Juliet Dunlop: Race to White House has deeper meaning
With less than two weeks to go until election day, the race for the White House is tighter than ever.
Democrat president Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, are neck-and-neck in the polls and this week the campaign rolled into Florida for the third and final presidential debate. The candidates may have tangled over foreign policy, but the Sunshine State was really the prize; the keys to the top job may well hang from its Panhandle.
It’s easy to see why candidates lavish the state with attention: Florida is finely balanced between the two parties and offers more votes in the electoral college than any other swing state. It has form – remember the election of 12 years ago and those infamous hanging chads? America was thrown into crisis as election officials pored over thousands of punchcard ballots that hadn’t been punched. In the end, a US Supreme Court ruling awarded Florida – and the White House – to George W Bush by the slimmest of margins.
This time there are no dimpled and pregnant chads to worry about in Florida but pundits are predicting another nail-biter. Turnout will be crucial but there’s also potential for things going wrong thanks to new voting laws. Floridians who fail to produce the right identification on polling day will have to fill in provisional ballots – all of which will have to be verified. If things come down to the wire and there’s a recount in Florida, we could even see a repeat of the presidential limbo of 2000.
So, in a swing state with the power to sway the result, Obama and Romney must appeal to Florida’s voters like never before. The economy, jobs and healthcare matter to its 19 million residents, but Florida has other problems, too. We know about the tourists who flock to its theme parks and long white beaches but there’s a darker side; one where crime and poverty seemingly go unchecked and race remains an issue. Guns and gangs are not just a problem in Miami. This year, Florida was rocked by an incident it couldn’t ignore.
On the 26 February, a black teenager was shot dead in a quiet, gated community near Orlando. Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman, a white-Hispanic man who thought the 17-year-old was acting suspiciously. There was a struggle and Martin was shot. Zimmerman wasn’t arrested, charged or even questioned under oath because under Florida state law you are permitted to “stand your ground”. The racially charged case sparked a wave of protest. Zimmerman was arrested but it took police 45 days to do it.
The case raised questions about the availability of guns, race and justice. Yet while Obama and Romney spoke about the search for answers in the days that followed the shooting, their silence during the campaign has been notable.
Despite other recent high-profile gun crimes, including June’s mass shooting in Colorado, the gun lobby and the “stand your ground laws” have remained off-limits.
Zimmerman, who claims he acted in self-defence, is awaiting trial.
So, in Boca Raton, Florida, the setting for this week’s debate, such thorny matters were not part of either candidate’s agenda. It’s the type of wealthy, palm-fringed city that many Americans dream of retiring to. I’ve been to similar places in Florida and am always struck by one thing – how white they are. Florida has a large black and Hispanic population, yet in Boca Raton and the other rich resort towns that cling to the coastline, you wouldn’t think so.
Perhaps that’s why during a private fundraiser in Boca Raton, Romney felt he could let rip. In May, he was caught on camera saying 47 per cent of Americans will never vote for him because they depend on the government. The implication being they are poor and don’t matter.
However, not everyone in Florida is wealthy and white, something Romney – and Obama – should remember. As America’s first black president, Obama was elected on a wave of hope but change it seems, is hard.
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