The hurricanes may have subsided at last, but Floridians are about to find themselves in the path of a political storm.
With 27 electoral votes, Florida offers the fourth-richest Election Day payoff in the country-and the only one where the outcome is in serious doubt. Both the Bush and Kerry camps consider Florida a must-win, and hardly a day goes by without one-or both-of the candidates touching down somewhere in the Sunshine State.
If the candidates are sweating the outcome, state officials are sweating the process. Four years ago, Florida kept the entire nation hanging for weeks while teams of lawyers haggled over disputed ballots generated by antiquated voting machines. Florida suffered as the butt of late-night comedians' jokes, as phrases like "hanging chads" and "butterfly ballot" became part of the national lexicon.
Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, vowed it would never happen again. Tallahassee invested millions of dollars in state-of-the-art technology including touch-screen voting machines and optical scanners to replace the notorious punch cards of 2000. That technology got its first big test Oct. 18, when polls across the state opened for early voting. Tens of thousands of Floridians turned out to cast ballots on the first day, and wait times sometimes stretched to three hours or more. Computer crashes in several counties turned voters away from the polls, and in other places electronic systems for verifying voter registration proved faulty.
|2004 VOTE: Election preview|
With lawyers from both sides already moving into place across the state, Florida will probably be the most scrutinized state in the country on Election Day. Democratic operatives have filed lawsuits regarding voting machines, polling locations, and provisional ballots, and more are sure to come if the election is close.
Unfortunately, no one from either side predicts it will be anything other than close. Ever since John Kerry clinched his party's nomination, polls have showed the race to be a statistical dead heat. The latest Mason-Dixon poll, released Oct. 18, found the president with a 3-point lead over his rival, well within the margin of error. Others have the race as close as 1 point.
Still, there are signs that Florida may not be the single closest race of the year this time around. The president's lead, while tiny, has been relatively consistent through time and across various polling firms. Even a 1 percent margin, as indicated by many polls, would be a huge improvement over 2000, when Mr. Bush carried the state by just 1/100th of 1 percent.
If Florida turns out to be an easier win than, say, Ohio, the state's healthy economy may be a major factor. While the Buckeye State has shed thousands of manufacturing jobs during Mr. Bush's tenure, Florida's tourism-based economy has chugged along nicely. And a building boom in the wake of three hurricanes is adding even more jobs, especially in the construction and retail sectors.
The hurricanes could help the president in several other ways, as well. In addition to sidelining the Kerry campaign for several weeks, the rash of storms reminded many Floridians of how much they like their governor. At all hours of the day and night, Jeb Bush was a calm, reassuring presence on televisions across the state, giving updates and holding press conferences in both English and Spanish. After handily winning reelection in 2002, the governor still enjoys approval ratings around 70 percent-and experts say some of that could be rubbing off on his brother.
President Bush may also benefit from a kind of reverse-coattails effect in the hard-fought Senate race between former HUD Secretary Mel Martinez and former state Education Commissioner Betty Castor. As a Cuban-American, Mr. Martinez could help to mobilize the huge Cuban vote in South Florida, as well as attracting non-Cuban Hispanics in the swing counties of Central Florida. Polls show Mr. Bush leading among Hispanics by better than 2-to-1, and their turnout could make the difference on Election Day. (The Senate race, like the presidential race in Florida, is rated as a tossup.)
Despite such small advantages for the GOP, almost no one believes Mr. Bush will carry Florida with the kind of margin that would make Democratic lawyers pack up and go home. Faced with a whirlwind of nasty post-election litigation, Floridians may wonder if it's hurricane season all over again.
• John Dawson, Lynn Vincent and Kristin Chapman also contributed to WORLD's 2004 election preview section.