Florida has been a graveyard for past presidential campaigns, though most candidates didn’t bring their own shovels to the primary.
Bernie Sanders started digging early.
A zany voice inside his fluffy head decided it would be all right to talk favorably about Fidel Castro — not worshipfully, not gushingly, but just enough to aggravate many Hispanic Democrats, a crucial voting bloc.
At the time, the Vermont senator already was way behind in the state polls, trailing former Vice President Joe Biden and ex-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The comments about Fidel did not vault Sanders to the top of the pack.
Now Bloomberg and the others are gone, and the delegate race is down to Sanders and Biden, who kicked Bernie’s butt on Super Tuesday.
Bernie recently began airing attack ads in Florida, saying Biden has supported cuts in Social Security. Senior voters here are accustomed to politicians trying to scare them that way, and Sanders might need something more original to make a dent.
He’ll have to show up, too. When choosing the venues, extreme caution is in order.
Bernie can put on a lively rally, but Florida isn’t California. Many Democrats here wouldn’t describe themselves as leftist or liberal; very, very few line up as “democratic socialists.”
Sanders brags about expanding his base to bring in moderates, but just the opposite happened on Super Tuesday. The voters he energized the most were those who view his proposals as either too radical or politically unachievable, and they stampeded in hordes to Biden.
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The truth is that Bernie didn’t dream up the notion of Medicare for all, or canceling all student-loan debts, or making college free for anyone who wants to go. And it would be terrific if those sorts of big-hearted concepts could be enacted without sinking the country even deeper into its vast crater of debt.
Sanders promises it’s possible, but the math doesn’t add up. Making Wall Street pay for all that good stuff is a crowd-pleasing line, but it could only happen in an alternate universe, with an alternate House and Senate.
Most Americans benefit from complex entitlement programs that sprung from movements accused of having socialistic roots — from Medicare to farm subsidies to Social Security itself.
It’s not inconceivable that a patient, savvy political leader could persuade voters (and Congress) that more should be done and we can afford to do it — but Bernie’s not that person.
He wants it all. He wants it now. He wants everybody else to get out of the freaking way.
So he plays well to young audiences, especially in college towns. Tallahassee and Gainesville would be excellent places for him to hold rallies in the next two weeks. Unfortunately, the rest of the state is full of land mines.
From the outside it might seem as if Sanders would score big with South Florida’s large population of retirees, who are mostly registered Democrats. But so far, they’re not feeling the Bern.
Most of them aren’t living out their senior years as angry or agitated as Bernie. They know his type, too.
He’s the guy who thinks everyone’s trying to cut in front of him at the buffet line. The guy who’s always suing the homeowners’ association. The guy who stalks out of the bingo hall because he says the game is rigged.
Sanders faces even stiffer challenges at the other end of Florida. The Panhandle is one of Donald Trump’s go-to destinations whenever he yearns for a loud, friendly crowd, but it might be harder for Bernie to fill an arena in a place where so many Democrats consider themselves to be conservative.
Yet Sanders does have a brilliant grass-roots organization that works social media better than any other candidate’s. During his 2016 campaign, he made a last-minute swing through Florida that attracted big, enthusiastic audiences.
Among those cheering his call for “political revolution” were 4,000-plus supporters in Kissimmee, not exactly a hotbed of liberalism.
Still, Bernie got walloped by Hillary Clinton in the state primary. More than 560,000 people voted for him, but he’ll need way more than that to beat Grandpa Joe on March 17.
As of this writing, the Sanders campaign hadn’t yet announced his Florida itinerary, but he’s coming. It would be hard to win the Democratic nomination without spending enough time here to pick up a significant number of delegates.
Before arriving, though, he should rehearse not bringing up certain unnecessary topics.
Che Guevara, for example.
Don’t go there, Bernie.
Drop the shovel, and back off.