In my piece last week The Florida “Swing” Voter Myth,
I articulated a case that “swing” voters, as they became known in the 1980s and 1990s, do not really exist today in the state of Florida. The “swing” vote, which flips from one party to another was a common theme in Florida politics in the 1980s and 1990s. For example, in 1984 the Democrats won the majority of State Senate seats up for election while Ronald Reagan carried the state with 65% of the vote. In 1996 Bill Clinton’s statewide win coincided with the Republicans capturing the State House for the first time since Reconstruction. But the seats that flipped to the GOP that year, two in Polk County (won by Paula Dockery and Adam Putnam, both of whom would go on to be major players in Florida politics over the next 15 years) one in Southwest Florida (where Lindsay Harrington ousted incumbent Vernon Peebles) and a Citrus County seat (won by maverick Republican Nancy Argenziano) were all areas carried by Bob Dole. Thus the era of split-ticket voting that was the trademark of Florida in the 1970’s and 1980’s was firmly fading into a rear view mirror.
While Florida has become a coveted prize on the national level, the packing of districts that contain Democrats and the usual dips in turnout during Statewide office election cycles have cost the Democrats at the legislative level. This packing has meant that Democrats are concentrated in urban and southeast Florida districts while areas that experience large turnout spikes tend to not flip back and forth between the parties. Most legislative districts outside of SE Florida have become likely Republican seats even if they are in areas where the top of the Democratic ticket performs well. We even see voter “swings” because liberal voters who turn out in Presidential election years are less likely to continue down the ballot and vote in state legislative races or in some cases the Democrats have failed to field a candidate in these areas. But split-ticket voting itself seems to be a thing of the past.
The obvious conclusion is that “swing” voters as defined by those being persuadable do exist in the state, but are minimal in numbers. But the real “swing” voter is a highly ideological activist who does not turn out if the Republican is perceived as too liberal or a Democrat is thought of as too conservative. The few voters that consciously swing back and forth between the parties is a small overall percentage of the electorate and are probably concentrated in Central Florida and on the I-95 corridor north of Jupiter (Palm Beach County) and south of Palm Coast (Flagler County). The real swing in Florida elections comes from turnout fluctuations and the failure of many less regular voters to continue voting down ballot.
Democrats need to be conscious of turnout trends and not mixing messages in this critical election year. The party also needs to be very structured in ensuring that those that turnout to vote at the top of the ticket continue down ballot. This election cycle, the Democrats will try and make Fort Lauderdale Republican Ellyn Bogdanoff, the first sitting GOP Senator to lose in a November election since the 1980s. Additionally, opportunities were lost in Central Florida both in 2000 and 2008 by not taking full advantage of the spikes in turnout that resulted from Al Gore and Barack Obama’s candidacies in legislative districts. Several Central Florida legislative districts were carried by Al Gore 2000 but elected GOP legislators, partly because of “under-votes” the phenomena of ballots being cast with races being skipped. In all, 14 State House districts that voted for Al Gore in November 2000, were represented by Republicans when the next Legislative session opened in March 2001.
Yet the GOP running a strong, structured coordinated campaign that appealed to their base, parlayed 2004 into a highly successful year where they were able to use Bush’s coattails and increased conservative turnout in places like Pasco, Pinellas, Flagler and St Johns County to protect or flip critical legislative seats. The Democrats need to take a page out of that playbook in 2012. A true Florida”swing” voter is a motivated ideological person who does not turn out for every election but needs to be educated to vote down ballot in legislative and local races.