Being Moody

One state, two Floridas: A land of Cubans and crackers

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    Being Moody: 2016 in Florida, from Cubans to Crackers

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Being Moody: 2016 in Florida, from Cubans to Crackers 03:40

Story highlights

  • It's voting season and -- yet again -- Florida is poised to play a pivotal role in a presidential election
  • For Republicans, this state will help determine whether the party's primary season remains competitive

(CNN)It's voting season and -- yet again -- Florida is poised to play a pivotal role in a presidential election.

For Republicans, this state will help determine whether the party's primary season remains competitive, or if real estate mogul Donald Trump takes another step toward becoming their nominee. The stakes are especially high for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has pinned his hopes on winning here Tuesday.
    Florida is a sprawling, diverse swing state with multiple voting blocs and ethnicities, which is part of what makes it so unpredictable in politics.
    With the presidential race in full swing here, two constituencies in particular help show just how different Florida voters can be: The Cubans, a vocal voting bloc of immigrant exiles and the Florida crackers, families who have lived here for generations. Both lean Republican, but each community represents two very different types of Florida voters.
    Big Marco in Little Havana
    As a Cuban-American born in Miami, Rubio's rise as a state legislator and U.S. senator is inextricably tied to his roots in South Florida's community of exiles who have fled Fidel Castro's regime.
    "He grew up in this community. He has relationships with so many different parts in it. He understands it because he lives in so many experiences just like us," said Armando Ibarra, a Rubio supporter whose parents were also Cuban exiles. "He really speaks to the values I grew up with in a way no other candidate does."
    The senator's backers here say they are proud that one of their own has risen to such heights. (Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, too, is the son of a Cuban-born immigrant, although his father put down roots in Texas, not Florida.)
    With Rubio's political future hanging in the balance of Tuesday's primary election, politics is the talk of the community. That passion was on display here on a recent afternoon in Maximo Gomez Park in Little Havana, where aging exiles have gathered for years to play dominos and gossip. On this day, loud discussions of the looming election bounced through the air above the sound of noisy dominoes shuffling across tables and live Cuban music playing on a nearby street.
    "Marco Rubio is the son of a Cuban immigrant. He's conservative," said Porfidio Sanchez, speaking in Spanish, who paused from his game to give his analysis of the election. "As a Cuban, that I am, I should vote for a son of my countryman so he can be the president of the United States."
    "Marco Rubio is the best!" a woman across the table shouted, also in Spanish.
    "Hillary Clinton!" another nearby voice shouted.
    "Clinton and Trump, the two of them are good for nothing!" the woman responded.
    Rubio may be popular among Republicans in Miami, but in order for him to win on Tuesday, he must dominate statewide. Florida polls of Republican voters continue to show Trump leading Rubio. And in the wide stretches of Florida land beyond Miami-Dade country, he's not nearly as popular.
    Cracker country
    Quick! List a few things that come to mind when you think about Florida.
    Disney, beaches, oranges -- and possibly an unbelievable news story involving a "Florida man," a reptile and some dynamite -- are the usual associations. But throughout parts of central and northern regions of the state, you'll find a quieter, less flashy breed of Floridian: They are the original American cowboys and cowgirls whose families have been here for hundreds of years.
    These are the proud Florida crackers.
    The crackers, descendants of ranchers that date back as far as the sixteenth century, derive their nickname from the sound of a whip they use to drive cattle across the state and out of Florida's thick underbrush.
    While out-of-state politicians often steer clear of the term, former President Bill Clinton used it correctly before campaigning in Florida for then-candidate Barack Obama in 2008 when he said the campaign had sent him to "hustle up" the "cracker vote."
    Some clueless media outlets reported at the time that Clinton had used a racial slur, but as any good Floridian will tell you, the name predates the modern pejorative use of the word to describe white people. And here, they're downright proud of it.
    "People don't realize in Florida that we're the first cowboys in the United States. We've been doing cattle business for 500 years here in Florida," said Todd Clemons, president of the Okeechobee Cattleman's Association. "When everything else in the world is changing, our way of life is still the same. And it's a good feeling."
    It is in communities like this that candidates like Trump and Cruz will be making their biggest dents against Rubio.
    The crackers who live in this part of the state, the region surrounding Lake Okeechobee, are generally conservative. But said they they're turned off by the negative tone of the presidential election.
    "We're Republicans and everything, but I don't think Donald Trump's going to do the part," said James Greeson, a bronco rider from Okeechobee who said he supports Cruz. "I think he has good intentions, but he's power hungry."
    "I don't like him. He's too dang smart aleck-y," said Jack Sutton, who has lived in Okeechobee for his entire life.
    One of the best-known crackers in this part of the state is Iris Wall, an 86-year-old rancher who still keeps watch of her cattle from her ranch near Indiantown. Tough and straight-talking, Wall said she has struggled with choosing a candidate to mark down on her ballot Tuesday.
    "I liked Rubio pretty good at first, but when he got to doing what they told him to, I got enough of him," Wall said as she drove around her ranch in her pick-up. "At least (Trump's) got guts enough to say what he thinks. That's something. Although sometimes it's stupid, it's still something. This is the first year I've had a hard, hard time."
    But she does know one thing: "I can tell you this right now -- and it may not make you like me worth a flip but I don't care -- I'm not voting for Hillary Clinton, I'll tell you that. And I'm not going to vote for the other old man neither."