800,000 Cubans, 3 million old people, and my girlfriend’s dad—the keys to victory in the Sunshine State.

The problem with Florida this time is that it was so crazy-close last time: 537 votes—you may recall hearing something about it. Now Cubans, retirees, gays, veterans, albinos, agoraphobics, Zoroastrians—every group thinks it can swing the state. And so every group demands to be heard. It’s a tough burden for the campaigns: Do you know the kind of resources it takes to get out the agoraphobic vote? That said, not all the groups matter the same. Here are the 2004 Florida keys to victory:

Cuban-American community leader Joe Garcia
Cuban-American community leader Joe Garcia  

1. Cubans.  Last time around, Bush took 82 percent of the Cuban vote here. That is an astonishing figure—it’s better than he did in Crawford, Texas. Will he do it again? To find out, I go to lunch with Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation.

Garcia takes me to the famed Versailles restaurant in the heart of Miami’s Little Havana. Our meal gets interrupted again and again as Cuban dudes stops by to chat. Garcia—gracious community bigwig that he is—shakes some hands, drops some gossip, and compliments one guy’s (bright yellow) guayabera shirt. “A girl bought that for you, right? You like it, but a girl bought it for you.”

During breaks in this networking—and between bites of fried chicken—Garcia explains Bush’s 2000 dominance. One word: Elián. Clinton had done relatively well with Cuban voters in ‘96 (he got 38 percent). But Elián flat-out killed Gore. The saga was “an almost Jungian moment” for Cuban-Americans, says Garcia. “We all thought, there but for the grace of God.…” Because Cubans who made it out (and even those who were born in the United States) feel in some ways they are Elián—blessed to have somehow escaped from the Castro regime. Watching as the little boy was forced (at gunpoint, no less) to return to Cuba … well, it was agonizing. They blamed Clinton. And Gore paid the price.

But there’s no Elián this time, and that alone will swing some votes back to Kerry. Perhaps more important, there’s a growing split among Cuban voters that trends in Democrats’ favor (as Ann Louise Bardach explained in this recent article). The older Cuban exiles are die-hard Republicans—obsessed, as ever, with crushing Castro. Newer arrivals from the island (who often left family behind) and American-born Cubans, however, still favor the embargo but are ready to try a slightly softer approach.

They’re furious over new regulations (backed by Bush) that restricted visits to relatives back in Cuba and make it harder to send them money. To the new-school Cubans, this seems pointlessly harsh. “Sending $300 to your grandma in Cuba doesn’t change the dynamic with Castro,” says Garcia. “It’s bad politics and bad policy.” He says CANF advised against these rules, but the Bushies thought they knew better. “They were throwing raw meat to the right-wing base,” he says, “but it turned out they energized the wrong side.”

Advantage: Kerry. Bush will certainly win the Cuban vote here, by a wide margin—but not nearly as wide as in 2000. And in a race like this, every vote blah, blah, blah. (I can’t bring myself to say it. I’ll let Garcia run the numbers for you: “If one-half of 1 percent of the Cuban community had stayed home in 2000—not voted for Gore, but just stayed home—we’d be talking about Gore’s re-election right now.”)

2. Puerto Ricans. Forget the Cubans, some people say. When it comes to Hispanic votes this year, it’s all about Puerto Ricans. Their numbers in Florida are ballooning, and (unlike with Cubans) they’re all U.S. citizens, thus eligible to vote.

So come with me now to Orlando. We’re at the offices of El Nuevo Dia—the city’s daily Puerto Rican newspaper. END launched here last year to serve the exploding Puerto Rican population. All along the I-4 corridor (the highway that runs east-west through Orlando and Tampa *), Puerto Ricans have arrived in droves to work in the tourism industry.

Puerto Rican-American community leader Samuel Lopez
Puerto Rican-American community leader Samuel Lopez

With growing numbers, of course, comes growing political power. Samuel Lopez—maybe more than anyone else—is the man who will wield that power. Lopez heads the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and also leads a group called United Third Bridge (described as the “NAACP for Puerto Ricans”). He’s here today at END to hype his upcoming “Empowerment Summit.” It’s in Orlando in September (timed for effect on the election), and Lopez wants heavy promotion in the paper.

In the time I spend with Lopez (at END and in his van driving around Orlando), I get a sense that—at least for him—the election this fall is less about the outcome than about Puerto Rican power. I ask him which issues are important to Puerto Ricans (expecting to hear about health care and education), and Lopez responds by demanding more Puerto Rican judges, better committee roles for Hispanic congresspeople, and a Puerto Rican astronaut at NASA. He complains that “African-Americans got all the glory at the convention.” Finally, he claims—with the self-importance of local power brokers everywhere—that whichever candidate confirms first to speak at his Empowerment Summit (neither has done so yet) will be guaranteed a win in the I-4 corridor and thus will win the state.

Advantage: ProbablyKerry. Puerto Ricans tend to be pretty Democratic, though they’re also a “volatile” bloc, according to a Florida politics expert I spoke with: To some extent they will (as Lopez’s comments suggest) favor the candidate who courts them most assiduously. Here’s where Gov. Jeb Bush is a tremendous asset. His wife is Hispanic, he converted to Catholicism, and he knows the community well and speaks fluent Spanish. If Kerry ignores the Puerto Rican vote, Jeb just might steal it away for his brother.

