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U.S. News & World Report

The Fight For Florida

Never mind South Beach and hanging chads; the action this fall is along a road that runs from Tampa to Orlando to Daytona Beach

BY Tim Smart; Angie C. Marek

July 19, 2004
Copyright © 2004 U.S. News & World Report. All rights reserved.

Vol. 137, No. 2

ORLANDO--Five hundred and thirty-seven. Put it up there with 1492. Or 1776. Or 9/11. It's a number now firmly etched in American history, the margin of votes by which Florida passed into the Republican column and George W. Bush became president four years ago. Much has changed since then, in the world and in the Sunshine State. But one thing remains the same: This fourth-most-populous state could once again prove decisive on November 2.

Only the epicenter has moved. It won't be Palm Beach County with its ghosts of dimpled ballots and hanging chads that is likely to determine who takes the quirky state's 27 electoral votes (2 more than in 2000 and one tenth of the total needed to win the presidency). The battle now in this battleground state has shifted to a ribbon of interstate highway that stretches from Daytona Beach in the east to the megalopolis of Tampa Bay in the west, with the steroidal sprawl of Orlando right in the middle. This is a place of explosive growth, with new residents lured by the promise of jobs and a fresh start on life. As such, it is populated with people of few political allegiances; these voters are up for grabs. And so it is here that the megastate of Florida will be won or lost.

The stakes in the "I-4 corridor" aren't lost on the Bush or Kerry campaigns. Bush kicked off his re-election drive in March with a huge rally here at the Orange County Convention Center, and the president's campaign boasts 3,800 volunteers along the corridor. "In Florida, we started earlier and drilled deeper than any other state campaign in history," says Reed Dickens, a spokesperson for the Bush/Cheney campaign's southeast operation. John Kerry has visited the area six times since March, and last week he wasted no time returning with his new running mate, John Edwards, to St. Petersburg. Of the $15 million Bush has spent on TV ads in Florida, $6 million has gone to Central Florida. Kerry has put $8 million of his $14 million Florida total into the central region. Nothing's being taken for granted here, because the margins are slim, any way you slice them. In 2000, Bush carried Central Florida by 4,400 votes, but since then, the voter rolls have grown by 156,000 (to a total of 2.4 million), with newly registered Democrats outnumbering newly registered Republicans by 23,000. A late June Quinnipiac poll had the presidential race dead even in Florida, with Bush and Kerry each at 43 percent.

Throughout the I-4 corridor reside more than 6 million people of every conceivable political persuasion, ethnic background, age, and lifestyle. The heart and soul of the corridor are the twin cities of Orlando and Tampa, with their glistening bank towers, ethnic enclaves, and yuppie eateries. Both cities have grown increasingly high-tech; medical technology and financial software firms now dot Tampa's landscape, and a variety of computer simulation, laser, and optics firms are located in Orlando--which, of course, is also the home of Walt Disney World and other theme parks. More than a quarter of all jobs in Central Florida are tied to the tourism industry, with an economic impact of $22 billion annually. At the east end of the corridor lies Daytona, with its NASCAR, motorcycle, and beach bum ethos. Sprinkled in between are gargantuan housing developments, some geared to the starter-home, young-family set, others targeted toward the never-ending stream of retirees. Then there are the booming new population centers, places like the former cow town of Kissimmee in Osceola County bordering Orlando's sprawl, and Pasco County on the northern outskirts of Tampa's expansion. Finally, on the far west end sits St. Petersburg, emerging from its old folks' home image. Growth is the common denominator, fueling a booming construction and service economy. It's a region that is younger than the rest of Florida, a place of great wealth and poverty, magic dreams and failed aspirations. Come to Disney World and explore a fantasyland. Or nurse a beer in a beach bar, encased in stale cigarette smoke and jukebox country twang.

