A quick history of Florida's presidential politics, from Whigs to wigged out

Published Nov. 4, 2016

Florida has long been viewed as fundamentally unique among the Southern states. Manning Dauer, one of Florida's most revered experts on politics in the Sunshine State, called it "the different state." V.O. Key, Jr., in his seminal work on Southern politics, Southern Politics in State and Nation, titled his chapter on Florida "Every Man for Himself."

Part of Florida resembles the South politically and culturally, but much of the state seems more like the Midwest than Mississippi. The political maxim in Florida is "the farther north you go, the farther south you get." Florida's Panhandle varies little from neighboring Georgia or Alabama.

Miami's political culture is a melting pot of New York Jews, Cubans, Haitians, African Americans and other ethnic groups. Its liberal politics is closer to New York City than it is to the rest of the state.

How is Florida different?

It is among the fastest-growing states of the nation. In 1950, Florida had fewer residents than any state east of the Mississippi. Today, Florida is the nation's third-largest state with a population of 20,280,000. Two-thirds of Floridians were born somewhere else, the second-highest percentage of non-native residents.

Ask a Floridian where he or she is from, and most will answer New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan or some other state — or nation. This lack of attachment and rootlessness makes it difficult to get support for public policy. It also increases the cost of campaigning since politicians are constantly appealing to a changing electorate.

Florida is a different state due to its diverse population which makes it a microcosm for the nation; 78.1 percent of Florida's population is white compared to 77.7 percent for the nation. Florida's Hispanic population is 23.6 percent compared to 17.1 percent for America. The state's black population is 16.7 percent compared to 13.2 percent for the United States.

We are both the "bellwether state" and the Peoria of the nation.

Florida is different due to its large elderly population. Florida ranks first in the percentage of residents over 65. Seniors are the most consistent voters in the state and are a key component for Republican candidates.

Finally, Florida is a different state because it is one of the most expensive states to conduct a statewide campaign. This is due to the geographic size of the state, its diverse multi-language population and the double digit media markets in Florida. Most residents do not realize the distance from Key West to Pensacola is greater that the distance from Pensacola to Chicago.

A history of Florida presidential elections


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Florida became a state in 1845. Florida joined the Union as a slave state on the same day Iowa joined as a "free" state. In its first presidential election since statehood, 4,120 Floridians voted for Whig candidate Zachary Taylor and 3,083 voted for Democrat Lewis Cass. Florida's vote was critical in helping Taylor win the presidency, although both Taylor and the Whigs soon departed. Taylor died halfway through his term, and the Whigs died out after the 1852 election when the party was split by the slavery issue.

The downfall of the Whigs led to the election of Democratic presidential candidates Franklin Pierce in 1852 and James Buchanan in 1856. Florida politics, which had been dominated by the Whigs, elected a Democratic majority in both houses of the Legislature as well as a Democratic governor in 1852. Florida remained a Democratic bastion for a 140 years with few exceptions.

With the loss of the Confederacy, Republicans dominated Florida and Southern politics for the next 15 years. The Republican Party was divided into the Conservative and Radical wings. The Conservatives were made up of mostly native white Floridians who favored former Confederates participating in governing. The Radicals were made up by non-native whites (carpetbaggers) and the newly freed slaves. The Radicals demanded that former Confederates be barred from holding office and that anyone who gave "aid and comfort" to the rebellion be disfranchised. In addition, former slaves were enfranchised.

Registration figures for May 1868 indicated that there were 13,698 white voters and 17,800 Negro voters registered in Florida. As one former Confederate responded, "the damned Republican Party has put the n-----s to rule us and we will not suffer it." And, they would not for very long.

The 1876 presidential election marked a turning point for party politics and presidential elections in Florida. The nation had grown weary of Reconstruction. Newspaper publisher and Republican activist Horace Greeley urged the nation to "have done with Reconstruction. ... So long as any state is held in abeyance, it will be plausibly urged that the Republicans are afraid to trust the people. Let us give every state to herself."

The 1876 presidential election created the opportunity that Greeley and others were looking for to end Reconstruction. In a very close election, Democrat Samuel Tilden had more popular votes than Republican Rutherford B. Hayes, but the electoral votes of Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana were in dispute. Sound familiar?

Congress appointed a 15-member election commission to review the votes in these three states and by a vote of 8 to 7 in each of the three states, the electoral votes and the presidency was awarded to the Republican Hayes.

