Fidel Decides U.S. Presidential Elections

Article excerpt

When Fidel Castro recently underwent intestinal surgery, suddenly there was a whirl of news stories in the U.S. media, the type of attention usually reserved for rock stars and champion athletes. What is this love-hate fascination we have with the ruler of a small island nation? Is it the tempestuous Cold War history, Cuba's close proximity to Florida, memories of the boy Elian Gonzalez, or the beautiful beaches and palm trees?

Certainly all of those are part of the mystique. But when it comes to our political leaders' obsession, the answer is more fundamental. Simply put, Castro is hugely responsible for who gets elected president of the United States. That may sound strange, but it's true. And it illustrates the worst aspects of our peculiar system of electing the president.

The presidency is the only elected office where a candidate can win a majority of the popular vote but lose the election. Instead, a candidate wins by capturing a majority of Electoral College votes won state by state in winner-take-all contests.

Most states are strongholds of either the Democratic or Republican parties, creating a presidential battlefield of "safe" states and "undecided" states. As a campaign strategist, the winning calculus is simple: you ignore the safe states and focus on the handful of battleground states that decide the winner.

As we saw in the last two presidential elections, two battleground states have emerged as the most important: Ohio and Florida. Florida, our fourth-largest state with twenty-seven electoral votes--one-tenth of the number needed for victory--is the biggest of prizes in the presidential sweepstakes. Voters in Florida are much more important to who wins the presidential election than voters in any other state except Ohio.

The extremely close presidential race in Florida is heavily influenced by a particular group of voters: Cuban Americans. They are a well-financed and vocal minority with a leadership of Cuban exiles that for decades has loved to hate Castro. Both Democrats and Republicans fall all over themselves to court the Cuban vote, which comprises only one half of 1 percent of the U.S. population. This special interest group has much greater influence than their size should warrant for no other reason than the crucial role that Florida plays in our presidential election.

Recall the fiasco around the Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old who survived a nightmarish ordeal at sea, only to get caught in the nets of presidential campaign politics. …