While the rest of urban Florida is clearly trending towards the Democrats, Palm Beach County, long the second strongest large Democratic county in the state is going in the other direction. In the 2000, 2004, and 2008 elections Palm Beach was the second best large county in the state for Democrats behind Broward. In 2012, it was passed by both Orange and Miami-Dade, continuing a downward trend that began with the 2004 election.
In 1998, Palm Beach County was one of just six Florida counties to support Buddy MacKay for Governor, and in 2000 was the scene of the theft of the century, when Al Gore lost the Presidency due to a flawed ballot design and other voter errors. Still Palm Beach delivered 63% of COUNTED votes for the Gore/Lieberman ticket, not including mistaken Buchanan votes, over votes, under votes and countless other ballot spoilage errors. As someone who worked with the Democratic Party locally in those days, it seemed like the potential for local Democratic success was limitless.
But the party was always fragmented locally between north and south county factions, although some in the north align with the south and vise-versa. The north county faction has traditionally been closer with organized labor and liberal activists while the south is dominated by “condo commandos” whose ideology seems to be both inconsistent and at times aligned with development/polluter interests. In fact, in southern Palm Beach County a responsible vote has at times in the past been against a local Democrat and for a local Republican. This reality has made it difficult for Democrats to coalesce as a unified party, while many “activists” have actually attempted to keep the party structure chaotic in order to keep power diffused and provide the sugar industry, developers and other polluters with an ability to control local politics. This alliance of some local Democrats with business interests alienate many Democratic activists and disgust many principled and true conservatives as well.
This dichotomy creates a strange conundrum come time for national elections. While partisans are expected to line up in their respective camps, leaders in Palm Beach are often conflicted, and this has in previous elections produced an under-performance for both parties. Palm Beach was the only urban county in the state where Sink’s performance was at the same level as Buddy MacKay’s in the 1998 election when Jeb Bush won. In every other urban county Sink ran several percentage points higher than MacKay had in 1998, and the only urban county where Kerry’s 2004 performance was better than Obama’s 2012 (by contrast, Obama ran at least 9 points higher in Orange BOTH in 08′ and 12′ than Kerry).
During the few months prior to this November’s election, Palm Beach Democrats were rocked by multiple scandals involving leaders of the local party as well as the continuing drama around State Attorney candidate Dave Aronberg, who has been repeatedly attacked by the otherwise left leaning editorial board of the Palm Beach Post, and has faced numerous allegations of campaign impropriety. Additionally, several contentious primaries in August opened wounds that have yet to be healed within the party, partly because of the DEC scandals and ensuing leadership vacuum. While Tampa Bay area, Orange/Osceola, Broward and Miami-Dade Democrats and left leaning interest groups were uniting behind a single purpose and cause, Palm Beach Democrats were fighting amongst themselves in addition to dealing with disloyal activists aiding Romney’s local cause.
Local Republicans are not particularly well organized and if anything the Democrats have caught a break by the inability of the Palm Beach REC to fully take advantage of the numerous opportunities afforded them. Sooner or later the PBREC will be more aggressive and proactive putting the local Democrats in a worse position.
Obama won the county by less than a 100,000 votes, far less than hoped for. Thankfully, Broward delivered its end of the bargain delivering a 250,000 plus vote surplus and Miami-Dade exceeded expectations giving Obama a 200,000 plus vote margin. As a point of historical reference, in 2000, when Al Gore was denied the Presidency by Palm Beach’s faulty ballot design and a partisan Secretary of State, Palm Beach County gave the Democratic ticket a 120,000 vote cushion (which would have been substantially higher without all of the ballot issues) while Miami-Dade was won by only 38,000 votes. Times certainly are changing in southeast Florida.