Is South Florida losing electoral clout in mid-term elections?

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(Please click here to see data related to this post.)

In the early 1960s, William C. Havard and Loren P. Beth wrote a book called The Politics of Mis-Representation, which looks at politics in general in the State of Florida. This book was written before the implementation of the 1968 Constitution, but still, Havard and Beth came to one conclusion that the influence of urban areas outweighed that of the rural areas. Because of this shift, they said that the rural Pork-Chop Gang (the conservative Democrats in the Florida Legislature) would eventually lose out to the preference of urban voters. They were eventually proven correct, as candidate’s like Robert King High and Bob Graham, both from Dade County, performed strong on the statewide Democratic Primary stage. Even Reuben Askew, who performed poorly in Dade County in both the Democratic Primary and Runoff in 1970, still came from the most urban part of the Florida Panhandle at the time. Escambia County was also the second largest county in north Florida next to Duval County.

It can almost be argued that the last nominee for governor from rural Florida was Fuller Warren back in 1948, right as the large population boom to South Florida was just starting to take hold after the conclusion of World War II. All the other nominees for governor came from geographical locations where their population was substantially higher than rural counties.

Nowadays, many in Florida have come to accept these trends. While some might claim that rural Florida holds the key to electoral success, there is absolutely no empirical proof whatsoever that lends this conclusion to be feasible in today’s political geography (which will be discussed in a later post). Most statewide campaigns that are successful usually target the larger urban areas. Those who consider the rural counties part of their electoral strategy usually falter. One example of this failure is the 2010 Governor’s Race, where Democratic nominee Alex Sink, visited South Florida fewer times than excepted, while her running mate Rod Smith proclaimed that Sink would “win Dixie County”. The result was Sink losing to current governor Rick Scott.

In many circles in Florida Democratic politics, South Florida is considered the area of most importance. since Havard and Beth concluded that urban Florida was the electoral promise land, both the Republicans and Democrats have targeted the area. First, the Republicans were successful in “The Big Three” counties in South Florida (Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach). That success would eventually flip in the mid-1980s, which led to strong Democratic trends, especially in Broward County, in the early 1990s. Both Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties have had slower trends, but have been trending Democratic nonetheless.

But with the ever-changing demographics in Florida, is targeting “The Big Three” already an outdated plan? In 1978, South Florida accounted for 33.45% of all votes cast in the governor’s race. In 2010, the South Florida share dropped to 24.46%. This was, by far, the largest drop of any region in the State of Florida.

In addition, “The Big Three” aren’t gaining any more democratic votes compared to last election. If we were to average the vote difference for mid-term elections between 1978 and 2010, and compare that average to the 2010 total, Miami-Dade has only seen a total swing of .87% for the Democrats, with Palm Beach County only seeing a swing of 2.81%, and Broward County with a swing at 5.74%. These swings are small compared to those of Orange County (12.52%) and Osceola County (12.23%). One of the questions then becomes if South Florida has already hit its peak for electoral performance for the Democrats? If so, can anything be done to increase their electoral performance for Democrats?

Why is South Florida is losing its electoral clout? Of course, the nature of population shifts in Florida causes South Florida to be less of a factor. If we look at the I-4 Corridor plus Pinellas County, the region’s 2010 percentage of the total vote was 27.89%, 3.43% more than “The Big Three” total. Therefore, electorally, the I-4 Corridor is now just as important to electoral success, possibly even more so, than the South Florida’s three largest counties.

What is interesting about this population shift, though, is that in 1978, the I-4 Corridor plus Pinellas county accounted for 28.00% of the vote total in the state. Therefore, the actual influence of the I-4 Corridor hasn’t increase. Instead, the influence of South Florida has decreased. (Note: even though the I-4 Corridor with Pinellas County has not changed as far as total vote influence, when Pinellas County is excluded from the I-4 Corridor, the region’s influence increased from 18.16% to 22.28%. Therefore, Pinellas County has seen a large loss in influence, or -4.28% decrease in influence, between 1978 and 2010).

What accounts for South Florida’s loss in influence? The biggest factor seems to be the  “vote growth” of both Miami-Dade and Broward Counties. “Vote growth” measures the difference of votes in 1978 and 2010 and measures that difference to the 2010 vote totals. Miami-Dade County only saw 23.28% vote growth between 1978 and 2010, which is second worst performance in the state behind Pinellas County. Broward County also saw slow growth between 1978 and 2010 at only 41.32%. To compare, the largest growth was Flagler County at 869%. Even Hillsborough and Orange Counties saw three times more growth than Broward and five times more than Miami-Dade. Palm Beach County, on the other hand, did see a 125.91% increase, which is similar to other counties of comparable size.

As far as Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, we aren’t really seeing a huge loss, but just stagnant performance. The population and votes in these two counties aren’t increasing at the rate of the rest of the state.

Another factor is that the Democratic swing in Broward might have reached it’s limit. In Miami-Dade County, the swing just hasn’t happened to the extent that it did in Broward in the 1980s. Also, Miami-Dade’s total vote share, while still the largest in the state, has dropped from 15.37% in 1978 to 9.26% in 2010. Broward dropped from 11.52% to 7.96%.

Even with these grim statistics for South Florida  is there a silver lining? Actually, there is. In Miami-Dade County, only 24.58% of the voting-age population turned out to the polls in 2010. This is the third lowest population participation rate behind Hendry and Desoto Counties. For Democrats, if they were to get more Democrats registered and participating in Miami-Dade, things could turn around for South Florida. The immediate benefit for Miami-Dade could be the swing in votes toward Democrats. With the swing moving in a Democratic direction, increased participation would more than likely increase that swing.

Another benefit for Miami-Dade is that the county has a strong under-18 population, which means they can build on electoral success for the future. 21.9% of the Miami-Dade County’s population is under eighteen years of age. On the other side, the over-65 population is relatively low, at only 14.1%. With the lack of voting participation by the population as well as the favorable ages, Miami-Dade County could become a stronger Democratic county overnight.

As for Broward County, the story is a little more bleak. Participation in elections by those over eighteen years of age in Broward County was at 30.37% in 2010, which is much higher than in Miami-Dade. This means there is less room to bring new voters into the system compared to Miami-Dade County. As far as the age of the population, it is nearly a mirror of Miami-Dade County. So, even with the higher participation, there is a younger potential electorate in Broward.

Even with bringing new voters into the system in Broward County, there could be a drawback for Democrats. The thing we do not know, and can only assume, is that the Democratic vote might have peaked in Broward County. The reason that we can come to this conclusion is that the Democratic vote total is high, yet the swing in Broward County is decreasing. Increasing participation in votes could lead to increased number for Democrats statewide. But if the vote has peaked, then any new voter participation could benefit Republicans. While this participation will not nearly be enough to have Republicans win the entirety of Broward County, any further participation could soften the blow statewide that Democrats usually get from a huge Broward showing. Still, which way new voter participation would swing in Broward is pure speculation.

Is South Florida losing its electoral clout? Absolutely. But is targeting South Florida now an archaic practice? No, not at all. While it is true that the influence of “The Big Three” is now on equal-footing as the I-4 Corridor, it still has a very large population that needs to be respected. And even though South Florida needs to be respected, the I-4 Corridor needs to be given the exact same respect. Traditional thinking in Florida politics dictates that south Florida is still electorally superior to the rest of the state, but that thinking is now “old school”.

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