The Florida “Swing” Voter Myth

Two new polls were released this week which showed Mitt Romney creeping ever so slightly ahead of President Obama in the state of Florida. Much of the analysis of this Romney “surge” has focused around swing voters, a myth invented by pollsters in the  1980s, further promoted in the 1990s, and one which should have been firmly repudiated by the 2004 and 2008 election results. The reality is that Florida does not have that many “swing” voters (mind you there are a few but not many) but elections in the state are turnout wars: a battle between the two parties to turn out their base. I-4 corridor counties in particular are vulnerable to turnout spikes based on each party’s level of excitement or enthusiasm in the area.

On election day 2004, speculation nationally was that John Kerry would win Florida. But when the first precincts from Pinellas and Pasco Counties came in that night, I knew the election was over. The GOP had wisely run a conservative campaign that elites may have claimed polarized the electorate, but it appealed to their base and turned them out. The so-called “swing” voters rejected Bush, yet he still won Florida by a relatively healthy margin. In 2008 we saw very much the same thing happen but it was the Democrats who fired up their base and turned out voters that had been absent in 2004. In 3 of the last 4 midterm elections Florida has produced big Republican gains but much of that had to do with declining Democratic turnout and activism rather than the defection of “swing” voters. For example, in 2002 I would strongly suggest Democrats who were dissatisfied with the nomination of the moderate Bill McBride stayed home and gave the GOP their largest post-Reconstruction Governor’s race victory margin.

In 2002 traditionally liberal southeast Floridians either stayed home or did not work as enthusiastically to turn out the vote as they did in 2000, 2006 and 2008,  which were good Democratic years in the state. The Republican success of 2002, 2004 and 2010 was largely due to a spike in turnout and reconnection with the party’s base voters. In the I-4 corridor, the Democratic party infrastructure is so poor or fragmented in some places that in bad years the turnout suffers beyond recognition.

To the extent that swing voters exist in Florida, they vote largely based on personality and other non-issue related reasons. Democrats who continue to advocate a more moderate approach to issues do not understand Florida’s electorate. While moderation may work in suburbs of large Northern and Midwestern cities, or in states where the electorate is overwhelmingly conservative, Florida’s potential Democratic electorate is often concerned about issues such as environmental  protection, gun control, and other social issues. The days when Florida voters were obsessed with crime and taxes are long gone, but some Democrats seem to believe the way back to a majority status in the state is to embrace yesterday’s issues.

Florida’s Democrats could advocate a certain brand of economic populism that would appeal to the base of the party while encouraging other Democratically-inclined voters to turn out. But what we have witnessed instead is a party that has promoted candidates tied to the insurance industry, banking sector, and those who oppose strong environmental regulations. Bill Clinton won Florida in 1996 by running aggressively on gun control and environmental protection. Al Gore’s popular economic message resonated with Florida voters in 2000, and Barack Obama, perceived (wrongly perhaps) to be a liberal, carried the state in 2008.

Florida’s Democrats have been wrong so many times about “swing” voters. We were told in 1998 to nominate Rick Dantzler because Buddy MacKay was too liberal. In 2002, we were told that Buddy MacKay’s liberalism gave us Jeb Bush and we needed  to nominate a moderate. Janet Reno, who generated enthusiasm among the most activists was rejected for the traditional institutional Democrat, Bill McBride. What ensued was a Republican landslide. In 2004 Betty Castor occupied the middle ground against Mel Martinez who, despite a moderate record as Orange County Chairman (County Mayor), decided to run to the hard right. Castor lost.  In 2010 moderate Alex Sink, the wife of McBride, questioned President Obama’s Health Care plan, positioned herself to the right of Governor Charlie Crist on insurance and banking and tried to appeal to “swing voters” against a pathetically weak GOP nominee. Sink, like McBride and Castor, was defeated.

The Democrats need to learn the realities of the Florida electorate. Moderate/swing voters are minimal in numbers and efforts to appeal to them are offset by losing potential voters or workers on the left. The Democrats have botched up repeatedly over the past decade. As the field for 2014 statewide elections begins to form, let us hope Florida’s Democrats remember the lessons of recent history.

