The following is cross-posted with permission of Dave Trotter of the Political Hurricane.
Here we go again. The myth of “north Florida wins elections” rears its head during every election cycle. And during those cycles, it always seems to hide after it is found to be a fraud. The 2012 election cycle won’t be any different.
There are those who constantly state that the reason that Democrats lose in statewide elections is because they cannot carry north Florida. Not only has this myth been disproved on many occasions, but in election after election when north Florida is targeted, Democrats lose.
When discussing north Florida, there are some important factors that need to be considered. This article will look at those factors and explain the voting behavior of this region. But what is important when reading this article is that the primary focus will be on statewide candidates, and not local or district specific candidates. Therefore, it is important to realize that there is a difference between the two. This is only to explain using north Florida to “carry the state.”
The first factor when discussing north Florida is understanding the history of Florida politics. If someone claims that Democrats need to win north Florida without any historical knowledge of the political history of the state, then their argument will be flawed from the beginning.
Looking at Florida historically, north Florida, and its share of votes, has steadily been decreasing throughout the years. For the sake of this exercise, we are going to exclude the following counties because they are currently “Safe R” or “Safe D” and nobody in the Democratic Party is talking about targeting them: Escambia, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Alachua and Leon. This isn’t a debatable issue.
In the historic 1950 general election for US Senate, when George Smathers was elected, north Florida’s share of the vote was 13.5% of the state total. The total amount of votes cast in north Florida was 23,205. In comparison, combining the total votes in Broward and Palm Beach counties in the same election, it would only total 25,883 votes. This is a vote difference of only 2,678 more than the votes in all of the north. This means that there was only a .9% difference between north Florida and the two counties mentioned above. So, on that basis, one could say that north Florida had political clout.
Now let’s fast-forward to 2010 for Governor. Looking at the same counties in the north, they only comprised of 4.5% of the total electorate, a huge decrease. As far Broward and Palm Beach, they were now 15.2% of the total electorate. There were precincts the size of a few city blocks that cast more votes in Palm Beach County than all of Lafayette or Union Counties.
But we have talked about this “numbers game” before, so nothing I say here is really new. So we need to do a little more digging to really get a good grasp of Florida politics in the north.
During the 1960s, there were two large events that shaped Florida politically. First, blacks were now allowed to vote in Florida’s elections without any interference. While blacks in the northern states were traditionally Republicans and started to work their way over to the Democratic side in the mid-1940s, blacks in Florida registered as Democrats because of their support of Kennedy and Johnson.
With the black vote becoming a voting bloc in Florida Democratic politics, two things happened almost immediately. First, after 1965, not a single segregationist was nominated by the Democratic Party for Governor or the two Senators since the Voting Rights Act was passed. Second, the Democratic vote in north Florida had become split. A good example of this is the nomination of Miami Mayor Robert King High, who was much more liberal than his Democratic primary opponent, Governor Haydon Burns. High was able to capture both the newly-migrated white northern voters in south Florida as well as the black votes.
To examine this point further, let’s look at Gadsden County, which has a large black population. In the 1964 Democratic runoff between these same candidates saw Burns win easily with 4,492, or 78.6% of the vote to High’s 1,227 votes, for a total of 5,719 votes being cast. Just two years later, during a time which Gadsden County was experiencing a decrease in population, Burns still won the county. This time, he garnered 3,919 votes to High’s 3,088 votes. Not only did the number of overall votes increase by 1,288 votes, for a total of 7,007 cast, but Burns’ percentage of the vote was only 56% this time, a 22.6% decrease in a tradition “Dixiecrat” county. The black vote was what changed the election results.
The second important event of the 1960s was the emergence of the Republican Party in Florida. Previously only a blip on the map, with Pinellas County being the only area of the state with any Republicans, the GOP saw their numbers swell purely due to the fact that northern Florida Democrats didn’t want to vote for High. Counties that had voted for Farris Bryant in the 80% to mid-90% range were now voting for Republican Claude Kirk. Therefore, the early birth of the Florida Republican Party had nothing to do with actual Republicans, but irate Democratic voters in the north of the state.