The Compromise of 1877 resulted in the federal government pulling troops out of the South. The withdrawal of the troops ended federal protection for black voters in Florida and the rest of the South. Florida, like every southern state, drafted a new state constitution that created many barriers to black voting. The Legislature, now under the control of Democrats, passed additional laws to ensure the removal of black and Republican voters.

Florida was the first state in the nation to require the payment of a poll tax in order to vote. Passed in 1889, the law imposed a $2 tax as a requirement for voting. The tax was cumulative, which meant you had to pay it every year. In addition, you had to have proof that you paid the tax. No receipts, no voting.

Florida also passed the white primary in 1892 when the Democrats banned blacks from voting in the primary in order to preserve "the purity and integrity of the party." The white primary was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1927, but southern states simply modified the law and passed it again. It was not until 1944 that the U. S. Supreme Court put a stake through the heart of the white primary. When a black minister from Jacksonville attempted to vote in the 1944 Democratic primary, he was told: "You won't go to jail, but you will be killed. This is Florida. We don't allow n-----s to vote here in Democratic primaries."

The major obstacle to black voting in most southern states was the literacy test. Florida enacted a literacy test in 1915. Based on the idea that Florida blacks were either denied an education or only provided schooling in the elementary grades, most blacks would not be able to pass such a test. Add to this the fact that even though you might have given the right answer, it was up to the white election official to decide if you passed the test.

Because Florida's population was as much as 45 percent black as late as 1900, whites wanted to do everything possible to remove black voters. Florida developed two of the most ingenious devices of voter discrimination: the tissue ballot and the eight-ballot box law.

In areas of Florida where blacks were a majority or a large segment of the population, whites wanted a tool to ensure white majorities. To do this, they created the tissue ballot. Black voters were given a tissue ballot and whites were given a normal paper ballot. White officials would stuff the ballot box for white candidates so that more votes were cast than could be expected.

How were officials going to resolve the dilemma of too many votes? The solution was easy. Voter officials would randomly take out the number of ballots that exceeded the correct total. They "randomly" pulled out the tissue ballots given to blacks, thereby ensuring white victories.

The eight-ballot box law was designed to negatively affect black voters who had high rates of illiteracy due to having been denied a quality education. The law required that the voter be given eight ballots, each of which had to be put in the correct ballot box. One ballot was for president, one for Congress, one for the state Legislature, one for county races, etc. Since over half of Florida's black population was illiterate in the late 1800s, black voters did not know which ballot belonged in which box. The wrong ballot in the wrong box meant the vote would be discarded. The law also prevented literate voters from assisting illiterate voters.

The barriers to black voting in Florida removed more than 90 percent of registered black voters from the voter rolls. Since most black voters were Republicans, the changes also decimated the Florida Republican Party. By 1900, there was not a single black or Republican left in the Florida Legislature.

In 1913, the Florida Legislature passed a law requiring a "political party to receive 5 percent of the vote to be officially recognized. When the GOP failed to run a candidate for governor in 1918, the Florida Supreme Court declared that the Republican Party no longer existed. In their 1921 decision, the Florida Supreme Court declared: "Having gone out if existence as a political party in the eyes of the law, its officers ... went out of existence with the party. The law does not know such a political party as the Republican Party."

From the 1880s to 1948, the Republican presidential candidate won Florida only once. In 1928, 56.8 percent of Floridians voted for Herbert Hoover, the Republican nominee. The reason was as simple as it was prejudiced. The Democratic candidate against Hoover was Al Smith, the first Catholic nominee of any major political party.

The depression and the economic collapse of the American and world economy led to Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt easily winning four consecutive presidential campaigns in 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944. Every southern state including Florida overwhelmingly voted for Roosevelt.


From 1880 through 1944, the solid Democratic south voted for 16 Democratic candidates and one Republican. That loyalty to the Democratic Party began to change with the 1948 election. Although the Republicans failed to carry a single southern state in 1948, a divided Democratic Convention and a dispute over civil rights lead to two third-party challenges to Harry Truman, the Democratic nominee.

At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, the party was torn apart when Minneapolis Mayor Hubert Humphrey introduced a strong civil rights platform. All 20 Florida delegates voted against the Humphrey proposal, and many of the southern delegates walked out of the convention and assembled later in Birmingham, Ala., where they selected South Carolina Gov. Strom Thurmond to lead the Dixiecrat or States Rights Party.