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24 thoughts on “The Florida “Swing” Voter Myth

  1. Perhaps you believe this because you focus on the wrong areas.

    It is unfortunate that elites like this site and the Democratic Party heavily based around the liberal south part of the state have chosen to ignore the ancestral heritage of the party by chasing votes in Central Florida where most of the residents moved to from the north to flee high taxes. Bill McBride and Alex Sink both ran well in the 2nd CD which unlike its Central Fla counterparts has mostly Democrats registered and elected. Most of the elected officials in Congressional District 2 are Democrats but in the districts in Central Florida they are Republicans. For years, we had the advantage of the vast majority of local elected officials throughout the state being Democrats but that is not the case anymore as the party has weakened and abandoned its roots.

    If we get back to our roots as a Florida party we can marry South Florida with the big bend and not waste time and resources chasing Republicans in Central and Southwest Florida. Look at the history of legislative seats in that area. Even when the Rs were the minority they held almost all of the Central and Southwest Florida seats. Despite hostility from the party, we have seen the Democrats never come close to losing the Tallahassee/ Big Bend Senate district and should retake the Gainesville seat. The district that goes down into Citrus County may also be retaken but the Central Florida ones are long long gone, in fact we have not had most of those in several generations.

    But this site advocates the opposite. Complete abandonment of those seeking a reason to return to our party in exchange for those who do not share our values and are not Democrats in the traditional sense. Chasing votes based on some ideological litmus test among people who do not vote or do not support our party. Pushing issues to make young people from Republican families vote Democrat for an election cycle or two does not change the fact that they are from Republican families and will always revert to being Republicans at some point. For all of Obama’s hope and change, his votes came from aspiring young Republicans. He got beat badly among traditional Democrats in North Florida. This proves his message was not right for our party or for many who identify themselves as Democrats.

  2. I tend to agree with this analysis though it is controversial. I actually have come to believe elections are turnout wars between two opposing camps and that most that label themselves as moderates are actually apolitical.

  3. I agree. We are making zero effort to win back those areas. They are traditional New Deal Dems and most local officials are still Democrats east of Panama City.

  4. EG, your comment makes no sense and does not even pertain to the topic. Plus, name calling is not appreciated and makes you look less intelligent than perhaps you are. I don’t have access to polling data, to see what independent voters have done over the last 3 elections, but the voter database is public record. It shows that, over the last 3 presidential elections, the margin of D/R turnout is only 2% (49% vs. 51%) but, perhaps more importantly, has been consistent with the state-wide outcome. I’m sure that there is more to elections than turnout, but Kartig makes a good point – that we should stop making excuses for our value, and begin asserting them more loudly. This is likely the best way to differentiate Dems from Reps, and will, IMO, show just how crazy Reps are. Standing up for ourselves will make Dems more excited about voting FOR something, rather than trying to capitulate to the Reps.

  5. Neither liberals nor tea partiers are too enthused about the candidates this time around. This election is going to be about which party can get their voters to turn out to vote

  6. Beginning in 2000 Florida and the Supreme Court (in my opinion) selected the President of the United States. Although as early as the late seventies we were on the wrong path, fast forward to 2011 when the 1% control 60% of the wealth. We have access to the charts and graphs that clearly outline the unfairness and inequality of the transfer of power and wealth that has occurred.

    The media has bought into this Oligarchy class, since they are part of the largest corporate conglomerates and political power. Four or five
    decades ago journalism was a noble profession, when providing transparency, being on the outside of the financial and political power was the right thing to do. We have lost our moral sense and succumbed to sound bites, theater and the bottom line before ethics.
    The media and political whores know that we are driven by emotion
    (belief) and the power of the fear factor.

    We must not identify with the what’s in for mentality and voting for more of the same. We need to stop blaming others and take responsibility. We have lost our empathy as a nation. During a Republican debate the overwhelming support and applause from the audience for the death penalty (without knowing the facts) and the
    disregard for someone with a critical illness and without health insurance, that he should just die was troubling.

    The disregard of manners and critical thinking skills has contributed to the lack of conscience in our nation.

    Are our political leaders a reflection of us? Can we no longer ask for a few good men and women to step up to the plate, or must it be us and must it be now……..

  7. While it would be great to reconnect with these voters we need ti be realistic. Registered Democrats in the panhandle and interior Aggie areas just have not gotten around yet to changing their registration. Most of these areas are voting heavily Republican in any race where state workers aren’t threatened. Even Sink, McBride, Maddox, etc did well only because they claimed the Republicans they were opposing were anti state worker. Culturally and economically these voters are Republicans.

    As Central Florida has grown and become more cosmopolitan it has become more liberal. The trend is unmistakable.