One in five Florida voters is registered as an independent, many of them clustered in the corridor. Perhaps the most important swing targets are Hispanic voters; 1 in 6 Central Florida voters is Hispanic. They have moved here, mainly south and west of Orlando, from the Caribbean and Central and South America, but also from New York and Chicago. When they have chosen a party, they've been more likely to register as Democrats, but they have also shown a willingness to switch sides, electing a Republican to the statehouse.

Downtown Kissimmee, the Osceola County seat, is a curious cultural blend of Old South, Florida cowboy, and 21st-century multiculturalism. To find the heart of its Puerto Rican community, you must first traverse Boggy Creek Road, where a huge billboard offers airboat rides. "I came from New York," says Alberto Curiel, 52, a loan officer at a storefront mortgage company near Buenaventura Lakes, a community with a heavily Hispanic population. "The owner of this place is from Puerto Rico, I'm from the Dominican Republic, and my coworkers are from Puerto Rico," Curiel says. A registered Democrat, he plans to vote the party line. "John Kerry, definitely. Bush, he's too tough; he likes to fight too much."

Republican John Quinones, who is the local state representative, concedes that "traditionally, Hispanics have registered as Democrats," but he claims "it is a weak link." Quinones is banking on the warm relationship that Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, married to a Hispanic and fluent in Spanish, has with Hispanics. They helped him carry Central Florida in his 2002 re-election campaign. In a tossup race, Jeb's appeal could make the difference, pols here believe. "He knows where the votes are, and he's pretty popular," says Susan McManus, a political-science professor at the University of South Florida.

Another swing voting bloc is young families, drawn to Central Florida by jobs. Some are educated tech workers; often, a spouse will work in the tourism industry. They find the region appealing partly because it feels familiar to them: Orlando is the test-bed city where the fast-food and themed-restaurant companies come to try out their new ideas. And many of the newcomers have been here before, on a trip to Disney World as a child, perhaps.

Full employment. Unlike other battleground states in the Midwest, the economy won't be a big issue here. Led by a rebound at Disney, Central Florida's tourism industry has largely recovered from its post 9/11 tailspin. "The past couple of months, resort-tax collections have hit record levels," says Danielle Saba Courtenay, vice president of public relations for the Orange County convention bureau. Industry officials are cautiously predicting 2004 will be a record year, with a projected 48.7 million visitors.

Florida was the only state to add jobs during the recent recession. Nearly 172,000 jobs were created in the year leading up to May of this year alone. "This economy did quite well through the downturn," says David Scott, economics professor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. "Right now, it is doing very well during the upturn." Adds Nancy Moncrief, 41, a senior programmer analyst with the Orange County government in Orlando: "Everyone I know is employed."

While many, if not most, of the jobs being created are in the relatively low-wage service sector, it isn't all hamburger flipping. The I-4 corridor is developing as a hotbed of high-technology employment. The state's space-age heritage and long-standing ties to the military are now joined by animation work that is an outgrowth of Disney's presence. That leads to well-paid jobs for software programmers, who can design video games for Electronic Arts in an Orlando suburb, and for former Pentagon contractors, who now make simulation training tools for corporate America.

If there is an economic issue here, it is low taxes. Florida's revenue base depends on encouraging the transfer of wealth from other states. Residents pay no state income tax, which might explain why Tiger Woods lives in Orlando. The sales tax is the primary source of income for state bureaucrats, and a good deal of that is paid by tourists, who also get hit hard by a variety of fees and taxes on lodging, car rentals, and the like. "This is a place where saying, 'I am against higher taxes' almost guarantees getting elected," says Adam Goodman, a Tampa Republican political consultant.