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These two dynamics are the main reasons that targeting north Florida in statewide races doesn’t make any sense any more. The numbers suggest that it is illogical as well. In addition, the electorate has changed drastically, and all because of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Those that claim the “north Florida thesis” mostly look at the pre-1965 races and base their opinion on targeting north Florida solely on those historical statistics alone. And comparing any race of the pre-1965 era to a method of winning back Florida today is fundamentally flawed and totally irresponsible. Blacks are now able to vote. The Hispanic population has increased dramatically. The name “Florida Native” closer resembles someone that was born in Florida in the 1980s to a family that moved from Chicago instead of your traditional Florida Cracker. The times have changed. Kind of like taking a horse and buggy to Daytona International Speedway and asking for entry into the Daytona 500.
But even with all of that said, if the “north Florida thesis” crowd still bangs on about how we need to target north Florida, I have a surprise. I actually agree. Of course, many of you are saying “what is the catch”?
Let’s look at the issues that face north Floridians today. We have to break these down into different categories.
First, let’s look at north Florida voters whose number one issue is abortion. The Florida Democrats will never nominate a pro-life candidate, ever. Much in the same way that they will never nominate another segregationist after 1965. Therefore, any voter that makes being pro-life their number one issue, they are already voting Republican. Scrap them.
Let’s look at gay marriage. While the statewide Democratic candidate might not be “for” gay marriage, more than likely they will be more liberal on the issue than the typical Republican. Therefore, if “traditional marriage” is the number one concern of a voter, he is going with the Republicans. Scrap them.
Then let’s look at the issue of race. Oh, and trust me, race plays a huge part in north Florida voting . If someone is voting for someone because of the issue of race (particularly being racist toward African Americans), they more than likely aren’t going to vote Democratic, especially in a year like 2012 when a black candidate is heading the ticket. Scrap them.
That leads us to economic issues. And to examine this, let us look at the 1938 race for the Democratic nomination for US Senate in Florida. Claude Pepper (at that time still a north Florida resident) was a self-proclaimed and proud liberal. When asked by Franklin Roosevelt (in a mass mailer) which direction the Democratic Party should go, he said it should be the liberal party of the United States. He was a liberal economic populist. In addition, when a black member of Congress was invited to the White House under Herbert Hoover, Pepper supported Hoover. This might have cost him his state house seat, but it didn’t play into his landslide victory in the US Senate Democratic primary where he avoided a runoff.
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True, in 1950 the tables turned on Pepper who lost to George Smathers. Race was a factor in Smathers’ win, but so was being well financed and having the support of President Truman. Pepper never had a chance in that election. Even so, Pepper lost because of the issue of race which became connected to the Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s. Pepper was labeled a communist for supporting civil rights.
As we have established, those that would be voting for an anti-civil right’s candidate today would surely vote for the Republican. Therefore, we can scrap them. But there are many that will still vote for a Democratic candidate that has a progressive and populist economic policy. So basically, if Democrats want to become competitive in north Florida, become more liberal on economic issues.
Southern Democrat have always had a dislike for corporations. Florida Democrats are much the same. If the Democratic Party wants to win back this area, don’t do it with promoting tax cuts. Most people in the north don’t consider taxes an issue. But when Democrats make lower taxes the main issue of their campaign, northern Democrats just turn to their next issue, which might be abortion, gay marriage or whatever, and vote on that.
If Democrats portray themselves as helping the little guy, taking on the big corporations and helping rural north Floridians with increasing their incomes, that will be what takes back north Florida. Being Republican-lite won’t take it back. So, yes Democrats, if you want to win north Florida, you must become more liberal.
To sum up how the rural north Florida voters thinks, here is a clip from one of my favorite moves O Brother, Where Art Thou. Even though I was born in Chicago and lived most of my life in Orlando, half of my family is from Tishimingo County, MS. Therefore, I know how they think, and I know what they want. And to understand what type of message it takes to win back north Florida, here is the clip. Granted, the messenger might be a little different than what we would want in 2012, but the message is still the same.