  8. I don’t disagree entirely with the premise of this article but one thing I would point out is because turnout drops in off year elections that is when we need to create a swing vote or peel off Republicans to win. That is where the moderation of an Aronberg, Rader or an Abruzzo helps the Ds.

    Typically in Presidential election years it is about generating turnout and creating excitement. So I agree with this article to a point and get the point but just would throw in that qualifier I discussed above.

  9. Aronberg was moderate..well now swinging with the tea party people.
    Those areas that Rader and Abruzzo are in on not moderate in the area they representing. If you look at the numbers in those areas you are 100% wrong. Between Aronberg and the bad press (regardless…perception is reality) Rader who can not talk in public and Abruzzo’s voting record and division within the party…this will hurt the turnout and not help the turnout.

    There needs to be an exciting candidate on some level besides Obama. The rate he is going we will loose Florida. These names you are throwing in does not help the turnout because they are seen negative for the voters. You have to look at the mixed district in the central and the north end of the state. I can tell you many Ds are not going to come out and run due to Israel and unemployment. You can not have these guys run when the issue even with moderates will be economic and the role women will play. If they were smart the party….Rader would run against Bogdanoff, Clemens against Bernard and Abruzzo should stay in his house seat. The problem is the best D you have in the South is Slosberg. He might be nuts but he is getting people excited. Have you heard Abruzzo or Rader? Sachs is better than all of them. GO MARIA…oh yeah forget it she pulled that crap with Crist. You need someone to get them excited. Deutch is not good. He was so bad at the Forum Club. They need to think of something fast.

  10. Partisanship and party ID have become more and more engrained in American political life since the 1980s. I think the number of actual
    Moderates in society has declined as we have become more polarized. Especially in
    Florida. The FDP is fighting yesterday’s battles and losing them sadly.

  11. *sigh* Alright, let me say this again…..

    If 100% of Democrats and NPA voters in all the rural counties of Florida voted for Alex Sink, as well as having 100% voter turnout, she still would have lost to Rick Scott.

    Is there any other way to make it more simple????????!!!!!!!!

  12. In Broward 2010 turn out was 41%, the lowest ever. 10% in Broward is 56,086 registered democrats – almost Rick Scott’s margin of victory.

  13. Also, to add fuel to Kartik’s fire, here is the exit poll from CNN in 2010:

    http://www.cnn.com/ELECTION/2010/results/polls/#FLG00p1

    So, according to traditional Tallahassee logic, Sink would have won because there was a 20% gap between her and Scott in the moderate vote. But guess what…..

    See, what Chiles, Graham and Askew did was amazing. They “appealed” to moderates while being quite progressive. They knew how to “campaign” and play politics. And while I agree with Kartik, many of the people coming up through the Democratic ranks are not progressive, but radical progressives. There is a point where you can be liberal and win votes, like the three mentioned above. Then there is the point where you can be liberal and look like an idiot, which many today do.

  14. So it is okay to just write off large numbers of Democratic votes in a large part of the state to chase Republican votes in another? Makes zero sense.

  15. These voters haven’t existed for years. Less persuadable voters are a result of the 24 hr news cycle and year round campaigns. Elections have become turnout wars.

  16. This is probably true but I can give an obvious rebuttal. Four years apart, two US Senate races gave exact opposite results. In 2006, Republican Katherine Harris won just 9 counties vs Bill Nelson. Santa Rosa, Walton , Bay, Baker, Clay, Nassau, St Johns, Osceola and Collier. In 2010 Marco Rubio carried 62 counties. Meek won one, majority black Gadsden, and Crist running essentially as a Democrat won the base D counties Broward, Palm Beach and Leon plus his home county of Pinellas. 

    That is some swing it could be argued but most know both those Senate races had extenuating circumstances that created these huge swings from D to R b/w 06 and 10. So in reality we know you are right but it could be argued otherwise by those who just look at those two races.

  17. Yeah, but Katherine Harris was a f*cking idiot, pardon my French! If Morg the three-eyed alien who had a fetish for nail polish ran as a Democrat, he would have beaten Harris. To use the Harris-Nelson election as a standard bearer for anything is flawed.

  18. I agree Dave. I’m just saying what the obvious criticism will be although those two elections we exceptions. In general turnout is more important that persuasion.

  19. Pingback: If “Swing” Voters Do Exist Where Are They? « The Political Hurricane

  20. Jefferson you are right “on the money”…….these folks are pre-1965 Democrats not unlike many in other southern states.

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