From the left, Truman was challenged by former Vice President Henry Wallace who led the Progressive Party that championed rapprochement with the Soviets. Wallace's brother John lived in St. Petersburg and the Wallace family has been active in both the Republican and Democratic Party in Pinellas County. The dual challenge confronting Truman and the popularity of Republican nominee Thomas Dewey led Time magazine to conclude that "Only a political miracle or extraordinary stupidity on the part of Republicans can save the Democratic Party in November."

Whether miracle or stupidity, Truman beat Dewey by 4 percentage points nationally or more than three million votes. Truman won half of the Southern vote. Republican Dewey won 27 percent of the southern vote compared to 23 percent for Thurmond's Dixiecrats, but Thurmond's vote was concentrated in four Deep South states (Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi and Louisiana). Thurmond won the electoral votes of all four of those states primarily because Truman's name was not on the ballot.

In Florida, Truman won 49 percent of the vote, Dewey won 34 percent, Thurmond won 15 percent and Wallace collected a meager 2 percent of the vote. Although Republicans failed to carry any electoral votes in the South, the 1948 election provided an opening that the Republican Party would soon take advantage of.

From the end of Reconstruction until 1944, Southern Democrats had an unwritten agreement with the national Democratic Party. If the national party did not interfere with southern civil rights policy, southern Democrats would support the national party and its candidates. The passage of the civil rights plank at the 1948 convention ended that agreement. White southerners were now free agents.

One significant change occurred in Florida between the 1948 and the 1952 presidential election. This was the emergence of the Pinellas Republican Party, which would be the forerunner of the modern Florida Republican Party. Although Truman defeated Dewey in Florida, Pinellas County cast 24,900 votes for Dewey and only 15,724 for Truman.

Dewey's victory in Pinellas did not go unnoticed by William Cato Cramer. Cramer was educated in St. Petersburg public schools and St. Petersburg Junior College. He then graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of North Carolina and went on to earn a law degree at Harvard in 1948. Cramer immediately returned to St. Petersburg and registered as a Republican.

Although Pinellas Democrats outnumbered Republicans 51,597 to 15,995, Cramer believed that at least 10,000 of the Democrats were "sleeper" Republicans. Sleepers were Republicans who registered as Democrats in order to participate in the Democratic primaries.

As Ohio Senator Robert Taft told Pinellas residents in a 1948 campaign speech, "If a two-party system is good for the nation, it is good for Florida and Pinellas County." Cramer adopted Taft's message and every ad for Republicans carried the tag line: "Give Pinellas County a Two-Party System." Cramer and the Republicans received the backing of Nelson Poynter, owner of the St. Petersburg Times, who also supported a competitive two-party system.

Under Cramer's leadership, the Republican Party won 14 of 15 county-wide races in Pinellas in 1950 despite a three-to-one Democratic advantage in voter registration. Emery Ackerman, chair of the Democratic State Executive Committee, referred to St. Petersburg as the "Capitol of the Republican Party in the state of Florida."

Ralph McGill, Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Atlanta Constitution, was so impressed by the Pinellas election results that he devoted the entire front-page column to the story. "Florida becomes the first Southern State, aside from border states where the two-party system is likely to develop within a short time. ... Once Florida does it, the national GOP will be encouraged to assist other states with an opposition party."

But, as the St. Petersburg Times was quick to note, Pinellas did not adopt a two-party system. The 100-year dominance by the Democratic Party was replaced overnight by the dominance of the Republican Party for the next half century. The day after the 1950 election, the Times ran a front page editorial cartoon showing a herd of stampeding elephants running roughshod over a single donkey. The caption read: "Hey! We said a Two-Party System!"

The significance of the Republican domination of Pinellas was that it would be the beginning of an effective statewide Republican Party. An effective political party structure would be instrumental in Florida moving from being part of the Solid Democratic South to increasingly becoming the first Southern state to be completely controlled by the Republican Party.

The 1952 presidential election was the first example of "Presidential Republicanism" in the South. Although the vast majority of southerners continued voting Democrat in most congressional and state and local races, many would gravitate to the Republican presidential candidate.

In the 1952 presidential race, Republican war hero Dwight Eisenhower was pitted against Democratic Gov. Adlai Stevenson. Numerous Democrats for Eisenhower organizations formed throughout the South. For the first time since 1928 and for only the second time in the past 75 years, a Republican presidential candidate won a southern state. Eisenhower won Florida, Virginia and Tennessee. These three states voted Republican in the 1952, 1956 and 1960 presidential election. Eisenhower received 55 percent of the Florida vote in 1952 and 57 percent in 1956, and Richard Nixon won 51 percent of the Florida vote in the 1960 campaign against John F. Kennedy.

