The Democrats last won a Governor’s election in 1994, which was a historically bad year for Democrats on the national level. The next three Governor’s races in better Democratic years (relatively speaking in the case of 2002) were landslide Republican victories but in 2010, a horrible Democratic year, Alex Sink almost won the Governorship. What is particularly interesting in comparing these two races is how shifts at the county level took place. The Democrats performed almost across the board better in what term “metropolitan” counties in 2010 than in 1994. The one exception to this rule is Palm Beach which turned heavily Democratic before the other former “Republican horseshoe” counties thanks to a large Jewish-American influx in the 1980s and has stayed at about the same performance numbers since.
Alex Sink won six of Florida’s seven “metropolitan” counties and the one she didn’t win, Duval (Jacksonville) has developed a clear trend line towards the Democrats in the last decade. However, the situation in the large & medium sized counties is dramatically different and is a clear reflection of the unwillingness of the Florida Democratic Party to build a field network and infrastructure in these counties despite the best effort of some operatives (myself included) to stress the importance of these areas.
The growth of the Villages and surrounding areas has placed Lake, Marion, and Sumter County out of the reach of the Democrats. At the same time, the party has seemingly been unaware of the opportunities presented by new residents in Pasco, Hernando, Western Polk and Eastern Hillsborough counties. The residual effects of leaving legislative race after legislative race unopposed in the outlying areas of the Tampa Bay media market have been felt at the top of the ticket the last several election cycles, as new residents have no history voting for Florida Democrats.
Volusia County was once the most reliable county for progressive candidates outside of Southeast Florida or college/activist dominated Alachua and Leon counties. However, the trend line in a county that has half a million residents is unfavorable to the party. Brevard County, long Republican has moved even more significantly away from the Democrats in the last two decades. The Democrats also have not taken full advantage of changing attitudes and demographics in the Sarasota/Bradenton area, and has essentially decided not to compete south of Venice along the west coast, meaning booming Northport, Port Charlotte and Cape Coral see very little attempt at organization from the state party.
In rural north Florida with the exception of Union County whose strong swing in 2010 can be attributed to Rod Smith being on the Democratic ticket, the trend is highly unfavorable to Democrats. In fact, the Democratic decline in counties west and southwest of Tallahassee is painfully evident in these numbers. While rural counties such as Franklin, Calhoun and Gulf do not matter in the larger scheme of things, Bay and Santa Rosa do have enough voters where a decline in Democratic performance does matter in the statewide picture.
The bottom line is that trends favor the Democrats in urban areas but that large and medium sized counties are trending the other way even at the Presidential level. Pasco and Hernando both voted for Al Gore in 2000 but for John McCain in 2008. In direct contrast, Orange County voted for Bob Dole in 1996 against Bill Clinton but was won by Obama 60%-40% (two party vote), a nearly unprecedented reversal for an urban county in favor of the Democrats in modern Florida history. Keep in mind Clinton beat Dole by almost seven points statewide while Obama beat McCain by just three.
Definitions of county size for the below chart
Metropolitan – over 750,000 population
Large – Between 450,000 and 750,000
Medium- Between 90,000 and 450,000
Small- Below 90,000
NOTE: These percentages are TWO PARTY VOTE ONLY and do not include votes cast for third party or write-in candidates.
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