Had Hillary Clinton become the Democratic nominee, she almost certainly would have been favored heavily over John McCain to win Florida—something that the party’s past two nominees famously failed to do and which only three Democrats since Harry Truman have managed. Barack Obama, on the other hand, enters the general-election campaign as the clear, if early, underdog in the nation’s fourth most populous state.
A poll conducted last month found Mrs. Clinton leading Mr. McCain by eight points in Florida; the same survey showed Mr. Obama trailing by four. A second poll put Mrs. Clinton’s lead at six points and Mr. Obama’s deficit at 10—a startling, and potentially election-altering, swing of 16 points. As they sketch together different electoral map combinations for the fall, most Democrats’ default assumption is that they will, once again, lose the Sunshine State.
But that is not Bob Graham’s assumption—and he knows a thing or two about winning elections in Florida as a Democrat. Mr. Graham, who briefly pursued a presidential bid in 2003 and whose name has been linked to running-mate discussions every four years for the past quarter-century, won five statewide races between 1978 and 1998—two for governor and three for the U.S. Senate. He never lost, either, retiring after the 2004 election (when his seat went to Republican Mel Martinez).
In an interview late last week, Mr. Graham, who is now 71, said that Mr. Obama could win the state, though he admitted that Mrs. Clinton could have won it “probably by a somewhat larger margin than Obama.”
“Senator Clinton is very popular here in Florida,” he said. “She has been here numerous times during her and her husband’s political career. She has many friends. There’s a large contingent of former New Yorkers who live in Florida. So she started with a strong earned advantage.”
The real culprit in Mr. Obama’s weak poll numbers, Mr. Graham insists, is the drawn-out controversy over Florida’s January 29 primary. When Florida set its primary date late last fall, the Democratic National Committee immediately decertified the contest, since it violated a previous agreement between all 50 state parties that no state—save Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina—would schedule a primary or caucus before Feb. 5. In accordance with that decision, the candidates all agreed to steer clear of the state. Its status was only resolved two weekends ago, when a DNC panel voted to grant each of the state’s delegates a half-vote at the convention.
“The Democratic candidates, including Senator Obama, did not have the opportunity to campaign here in January,” Mr. Graham said. “There was a hiatus between the end of 2007 and May of 2008 in which I don’t think Obama came to Florida one time. So he’s much less well known than Clinton.”
Or McCain, who has faced no similar prohibition on campaigning in the state. While the Republican National Committee also punished Florida for its early primary, the penalty (cutting the state’s delegate pile in half) did nothing to delegitimize the January contest, which all of the G.O.P. candidates vigorously contested—and where Mr. McCain scored what may have been the decisive victory in his path to the G.O.P. nomination. Florida was one of the few states—Michigan (where another outlaw Democratic primary was held), Alaska, Idaho and Utah are the others—where Republican turnout actually exceeded Democratic turnout in the primary and caucus season.
If the primary fiasco is the root of Mr. Obama’s Florida problem, he’s at least partly to blame, since it was his campaign’s strategy to essentially filibuster any realistic resolution of the controversy before the end of May. Their calculation was that Mrs. Clinton’s hand would be so weakened by that point that she’d lack the leverage to push through any solution that favored her—and that it would be too late to schedule “revotes” in Florida or Michigan, which might have given new life to Mrs. Clinton’s effort.
On one level, the strategy worked, in that the deal that was ultimately struck favored Mr. Obama. But in the months between January and the May 31 DNC meeting, Mr. Obama was mostly absent from Florida—while Mrs. Clinton railed on a daily basis for the January primary to be counted. Perhaps Floridians came to see Mr. Obama as dismissive of them? “I guess to a degree, while the party as an institution took most of the heat, Hillary probably took a little bit less of the personal anger because of her position than Obama did because of his,” said Mr. Graham, who remained neutral through the Democratic race. Plus, he said, Mr. Obama is, as the de facto Democratic nominee, saddled with the “baggage” that stems from voters’ disgust with the national party’s treatment of the state this year.
“But Obama’s going to have a chance to redeem himself,” Mr. Graham said, “by directing the DNC to seat the Florida and Michigan delegations with a 100 percent vote.” That symbolic gesture, which Mr. Graham expects Mr. Obama to make over the summer, “will largely be a big vacuum cleaner eliminating all the refuse that that initial decision caused,” he said.
Then there’s that other, much-discussed issue Mr. Obama is said to face: skepticism among the state’s Jewish voters. There’s a high concentration of elderly Jews in the state’s Gold Coast counties, a constituency that plays a pivotal role in any Democrat’s hopes of carrying Florida. In 2004, John Kerry won Florida’s Jewish vote by an 80-20 margin, but this was actually a drop from the 2000 performance of Al Gore (who was boosted by Joe Lieberman’s presence on the ticket). Mr. Kerry lost the state by five points, while Mr. Gore—as you may have heard—was just 537 votes short when the counting stopped. There are signs, memorably presented in a front-page New York Times story last month, that Florida’s older Jewish voters are suspicious of Mr. Obama and potentially ripe for the picking by Mr. McCain. If Mr. McCain could hold Mr. Obama to 70 percent of Florida’s Jewish vote—as opposed to Mr. Kerry’s 80 percent—it could sink Mr. Obama’s statewide hopes.
Mr. Graham acknowledged this concern, chalking much of it up to the “apparently erroneous, nasty stuff” that has been circulating about Mr. Obama, but he pointed to the candidate’s highly publicized visit to a Boca Raton synagogue last month, where he addressed congregants’ concerns in a town hall meeting.
“He spoke before a large synagogue and got very solid reviews when people actually saw him and heard him talk about what his positions were
on issues of importance to the Jewish community, particularly Israel,” said Mr. Graham.
“So I think his positions, if known, are very acceptable to the Jewish community,” Mr. Graham said. “And he’s going to make it a priority to make sure that they are known.”
The other major complicating factor for Mr. Obama in Florida is the possibility that Mr. McCain, anxious to nail down the state’s 27 electoral votes, might tap Charlie Crist, the popular first-term Republican governor, as his running mate. Crist provided a crucial endorsement of Mr. McCain just before this January’s primary, quite possibly accounting for the Arizonan’s narrow winning margin over Mitt Romney.
Mr. Graham knows Mr. Crist better than most: He beat him in his 1998 Senate reelection campaign by 26 points. Back then, Mr. Crist was to most Floridians little more than a generic Republican name on the ballot. Today, his popularity in the state is broad and deep, reaching across party lines.
“If he were on the ticket, it would make it more difficult,” Mr. Graham said, “but even then I think Democrats would carry the state.”
Mr. Graham dismissed the suggestion that Mr. Obama should select a Floridian—like, say, Bob Graham—for his ticket to improve his standing in the state. He also declined a chance to endorse the so-called Obama-Clinton “dream ticket,” which would presumably boost Mr. Obama’s Florida poll number.
“He’s got to look at his administration for governing,” Mr. Graham said. “What kind of person does he want to have as his partner in his administration, and how will that partner help him get elected to the White House?”