3. Old People. The senior citizens are getting pretty hot under their floppy, cabana-shirt collars. They hate Bush’s new prescription drug plan and would rather get cheap drugs from Canada and Mexico. There’s outrage that AARP, in league with insurance companies, sold them out.

Advantage: A tiny bitKerry. Older, pension-dependent seniors (for whom the drug plan is most important) trend pretty Democratic, anyway. The younger retirees—who are more 401(k)-dependent—will vote their pocketbooks.

4. Naderites. Nader will play less of a role this time. Why? Consider this series of events: I call the Nader campaign in D.C. … and I get a busy signal. I call again … and again get a busy signal. I assume at this point they’re checking e-mail on a dial-up. When I finally get through and ask to reach their Florida campaign headquarters, I’m told, “There isn’t any Florida campaign headquarters. But you can talk to this lady.” I’m given this lady’s name and number. When I call this lady, she says she’s in Connecticut and knows nothing whatsoever about Florida.

Advantage:Kerry. I doubt the Nader campaign becomes a big factor here because there is no Nader campaign here.

5. My Girlfriend’s Dad. My girlfriend’s dad—a retiree on the Gulf Coast and a wonderful guy, I might add—voted for Bush last time. But this time, outraged by Bush foreign policy, he’ll be pulling the lever for Kerry. You hear a lot in the media about this type of voter. And with good reason. If there are indeed millions of Bush-2000-but-Kerry-2004 people out there, it spells doom for Bush. The CW is that while many will make this Bush-to-Kerry switch, almost no one who voted for Gore will now flip to Bush.

Not so fast! So says Susan MacManus, poli-sci professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa (and an oft-quoted commentator on Florida politics). MacManus predicts that for every Florida voter like my girlfriend’s dad, there’s an equal and opposite voter who will switch from Gore 2000 to Bush 2004. The people she has in mind are moderate Dems who think that Bush is better at fighting terrorists. Indeed, a friend of mine—who’s been campaigning for a Democratic congressional candidate in Sarasota—says he’s come across at least a few folks who fit MacManus’ model. (Anecdotally, I’ve also heard of another type of left-to-right switching voter: rabidly pro-Israel Jews, drawn to Lieberman in 2000 but swayed this time by their approval of the war in Iraq and of Bush’s pro-Sharon policies.)

Advantage: I have to think a little bit Kerry. I see MacManus’ point, but my eyes are telling me she’s overstating her case. Yes, there will be switchers in both directions, but I can’t believe they will balance each other out.

Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition Chair Lida Rodriguez-Taseff
Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition Chair Lida Rodriguez-Taseff

6. The Voting Machines. “This election is not about issues or candidates. It’s about the machines.” So says Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, chair of the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition. She predicts that Florida will be decided by a mixture of error and fraud.

First of all, she says, many voters—especially African-Americans—have so little faith in their vote being counted that they may not even vote at all. Activist groups (and people like Michael Moore) say they’ll be on hand in Florida on Election Day to make sure nothing funky goes down. They’re wasting their time, says Rodriguez-Taseff. On the surface, this election will run quite smoothly. The chaos will all be happening behind the scenes. For instance:

Item: These new voting machines take forever to boot up. According to Rodriguez-Taseff, they’ll be powered up the night before and left running all night long (in polling spots with little security—like schools and libraries).

Item: There will be no printed receipt from the machines. Instead, the machines will just keep the vote records on their hard drives. Which of course could not possibly crash or malfunction, thereby losing hundreds and thousands of votes, with no printouts to fall back on. And of course you could not possibly hack into the machines, while they’re left on all night, and screw with the voting data. Sure, there’s no paper trail to stop you, but it just couldn’t happen.

The Democrats and Republicans have come up with radically different strategies to deal with this stuff, according to Rodriguez-Taseff. The Democrats—beaten last time, but not broken—are gearing up for another recount battle. They’ll be ready this time, and they’re sure they can win it.

But, says Rodriguez-Taseff, the Democrats are perfectly prepared for the last war. But the Republican plan for 2004 is to avoid a recount altogether. How? By beating the recount margin. If Bush wins by more than one-fourth of a percentage point, there will be no manual recount. If he wins by more than a full percentage point, there will be no recount at all.

Of course, Republicans will try to do this through fierce campaigning and strong positions on important issues. But at the same time, low-level operatives, acting independently, are no doubt aware of the opportunities for fraud. And they are also aware that, with a big enough win, there’s no going back to check the votes. (Don’t get me wrong here. People on both sides are able, and likely, to do shady stuff.)

Advantage: ProbablyBush.

If forced to guess, I’d guess that Kerry wins Florida. There are so many trends in his favor, and my sunnier side is hoping that fraud and error won’t play a big role. Still, I expect a brutal fight to the finish. And I fully expect the lawyers to come out on Election Day—and on the days to follow.

Correction: The article originally claimed that highway I-4 ran to St. Petersburg. In fact, it ends in Tampa. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)