The Unresolved Questions of the Florida Primary

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There are so many story lines in the presidential races coming out of Florida and heading into February 5. Here are four key ones.

1. Can John McCain be beat? If John McCain gets Rudy Giuliani’s endorsement today, as expected, he will be an incredibly formidable force on February 5. He’ll likely gobble up Giuliani’s donors and key staffers (meaning additional money and organization), and build on his already impressive lead among moderate Republicans.

Exit polls showed yesterday that Mitt Romney beat John McCain among voters who identified as “conservative,” and beat him badly among voters who identified as “very conservative.” That spells out Romney’s strategy from here on out: move to the right, and target states with conservative electorates (Georgia), and not moderate ones (California). The problem for Romney is that the conservative states on the Feb. 5 map are mostly southern, meaning that Mike Huckabee, who is staying in the race, will likely soak up a lot of votes, putting Romney in a real bind. Huckabee has a lot of personal affection for John McCain (and reportedly hates Romney), which makes one wonder if he is deliberately staying in a race he knows he cannot win in order to help facilitate McCain’s triumph over Romney.

If Mitt Romney goes negative (and he’s shown a willingness to go negative over the course of this campaign), McCain has two choices. He can either smack back, as he did in Florida with grossly misleading claims about Romney’s record on the Iraq War and by saying Romney was once for “special rights” for homosexuals and “abortion on demand,” or he can take the high road (only frontrunner’s allowed!) and paint Romney as desperate. Either way, he has shown that he has learned from his 2000 experience, in which he got run out of the race by negative ads in South Carolina.

Romney had a number of advantages in Florida. He had built a strong organization in the state over the course of a year, while John McCain scrapped his entire Florida machine in summer 2007 when his campaign was on life support. Romney reportedly ran eight or nine times as many ads as McCain. McCain didn’t air his first ad until January; Romney took to airwaves last fall. Half of Floridians voting in the GOP primary yesterday cited the economy as the most important issue, which should have played to Romney’s advantage.

And yet, Romney’s struggles might be explained by a story that Mike Huckabee used to tell in Iowa. A dog food manufacturer is struggling to make a profit. He calls all of his people together and says, “We have the best advertisements, the best packaging, the best distribution, the best business model. Why isn’t the money coming in?” Someone slowly raises their hand in the back of the room and says, “The dogs just won’t eat the darn stuff, sir.”

If Mitt Romney is the dog food nobody wants, John McCain should get gobbled up on February 5.

2. Did Rudy Giuliani run one of the worst campaigns in modern American history? Yes. Who would have thought Rudy Giuliani would be one and done? It’s just stunning. I think Giuliani’s demise proves the primacy of media coverage in voters’ decision-making. Giuliani was in Florida for 50 days. He traveled all over. He poured gobs of money into the state. And yet the fact that McCain, Romney, and even Huckabee were constantly in the news due to their wins and strong performances in IA, NH, MI, and SC over came all of that.

3. Should Hillary Clinton’s victory in Florida yesterday count for much? With the Democratic race in Florida devoid of delegates (Florida is being punished by the DNC for moving its primary before February 5), Clinton’s win only matters in the fairy tale world of photo ops, spin, and media momentum. The Clinton campaign has been pushing hard to seat Florida’s delegates, which would give the Clinton campaign a windfall of badly needed delegates at the convention and make Florida look like it ought to count for something. It held a conference call with reporters yesterday in which they pointed out that Florida has more voters than Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina combined. “We believe the voices of Florida voters should be heard,” said campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle.

Clinton had strong support among Florida’s many older voters, New York transplants, and Latinos—three natural bases of support for her. But let’s get real. Hillary Clinton does well in any state that hasn’t seen the candidates up close. States with high numbers of what political experts call “low-information voters” usually give Hillary big leads in the polls because voters there make judgments based largely on name recognition and loyalty. They know Hillary. They think, “The Clinton years were pretty good; certainly better than the Bush years. I can get behind eight more years of that.” But in states where the electorate gets weeks or months to see the candidates face to face, the numbers even out. Barack Obama wins some of those states, and John Edwards does better than expected.

And that’s ultimately why this win is a phony one for the Clinton. The Obama campaign held its own conference call yesterday in which John Kerry blasted Clinton’s attempt to spin Florida. The campaign called Clinton’s ploy “too clever by half.” What they should have done is pointed out that Clinton would love it if every state never got a look at the candidates. Clinton-brand dog food is better than Romney-brand, but not by much.

4. Was yesterday night really a win for the Democratic Party? Yes. Almost two-thirds of voters in the Republican primary rejected President’s Bush stewardship of the economy, calling the condition of the economy unsatisfactory or poor. The numbers were worse among Democrats. On what is now without doubt the most important issue of the campaign, people of all stripes are not content with Republican leadership.

And look at the vote totals. In a primary the Democratic Party declared null and void, 850,000 people turned out to vote for Hillary Clinton. John McCain, winner of the GOP race, took just 690,000. The total turnout for the Dems was about 1.7 million; total turnout for the GOP was 1.9 million. The Republicans poured everything they had into Florida, while the Democrats were banned from campaigning! It’s possible that Mike Huckabee’s inedible dog food is really the Republican Party itself.


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