Have Floridians become “straight-ticket voters”?

partyballot(Note: For data related to this article, click here.)

When looking at vote-splitting, there is a misconception that voters perform this task in order to “have a balance of power”. But there is no proof that this has even been the case. No candidate has ever run a campaign which states “vote for me because we need to vote for an equal amount of Democrats and Republicans”. Yet this misconception does exist in the United States. Still in the case of Florida (as well as most of the nation), voter preference usually occurs because of political philosophy, political party identification or candidate preference.  But is Florida moving from a vote-splitting state to a straight-ticket voting state?

In 1986, Republicans captured the Governor’s Mansion with Bob Martinez defeating Steve Pajcic 54.6% to 45.4%. While Martinez did win, the Democrats swept the other constitutional offices.  Ticket-splitting was still a trend in mid-term elections. For example, Santa Rosa County, which gave Martinez a 33% margin of victory, voted for all of the other Democrats for constitutional offices.

Over the next few mid-term election cycles, we would continue to see this trend, with some counties splitting their votes. For example, in 1998, of the 61 counties that Jeb Bush won, only seven counties were swept by the rest of the Republicans running for constitutional offices. Another example is Seminole County. Stateside, Bush had 55% of the vote and Bill Nelson (in his race) 57% of the vote. Yet, Bush won Seminole County by a 27% margin, whereas Nelson won Seminole County by only .3%. Therefore, ticket-splitting continued.

In 2002, the trend would start to change. Jeb Bush won 54 counties in 2002. Of those counties, Republicans swept 49 of those counties. Of the 13 counties that Bill McBride won, Democrats swept them all except for Wakulla County.

In 2006, Charlie Crist won 59 counties. The main difference between 2006 and 2002 was the strong showing of Alex Sink. Still, even with Sink winning, Republicans swept 33 counties.

In 2010, the trend between gubernatorial race preference and voting in other races continued. Of the 52 counties that Rick Scott won, Republicans swept all but one of those counties, and that was Wakulla County, which Loranne Ausley won by .1% of the vote.

Looking at the data, most of the counties in Florida have moved toward a straight-ticket approach to voting. Not only are the trends the same, but the margins are usually similar as well. But even with that being said, one might assume that if a county has close results that it might be conducting split-ticket voting as well. That isn’t necessarily the case. This usually means that the number of those voting for Democrats is somewhat equal to those voting for Republicans, and the electorate itself is not splitting their ballot.

When looking at determining vote-splitting, the results from one race must show a complete break from another race with a trend that doesn’t correspond with other comparable trends. One example is the comparison between Bush and Nelson in Seminole County in 1998. We saw that a large amount of those who voted for Bush also voted for Nelson, which indicates vote-splitting.

In Florida we do not see these trends anymore. There are no counties that buck the trend which would indicate vote splitting. So, what are some of the reason that this voting trend might exist?

The first thing to look at is that party alliances have solidified with political ideology. This means that those who consider themselves conservatives now vote Republican, while those who are progressive vote Democratic. If we look at the 1986 governor’s race, which was a matchup between a true progressive Steve Pajcic and Reagan Republican Bob Martinez, we see rural north Florida counties vote for Martinez, but then vote strongly for the other Democrats in the races lower down the ticket. This showed ticket-splitting tendencies.

One good example of this is Lafayette County. In 1986, Martinez defeated Pajcic by 22%. But the Democrats swept the other constitutional offices. In fact, Democrat Gerald Lewis, who was running for Comptroller, won Lafayette by 71%. But if we look Lafayette nowadays, Rick Scott defeated Alex Sink by 18%, and this was the close race. Pam Bondi won by 40%, Jeff Atwater won by 39% and Adam Putnam won by 46%. Also, with registered Democrats outnumbering registered Republicans by a margin of 3-1 in the 2010 election, political party registration, in some places, is no longer an indication of political party and candidate preference in elections.

Another issue which might explain these trends is the elimination of election to key cabinet positions. While it might be coincidental that the strong straight-ticket voting trend started in 2002, which was the first year that we saw the changes in the election of constitutional officers, it more than likely isn’t. Not only was the elimination important, but so was the renaming of the positions. For example, voters usually trust Democrats when it comes to issues of education. Therefore, with the elimination of the Commissioner of Education as an elected position, the Democrats are already reduced in their electoral clout. As for the renaming, the term “Chief Financial Officer” has more of a Republican feel to it, thus more voters might be more likely to trust a Republican in that position.

