Now the road to the White House heads to America’s biggest political prize and melting pot: Florida.
Our cultural, ethnic and geographic diversity has made us the ultimate test market for new trends and new ideas; a state whose politics remain solidly purple despite the increasing national divide between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, red and blue.
Like the rest of America, Floridians are not immune to the anxiety, impatience and anger that has come to dominate the current debate about the next leader of the free world, control of the U.S. Senate and the seismic shift to come in the balance of power on the U.S. Supreme Court.
More than anything, Florida is the center of a political scrum between old and new where insiders are on the run, outsiders are on the rise and the rules governing success are being rewritten by the day.
The 2016 campaign is nothing short of a referendum on the system — one that has grown weary from habit and wary of change.
Yet an amazing phenomenon is taking place amid the flurry of television and Web ads, mailers and phone calls, made-for-TV rallies and shifting predictions of winners and losers. It’s right in front of us, and it could lead to the most profound transformation in American politics in a generation.
Driven by two messengers, one from the left and one from the right, a common theme has emerged to create common ground. It is the kind of message that can unite teachers in Miami-Dade with tea party advocates in the Panhandle, military veterans in Sarasota with peace advocates in Gainesville, Reagan Democrats in Brooksville with Reagan Republicans in Jacksonville.
Bernie Sanders says he’s fomenting a political revolution to stop the oligarchy — Wall Street, the pharmaceutical industry, big insurance companies and the like — from trampling American democracy. It’s caught fire, and even if Sanders loses out in the political process of Democratic primaries and caucuses currently commanded by the army of Hillary Clinton, he has created a dynamic that’s already forced her to mimic his ideas.
On the right, Donald Trump is sparking a political movement that has turned the pundits, the predictions and the process on its head. Seemingly overnight, he has moved from a curiosity to contender. The results from the past few weeks, and those shortly to come, could reinforce the inevitability of his nomination.
Sanders’ message is that Americans, the 100 million at the bottom who make less than the 15 at the top, are tired of losing.
Trump’s message is that it’s time for the nation to start winning again.
In this critical sense, their messages — though clearly not their remedies — align, leading to what would otherwise have been a totally inconceivable new reality: Donald Trump could use Bernie Sanders to help him win the presidency.
Trump, like Sanders, can decry how Americans are tired of losing.
Trump, like Sanders, can say that the system is rigged against opportunity and success.
Trump, like Sanders, can bemoan the influence of big-money super PACs telling us what to do, how to think and, ultimately, how to vote.
Trump, like Sanders, is a messenger for the frustration of a country that is now questioning its institutional pillars.
And if Trump squares off against Clinton in the fall, which is beginning to look more probable, we are already hearing how Clinton would start off as the favorite.
Maybe so, but this election is not about the mind but the heart, not about resumés but resolve, not about protecting the system but forever changing it.
Clinton, after more than three decades in the public realm, will be forced to defend it in the courtroom of public opinion. Trump will play the role of prosecutor, cross-examining Clinton about why we should believe she’ll change a system she herself helped create.
In their closing arguments to the American jury, Clinton will flash her credentials and experience as if the job interview depended on it.
Trump, after proclaiming he’s not “one of them,” will look the jurors in the eye and simply close with a line that could have been borrowed from Bernie Sanders’ own playbook: “When America loses, no American feels like a winner.”
Of all the strange twists and turns in the national campaign — the rise of Trump and fall of Bush, the damning Clinton emails and brawling debates — how ironic would it be that a 74-year-old self-described democratic socialist, even in defeat, would help Donald Trump win the White House?
Only in America.
Adam Goodman is a national Republican media consultant based in Tampa who has created, directed and produced media for more than 300 GOP candidates in 46 states over the past 35 years. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.