But the sleeper issue could be healthcare, something that Democrat Kerry has made a frequent topic of speeches during visits to the area. It's an issue that Kerry aides hope will swing over Hispanic voters who may not have jobs that include paid health insurance. It may also dovetail smoothly with the "two Americas" theme of economic class warfare that running mate Edwards did so well with in the Democratic primaries. Bush, meanwhile, will try to attract Hispanics with an appeal to their Roman Catholic faith and traditional family values. "If the Republican Party cannot attract non-Cuban Hispanics, they will not remain the dominant political party in Florida," says Lance deHaven-Smith, a professor of public administration at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

Then there's the war. Iraq. No conversation goes by without some reference to it. As elsewhere, there is substantial unease over what has transpired in Iraq, even among those with military connections. "No one is going to be able to clean up this mess, and it would be nice if someone would just come out and say it," says Tony Boyd, 38, a tech sergeant who works at an Air Force processing office in Tampa. Originally from Maryland, Boyd relocated with the service from Nebraska and is now looking to retire locally. A recent afternoon found him looking at model houses at the Live Oak Preserve development in New Tampa, about a 30-minute drive northeast of downtown. A registered Democrat, Boyd says he remains undecided.

Live Oak is emblematic of the hundreds of new housing developments that dot the corridor. Just yards north of its boundary, a new shopping center has recently opened, and roads are being dressed up with freshly planted palm trees. "Most of these are first-time buyers," says Robert Krieff, vice president of Transeastern Homes, which is developing Live Oak. Prices range from about $160,000 to the $400,000s, with a perfectly fine family home available for the low $200s. The typical buyers: a 24-to-32-year-old couple with two kids and a family income of $58,000.

It is in these exurban fringes where political allegiances run the shallowest. Boyd is just one of thousands of current and former members of the military in the region, an important voting bloc that historically has leaned Republican but may not be so reliable this year. The sky over Tampa is punctuated with the sound of F-16s roaring overhead from MacDill Air Force Base, home to both Central Command (headquarters for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) and special operations forces. Orlando, despite being an hour's drive inland from the Atlantic Ocean, once had a tight connection to the Navy, with a huge training center just east of downtown. That center is now being retrofitted into a yuppie housing development.

Of course, Florida is synonymous with retirement. But here again, the picture is changing. Where once huge condo communities arose along the southeastern Atlantic coast (some so big they were voting precincts in and of themselves, and reliably Democratic by virtue of their ex-northeast Jewish populations), now the hot spots for retirees and the soon-to-be retired are inland along the I-4 corridor and farther north. These new havens harbor a different crowd: younger, more independent, and just as likely to be refugees from the crowding of South Florida as exiles from New Jersey. Many still work, so the traditional Democratic questioning of Social Security's financial health may not sell as well here as it has in the past. These seniors are just as concerned about interest rates and their stocks.

And they've proven to be a lucrative market for real-estate developers as well. Along a stretch of U.S. 27, which bisects I-4 west of Orlando, arise gated, golfing communities in place of the orange groves that once dominated the horizon. Marketed heavily to the50-something set, they feature large houses with in-law suites, pools, and prepackaged high-speed connections to the Internet. Typical of the lot is the Plantation, which sits on a rise (it's a stretch to call it a hill), allowing a breeze to cool off the late-day sun. The first phase, built in the 1980s, had small homes designed for a time when people moved to Florida and put their feet up without the desire to take care of a large home. Today's houses are far larger, with splashy kitchens and extra trimmings. The average age of the buyer is a youthful 60. A couple of women from New Jersey, originally from the Philippines, are eyeing a midsize model, one of them having placed a deposit on a lot. The other is musing about a job transfer that would allow her to move south sooner.

Another day in Central Florida. Another person planning a move in. Another dream unfolding. Another voter up for grabs.


Hillsborough County


St. Petersburg

Osceola County

Orange County


Volusia County

Daytona Beach

Hillsborough Population

1990 834,054

2002 1,053,864

2000 Election Results

Bush 50 pct.

Gore 47 pct.

Orange Population

1990 677,491

2002 946,484

2000 Election Results

Bush 48 pct.

Gore 50 pct.

Osceola Population

1990 107,728

2002 190,187

2000 Election Results

Bush 47 pct.

Gore 51 pct.

Volusia Population

1990 370,712

2002 459,435

2000 Election Results

Bush 45 pct.

Gore 53 pct.

Note: 2002 populations are estimates.

Sources: America at the Polls 1960-2000, U.S. Census Bureau

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