How to connect this change to straight-ticket voting would require more in-depth research, but it is quite interesting that we see a major shift between the 1998 and 2002 races.

Another issue that might play a role is that regionalism doesn’t matter as much, and neither does legislative experience. In the case of both candidates for governor in 2010, none of them ever held a single-member district seat in politics previously. Therefore, they didn’t have a “home base” in which they might show stronger political support (even though Sink was known to be from Tampa). Pam Bondi also never held a single-member district position, relying on her previous television experience to help her gain votes.

In the early part of the 20th Century, Democratic primaries were usually determined by regional votes. A number of Democrats would run for a statewide position, which caused a split in the vote, which would usually favor specific regions. Along with the restriction of African-Americans from voting, clusters of north Florida counties (which constituted a region) usually performed better electorally until 1968, when reconstruction of the Florida Constitution forever shifted influence in statewide elections from rural north Florida to urban Florida. Yes, Reubin Askew was from the panhandle, but would have never been elected if he were a traditional Dixiecrat.

This trend regarding the lack of regionalism started in 1970, when Jack Eckerd ran for governor against Claude Kirk (though some might argue that it started with Claude Pepper’s move to Miami. Still, Pepper’s political ideology fit the south Florida region, thus his electoral success remained regional). Though Eckerd was from Pinellas County, he never held a single-member district in any elected position. In 1994, Jeb Bush continued the trend ran against Lawton Chiles. Bush was from Miami, but never performed well in Miami-Dade County in 1994, 1998 or 2002 in relation to the statewide vote for his candidacy.

Since campaigns in Florida now require a statewide campaign and not just a campaign honed in on a specific region, being from a specific region no longer matters. The only case in which regionalism might have played a part was in the 2010 race for Chief Financial Officer, where Jeff Atwater performed well in Palm Beach County. But Atwater’s campaign wasn’t centered on Palm Beach, but instead benefited from a strong statewide campaign.

This essay is only a doorway into a possible further examination of the issue of vote-splitting in Florida. And while researching this issue more in-depth would be beneficial in understand political science in Florida, the research does have limitation. Unfortunately, these limitations make it so that the level of analysis can only be conducted at the statewide or, possibly, congressional level. The reason for this is that many state legislative and locally held seats are unopposed. Therefore, with this large number of uncontested seats throughout the State of Florida in a given election cycle, the data regarding whether voters are moving toward straight-ticket voting can be highly inaccurate.

This article only shows the relationship between Florida’s constitutional offices. While this is a start to the research, it can also be expanded. One way to expand it is to add federal races to the fold. While this might bode well in most election cycles, the 2010 election will most certainly be an outlier due to the nature of a strong independent candidate. Still, the trends in both 2002 and 2006 shows that there is already a strong trend of Florida moving toward being a straight-ticket state.

One might argue that Republicans have had stronger candidates than Democrats, so the problem might be with candidate recruitment of Democratic candidates. But in the case of the 2006 race for CFO, Alex Sink, who won her race statewide, only won 26 of the 53 counties that Charlie Crist won. Unfortunately, there are not any other recent examples to test this variable of strong Democratic candidates. Still, even with a stronger Democratic candidate, the straight-ticket trend continued.

So what does this mean for the upcoming 2014 election? There are a few things which can be pointed out. First, political parties and voters of those parties should not pick their candidates purely based on regionalism. In the case of the possible Democratic primary match up for governor, voters should not pick Charlie Crist because he can “win Pinellas”, or Alex Sink because she can “will Hillsborough”. These regionalist trends have faded, especially with Florida’s population being more spread out compared to any other time in its history.

Another factor that should be considered is that ideology should play more of a role in candidate selection. As we have seen from the trend, conservative counties now vote Republican while progressive counties vote Democratic. Selecting someone who might be considered a moderate will not gain votes in places where political ideology already has a hold. Therefore, if the Democrats were to nominate a moderate to perform well in north Florida, or the Republicans nominate a moderate to do well in Broward County, the likelihood of obtaining that electoral success in the areas would be marginal at best and more than likely not possible. In addition, there is also a risk of alienating stronger-performing counties for a certain political party, which could lead to lower voter turnout.

In a few months from now, this research will be taken one step further, and will examine American National Election Studies data to determine if there are any specific factors which determine voter preference. This will help us answer the “why” question to the trend toward straight-ticket voting based on specific issues, hopefully. This essay only answers the “what” question, with some basic “why” observations, which is that Florida has moved away from split-ticket voting and toward straight-ticket voting.

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