Bernie’s old Castro crush won’t hurt him much in the Democratic primaries, and nothing can help him win Florida on Tuesday anyway. Florida is a closed primary, which mean only registered Democrats can vote, and Bernie doesn’t do well without independent voters, especially as so many of his fervent Millennial supporters are registered as independents. But if he were the nominee he could now certainly kiss Florida off, and the last time a Democrat was elected president without Florida was 1992, and before that you have to back all the way back to 1960 with JFK. But in 1960 Florida had maybe a third of the population it does now, even Iowa was bigger. Florida was not a must win for either side back then, it was just another ten electoral votes to be worked into various possible combinations to get to 270 electoral votes. By 1992 Florida was much bigger, with 25 electoral votes, and though Bill Clinton lost the state to the first President Bush, Clinton was a southerner and took enough southern states to make up for Florida. But Bernie is not a southerner.
Since then Florida, and its current 29 electoral votes (the same number as New York, and behind only Texas and California), has been the linchpin to every GOP presidential victory. As long as the Republican candidate can carry Florida, they win, even if by a handful of votes in a disputed election. There are other mathematical combinations you can come up with to have a Republican victory without Florida, but they are politically very unlikely. Florida has become a do or die state for a Republican presidential nominee. Indeed, the second Bush was able to win the electoral college even after losing the popular vote because he won (or “won”) Florida.
And the key Florida demographic in these calculations are Cuban-Americans, they are what enable the GOP to hold on to the state. The secret was Fidel. If the Cuban-Americans thought the Democrat was soft on Fidel Castro, they would vote Republican in a landslide. The Cubans are mellowing now, and the younger Cubans are beginning to act like other Hispanics in American elections and vote Democratic. So a Democrat like Obama could win the state in the general election as long as he got a substantial minority of Cuban-Americans…which a Democrat cold do as long as he didn’t say anything nice about Fidel. You could even say you were open to lifting embargo on Cuba, as long as you didn’t say anything nice about Fidel. But Bernie said something nice about Fidel.
Of course, back in 1985, Bernie Sanders had no idea he would one day be running for President. He might have dreamed of it–every politician, even dog catchers, dream of running for president–but it never occurred to Bernie it would ever actually happen. That was in the middle of the Reagan Revolution, and even the very oldest Millennials today were just gleams in their mother’s first husband’s eye in 1985. But it has come back to haunt him now. Or would, if he were nominated. Once again, Florida will be a battleground state, along with Ohio, Virginia, Iowa and a couple others. And a nominee Bernie Sanders already lost Florida by guaranteeing a big turn out of those Cuban Americans who hate Fidel, which is a big step in guaranteeing a Republican as President. Even a Cuban American switch to, say, Trump of five or ten per cent would be enough to hand the state to the Republicans. And I’m not saying Bernie said anything wrong or right, that is not the point. He evaded the question about his mildly pro-Castro comments at the debate in Miami, but in his answer he made some serious points about how the US shouldn’t have been invading small Latin American countries from the Bay of Pigs to supporting the contras in Nicaragua. Which negates it as an issue in the Democratic nomination race, as Cuban Americans are a negligible presence in any of the upcoming state races, compared to Mexican Americans (in California, Arizona, and New Mexico) and Puerto Ricans (in New York and New Jersey) and even first and second generation immigrants from El Salvador (California) and the Dominican Republic (New York). Alas, whatever validity there was in what Bernie was saying in 1985 will not register in angry Cuban-American ears today, and that is all that matters in Florida every four years. There is a third rail in Florida politics, and thirty years ago Bernie grabbed hold of it with both hands without even a twinge, because he was from Vermont and it didn’t matter. But now it matters, or would, come November.
(I talked about the unique influence of Cuban-Americans on American presidential election history here.)