The 2012 Presidential Election further solidified long-term trends in the state of Florida where a shift of core support for both political parities has taken place. The 2012 election was the most demographically polarizing in Florida’s history pitting urban/suburban/metropolitan areas against exurban/rural/micropolitan areas. Even the virtual “tie” 2000 election in Florida cut across these lines with both parties creating a coalition of voters over multiple areas. Historically, this is a sharp reversal of modern Florida political history which I traditionally date to the adoption of the 1968 Constitution and the reapportionment of the legislature that same year.
In the 1968 Presidential Election, Segregationist Candidate Governor George C. Wallace (D-Alabama) running on the American Independent line carried the majority of Florida counties, despite finishing 3rd in the state. Wallace carried every county north of Ocala except Alachua as well as Southern oriented counties Sumter, Polk, Hardee, Desoto, Okeechobee, Hendry and Glades. Democrat Hubert Humphrey carried just three counties, Monroe, Alachua and Dade, but at the time what is now the Miami/Fort Lauderdale metro area had more than a third of Florida’s voters and was the only truly large urban area in the state. (Today that same area while important only comprises less than 30% of the statewide vote). Richard Nixon won Florida by carrying the “Republican horseshoe” counties that united southwest Florida, and the northern reaches of Metropolitan Miami by way of the Tampa Bay area, Orlando area, Space Coast and Treasure Coast.
This “horseshoe” was supposed to sustain an emerging Republican majority in the state,. Florida was well on its way to being the most reliably Republican state in the region: after all Republicans had won 4 of the past 5 Presidential elections in the state losing in the 1964 landslide by a tiny percentage. Florida also elected a Republican Governor and Senator in the late 1960s.
While the “horseshoe” produced consistently strong results for Republican Presidential candidates from 1968 through 1988, by the 1990s things were beginning to fall apart for the GOP. Pinellas voted Democratic in 1992, while Broward and Palm Beach delivered huge majorities to Bill Clinton. While the GOP held on to Orange County in both Clinton elections, they haven’t won the county since. Additionally, the “horseshoe” was outvoted in most statewide elections by a coalition of north and southeastern Florida.
Meanwhile Dixiecrat counties that voted for George Wallace in 1968 and then Richard Nixon in 1972 by and large returned to the Democratic fold in 1976 for Jimmy Carter. Every county in the 2nd congressional district supported Jimmy Carter in 1980, but the only counties outside the then 2nd that supported him were traditional southern counties Sumter, Okeechobee and Glades. Every county in the state south of Ocala and west of Panama City supported Ronald Reagan with these three exceptions.
In 1996, we saw the Dixiecrat impact once again in a Presidential election as Bill Clinton carried numerous small and rural counties with a southern heritage and disposition. In our second chart below we breakdown each of the 67 counties in four different Presidential cycles to see the composition of the electorate at that point in time. The term Military is used for former Dixiecrat counties in the Western Panhandle who defected to the GOP at the Presidential level regardless of whether the Democratic nominee was from the south or not in the 1970s. These military base dominated counties ( Santa Rosa and Okalossa, sometimes Escambia) are the only counties north of Ocala and west of Jacksonville where Barack Obama actually ran a few percentage points ahead of Bill Clinton and are counties that did not support Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Ronald Reagan’s landslide win in Florida (his largest in any southern state) should have indicated to Florida’s Democratic intelligentsia that the Dixiecrat core counties could do little to influence statewide elections. But this futile notion persisted for another thirty years as party leaders and operatives talked repeatedly of bringing these rural southern voters back to their ancestral party. At the same time many party leaders warned activists such as myself not to “wake up sleeping Republicans” by campaigning actively on the Treasure Coast or in southwest Florida.
The continued problems Democrats experienced in larger counties owed itself in many ways to this mentality. But as our chart below shows, the Democrats over-performed relative to registration in the traditionally Republican areas in 2012 while continuing to struggle in traditional Dixiecrat counties. For the purpose of this study we’ve factored in the growing NPA registration in the state which has grown from 10% in 1995 to 22% this year. We’ve assumed that Democrats should get half or slightly over half the NPA vote in an ideal situation so have added those numbers to the Democratic registration to gauge performance in the 2012 election. This year was also the first election where the Republicans carried every single rural State House seat. By contrast, in 1996 when the Republicans captured the State House for the first time since reconstruction, Democrats controlled 90% of the rural seats and the GOP takeover owed itself largely to strength in the Republican “horseshoe” areas.
Voter registration has begun to shift in the traditional Dixiecrat belt, where as recently as 1998, 16 counties had over 75% of its registered voters as Democrats. While Democratic registration has not shifted upwards in the Space Coast, Treasure Coast or southwest Florida, it has trended significantly upwards in the large urban counties. For example, in 1996 Republicans outnumbered Democrats in Orange County but today the county contains 80,000 more registered Democrats. Broward and Palm Beach have had a similar trend and Pinellas County has more Democrats than Republicans registered now for the first time since the 1960s.
The charts below look at this year’s Democratic performance relative to DEM and NPA registration as well as a historical description for each of the 67 counties.
|COUNTY||D Reg %||NPA %||Obama %||D Perf|
|Alachua||Dixiecrat||Liberal D||Liberal D||Liberal D|
|Broward||GOP||GOP||Liberal D||Liberal D|
|Gadsden||Dixiecrat||Mixed||Liberal D||Liberal D|
|Leon||Dixiecrat||Mixed||Liberal D||Liberal D|
|Miami-Dade||Liberal D||Mixed||Mixed||Liberal D|
|Palm Beach||GOP||GOP||Liberal D||Liberal D|
|St. Lucie||GOP||GOP||Mixed||Liberal D|