, Walter Mondale won Iowa and was strongly favored to win the nomination — but when underdog Gary Hart won New Hampshire, he caught a wave and rode it all the way to Florida, although he would later lose the nomination.

That fickle dynamic would seem to favor a candidate who already has established a reputation in the state and run campaigns there, such as Rubio or Bush. Florida Republicans have supported them in the past, so why not again?

“Normally that’s exactly what you would expect,” said Florida lobbyist Mac Stipanovich, a Bush supporter. “But this year is anything but normal.”

And, for now at least, it is Trump who has the momentum.

Bush and Rubio are not technically the only Floridians running for president. Trump owns a home in West Palm Beach, as does retired neurosurgeon Carson; and Mike Huckabee now lives in Santa Rosa Beach.

But Rubio and Bush are the only ones in this group to have won statewide elections in Florida, which would seem to give them a baked-in advantage with voters and a head start on organizing and winning endorsements in the state.

Still, Florida is anything but normal. At a Trump rally in Miami, women arrived in tight dresses and stiletto heels. In Jacksonville, a man arrived with two parrots on his arm. Here is the state that gave us Charlie Crist, a Republican governor turned unsuccessful Republican Senate candidate, turned unsuccessful Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

It is also a state with unusually high voter turnover. Of Florida’s 12.9 million registered voters, roughly one quarter were around when Bush last ran for office, according to a study this year by Bloomberg News and University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith.

Among those voters familiar with Bush and Rubio, there is also a deep familiarity with their political warts.

“I don’t want to say anything about Jeb Bush, because nothing good is going to come from my mouth,” said Luis Rojas, who attended Trump’s Miami rally.

“Marco Rubio is a traitor who went to Washington, D.C., and ran for president from day one, never cared about the Florida voters,” said Linda Polsney, another audience member at the rally in Miami. “He is missing one vote after another.”

To date, Bush’s strategy has centered on his accomplishments as governor of Florida. At the time he served, he was lauded as one of the country’s most conservative governors. But the people who elected him seem to have moved on, at least for now.

“It’s definitely something that Jeb is going to have to reset on,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist based in Florida. “He absolutely has to win Florida, or things are going to get hairy.”

Bush and his campaign recognize the weight Florida carries in the nominating process: Over the summer, Bush reminded supporters during a policy speech that the Sunshine State will be “hugely important” in the Republican primary. He and his team, although they did not respond to a request for comment on this story, also remain stubbornly confident that he will win the state.

So, too, does Rubio — although, in an interview with CNN that aired Sunday, he acknowledged the forces working against him there. 

"It's a very unusual year, and I think part of it is that people are really angry about the direction of our country,” Rubio said. “What you see in Florida is no different than what you see reflected around the country.”

Rubio’s campaign also did not respond to a request for comment.

Bush and Rubio are not the only home teams struggling in this Republican primary. Gov. John Kasich is also well behind Trump in Ohio polling, as is Gov. Chris Christie in New Jersey. But Trump’s dominance in Florida is all the more surprising given the high expectations surrounding Bush and Rubio, and in light of Trump’s strongly anti-immigrant rhetoric — which would seem incompatible with Florida’s robust Hispanic population.

Even Trump was skeptical. At his Miami rally, he revealed in a surprising moment of candor that he had worried his anti-immigrant message would not work in the majority Latino city.

“To be honest, I wasn’t so sure here I could talk about walls,” he said, referring to his proposal to build a wall along the border with Mexico. “Tomorrow in Jacksonville I can talk about walls, but here I was a little hesitant.”

But, as he has done everywhere in this election cycle, Trump defied even his own expectations. The crowd roared its approval and chanted “U-S-A!”

After the rally ended and the crowds had dispersed, Donald Trump walked into a bar. And, on the home turf of two adversaries, he was the one laughing.

“Did everyone have a great time tonight?” Trump bellowed to the restaurant patrons. “If I was Elton John, I would’ve made a lot of money.” 

Rebecca Berg is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at rberg@realclearpolitics.com.

 

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