Don’t forget Florida’s all important white vote

Democrats can't count on Florida's growing diversity if they keep losing ground with white voters.
Several voters enter a door at the Clearwater First Nazarine Church for precincts 503 and 504 to vote on Aug. 28. (JIM DAMASKE  |  Times)
Several voters enter a door at the Clearwater First Nazarine Church for precincts 503 and 504 to vote on Aug. 28. (JIM DAMASKE | Times)
Published Sept. 10, 2018|Updated Sept. 10, 2018

We've heard loads of Buzz since Andrew Gillum became Florida's first African-American nominee for governor about how strong turnout among black voters could be what wins the race for Tallahassee's Democratic mayor.

Florida's electorate grows more diverse with every election cycle, so political analysts always obsessively slice and dice minority groups within the electorate — African-Americans, Haitians, Puerto Ricans, older Cuban-Americans, younger-Cuban Americans, Venezuelans — to look for which candidate has an advantage in the state's consistently neck-and-neck elections.

Often overlooked, though, is the most consequential demographic of all: white voters.

They account for roughly three of every four voters in mid-term elections, and they vote heavily Republican. How heavily is the difference between who wins and loses.

"Having a surge in black voters is not significant because if you increase the black vote by 10 percent, it's only 1 percent of the electorate," said Democratic consultant Barry Edwards, who analyzed turnout by race over Florida's last eight elections

Among the 51 percent of voters who turned out in the Florida's last midterm election, 73 percent were non-Hispanic white voters, 10 percent Hispanic and 12 percent black.

Given that the the last two governor's races were decided by a single percentage point, an energized African-American electorate can indeed decide an election. But in sheer numbers, white voters still matter most.

Andrew Gillum has virtually no chance of winning a majority of white Florida voters.

Florida is not unique in this respect.

No Democratic presidential nominee has won a majority of white voters nationally since 1964. What happened? The passage of the Civil Rights Act.

A key to a Democratic candidate's victory in Florida and nationally is to limit the size of their loss among white voters. Barack Obama won Florida in 2012 with 37 percent of the white vote, according to exit polls. Hillary Clinton lost Florida in 2016 with 32 percent of the white vote.

Had Charlie Crist won 38 percent of the white vote instead of 37 percent in the lower turnout midterm election of 2014, he would today be finishing off his first term as a Democrat.

Can the most liberal Democratic nominee in decades do better not just with black voters but also white?

Absolutely, argues Jeff Weaver, campaign manager for Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign.

"What Andrew Gillum should be doing is what he has been doing, which is talking about the issues that are confronting Florida and offering big solutions to big problems so that the lives of every Floridian is better," he said last week, brushing off the notion that a Democrat advocating higher corporate taxes and already under called a "socialist" by Ron DeSantis will struggle in Florida.

"When you talk about progressive taxation where the very wealthy pay their fair share of taxes in order to have good schools and a clean environment, people are for all of these things," Weaver said after an appearance at the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club in St. Petersburg.

"What you have to do is ignore all the name calling, ignore the labels, and talk about the issues. People recognize an authentic messenger with a common sense message. That's why I think Andrew Gillum has done so well and will continue to."

Promoting his book, How Bernie Won: Inside The Revolution That's Taking Back Our Country, Weaver said that a winning coalition for Democrats requires candidates to reach out to young voters uninterested in conventional centrist candidates.

The traditional view that elections are won in the middle is dated and invalid, he said. At least half of young voters register as independents today because most Democrats seem too conservative.

"When you do what (Democratic candidates) normally do, which is to scoot to the middle in the general election, these people just go away. If that happens, Andrew Gillum will have a hard time winning," he said.