Why Florida Is Critical For McCain Popular wisdom this year holds that Florida, is a must-win for McCain and Palin if they're to capture the White House. Political scientist Susan McManus of the University of South Florida discusses the voter dynamic.

Why Florida Is Critical For McCain

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ALEX COHEN, host:

Of course, Punta Gorda is just one small corner of a very large and politically diverse state. For more on the Sunshine State and its political leanings, we turn now to Susan McManus. She teaches political science at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Thanks for joining us, Professor McManus. And tell us, right now, how do Florida voters break down in terms of party?

Dr. SUSAN MCMANUS (Political Science, University of South Florida): Registration wise, they're 42 percent Democrats, 37 percent Republicans, and independents everything else. So we have over one fifth of our voters that are neither Democrats nor Republicans, and neither party has a majority of the registrant.

COHEN: We just heard about one small community, Punta Gorda. If you can, just kind of lay out the map for us. Geographically, how does Florida break down?

Dr. MCMANUS: Southeast Florida is heavily Democratic, southwest Florida heavily Republican. Northeast Florida is registered Democrat but often votes Republican in presidential races. It's the most conservative part of the state, which leaves the most important part of the state, the swing part, which is the mid-rift of Florida, running from Daytona Beach over to the Tampa Bay area, the I-4 quarters, called the Highway to Heaven. It's where the swing voters are. It's where the candidates are going to be. It's the must-have region of Florida, the up for grabs part.

COHEN: There was a piece in the St Petersburg Times over the weekend that said that Senator Obama seems to be in a bit of trouble, and they make the case that he's behind in the polls, where John Kerry was at this point in the 2004 election. How do you think Senator Obama's faring?

Dr. MCMANUS: He's doing extremely well in terms of organizing the state and energizing volunteers. He's pledged to open campaign headquarters in 65 of Florida's 67 counties, which is far more than John Kerry did. But a lot of his support comes from younger voters and from African Americans, and, of course, turnout for those two critical parts of the electorate is key.

So I think that may give Obama the edge in terms of on the ground organization at this point, which is why some think that the polls, which right now show McCain up by four or five, are still the result of a convention bounce and the addition of the fresh face, Sarah Palin, to the ticket.

COHEN: What do either of these candidates need to do in this home stretch to win Florida as a state?

Dr. MCMANUS: Well, Florida's a state where the economy is critically important, but so, too, is national security and homeland security. In the 2004 election, whereas in the rest of the country moral values was the number one issue, it was security in Florida because we're a very vulnerable state, both to possible terrorist attacks - we've had terrorist incidents here - but also to catastrophic events like hurricanes. So they have to really traverse those two things when they come to Florida.

COHEN: You mentioned African-American voters and young voters. What about first-time voters? What role will they play in the outcome in November?

Dr. MCMANUS: First time voters are usually very young voters, and they have to be educated about the process of voting. 15 of Florida's largest counties have changed election equipment since the 2004 election, from the electronic voting machines to optical scan, which is like filling the blank or bubble kinds of ballots.

But people who are registering new voters are very aware that they have to educate these people on the process of voting and so, too, must the supervisor of elections. So a lot of voter education really is needed for these first-time voters.

COHEN: And technically speaking, how smooth do you think this election is going to be this year, especially compared to years past, let's say 2000?

Dr. MCMANUS: Clearly, Florida's in much better shape in 2008 than when it was in 2000, with its new voting equipment, with its voter education, and with its rules for recounts in the event of a close election, which many people expect.

COHEN: Professor McManus, what are you telling your students to be watching out for in this election?

Dr. MCMANUS: My students are very divided, as is Florida. I'm telling them to watch out for the issue positions that the candidates expressed but also to measure up the person that they feel most confident in, in terms of performance as a leader, because poll after poll after elections show that people tend to vote more on how they feel about the overall candidate, issues plus their leadership, not just issues.

COHEN: Susan McManus is a professor of political science at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Thank you.

Dr. MCMANUS: My pleasure.

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