As Florida goes, so goes the nation. Or so it seems of late.
The polls show a very close presidential election, with Florida and its 29 electoral votes up for grabs once again. This marks the fifth presidential election since 1996 in which the Florida results have been uncertain and critical to the outcome of the election.
If you have followed Florida politics for the past several years, you might wonder how that could be, since Republicans hold every major office in Florida and have super majorities in both houses of the state legislature.
With the exception of Bill Nelson's U.S. senatorial seat and a few congressional seats, the state Democratic Party is almost invisible. One political pundit jested that the tea party is a more visible second party than the Democratic Party.
Despite such quips, Democrats continue to be a significant factor in statewide races and especially presidential campaigns. That's because voters turn out for presidential elections, and Democrats hold a 450,000-vote majority among registered voters in the state.
In last five presidential elections, Democrats have made it a battle in Florida by bringing in their national political organization to mobilize their voters. In doing so, Democratic presidential candidates have made obvious what others have thought for some time — that the state party's political infrastructure is too weak to mobilize supporters to meet their needs.
Making their job more difficult, Floridians have demonstrated a curious fondness for one-party politics for much of the state's history. Literally since statehood, voters have embraced a single party. And for much of that time Floridians supported the Democratic Party.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, voter loyalty was rooted in the developments of the Civil War and Reconstruction and in the establishment of segregation. During and after the Great Depression of the 1930s, Floridians embraced the economic and social programs of FDR's New Deal.
Throughout this period, the Republican Party was so weak that even Democrats thought it needed oxygen. In 1937 the Democratic Florida Senate approved a bill designed to prevent the loss of the official standing of the Republican Party in Florida. The law at the time required a party to poll 30 percent to maintain its viability. Republicans polled less than that in election after election, so Democrats offered to drop it to 15 percent.
The Democratic chair of the Senate Elections Committee argued in defense of the proposal, "We've got Republicans in Florida, and we can't just shoot 'em."
The feebleness of the Republican Party did not help Democrats. While the Republican Party remained a minor party in Florida for another 50 years, up until the mid 1980s, the Democratic Party disintegrated into a loose band of like-minded people who lacked any personal or political loyalty.
Political scientist V.O. Key described Florida's political environment "as every man for himself." One leading reporter opined in the 1930s that party leaders had failed "to establish the party on a firm, respectable Democratic foundation."
The inherent weakness of the party's political organization made it possible for Republicans to rise rapidly to power in Florida. It was not as easy or quick as this might read, but Republicans built a strong infrastructure that had eluded Democrats and, in the mid 1990s, they overthrew the Democratic Party in the process.
Today state Republicans, aided by a strong organization and control of the redistricting process, dominate Florida politically as Democrats once did.
That domination, however, has yet to translate into certain victory in statewide races and in the presidential election. As long as the national Democratic Party can bring its own organization into the state every four years, it has a reasonable chance of derailing the Republican juggernaut and has done so in two of the last four presidential elections.
But the state party's persistent weakness makes the challenge of winning Florida all the more difficult for the Democratic presidential nominee.
David R. Colburn is director of the Askew Institute at the University of Florida and author of "From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans." Colburn, who can be reached at email@example.com, wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.