1964 was an unusual presidential election in many respects. The race pitted Democrat Lyndon Johnson versus Republican Barry Goldwater, the most conservative candidate to seek the White House. The three southern states that had voted Republican in the last three elections — Florida, Virginia and Tennessee — all voted Democrat. Goldwater carried the same four states won by Thurmond and the Dixiecrats in 1948, plus the state of Georgia. None of these state had voted Republican since the end of Reconstruction. Goldwater lost Florida 49 to 51 percent to LBJ and in Pinellas County, which gave 65 percent of the vote to Nixon in 1960, only 45 percent supported Goldwater in 1964. Goldwater's request to privatize Social Security was not well received by Pinellas' senior citizens.

The 1968 election was a three-way race between Republican Richard Nixon, Democrat Hubert Humphrey and segregationist and American Party candidate George Wallace. In the 1960 election, Nixon received about a third of the black vote due to his strong support of civil rights as Eisenhower's vice president. Just eight years later, Nixon adopted a "southern strategy" where he opposed busing, supported neighborhood schools and promised to appoint strict constructionists to the courts.

Nixon was concerned that Wallace would pull enough electoral votes in the South to deny anyone a majority. In this case, the election would be thrown into the House where Democrats would select Humphrey. Nixon used Strom Thurmond, now a Republican, to keep wayward white southerners in line. He campaigned throughout the south telling southerners that a vote for Wallace was really a vote for Humphrey.

Wallace captured five southern states and 39 percent of the southern vote. Nixon won five southern states and 32 percent of the vote and Humphrey narrowly carried Texas and won 29 percent of the southern vote. Nixon carried Florida with 41 percent of the vote to 31 percent for Humphrey and 29 percent for Wallace.

In 1972, Nixon would win virtually everywhere against Democrat George McGovern. Nixon won 61 percent of the national vote and only lost Massachusetts and the District of Columbia to McGovern. Nixon won 72 percent of the Southern vote and won the same percentage of the vote in Florida.

Where Nixon won every southern state in 1972, four years later Democrat Jimmy Carter won all of the southern states except Virginia. Carter, from Georgia, was the first Deep South nominee from a major party in over a century. Republican President Gerald Ford was tainted by the Watergate scandal and his pardon of Richard Nixon. For only the second time since 1952, Florida voted for the Democratic nominee, giving neighboring Jimmy Carter 53 percent of the vote.

The 1980 election found President Carter facing former California governor and conservative icon Ronald Reagan. Carter would lose every southern state except his home state of Georgia. Where Carter had won Florida in 1976, in 1980 he was able to only win 39 percent of the Florida vote.

Four years later, Reagan won a landslide victory over Walter Mondale of Minnesota. Reagan won every southern state and carried Florida 65 to 35 percent. The southern vote was highly polarized with 90 percent of southern blacks voting for Mondale and 70 percent of southern whites voting for Reagan.

The 1988 election mirrored the 1984 campaign. Reagan's vice president, George H. W. Bush won all of the southern states as Reagan had done in 1984, but he only won 54 percent of the national vote compared to Reagan's 59 percent. Bush's election marked the only time since FDR that a party won a third consecutive term as president, a feat that Hillary Clinton hopes to replicate this year.

Although President Bush's popularity exceeded 90 percent after the first Persian Gulf War and many of the Democratic Party's "A Team" decided to sit out the 1992 campaign, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton managed to defeat Bush with the help of Independent candidate Ross Perot of Texas. Clinton won only 43 percent of the popular vote, but easily won the electoral votes needed to become president. Bush won only 38 percent of the vote and Perot carried one out of every five voters, but failed to win a single electoral vote. Clinton carried four southern states and narrowly lost Florida to Bush 39 to 41 percent. Clinton regretted not putting extra time and resources into Florida and would correct that mistake in 1996.


In the five presidential elections from 1996 through 2012, Republicans have won two times and Democrats have won three times. One of the Republican victories was the contested 2000 presidential election, which Texas Gov. George W. Bush won by 537 votes when the U. S. Supreme Court ended the vote counting in its controversial 5-4 Bush vs. Gore decision.

After narrowly losing Florida to George H. W. Bush in 1992, incumbent Democratic President Bill Clinton spent more time and resources in Florida in 1996. He also faced a weaker opponent in Kansas Sen. Bob Dole. The contrast between the young and energetic 50-year-old Clinton juxtaposed to the somewhat feeble 73-year-old Dole painted quite a contrast between the candidates.

Dole survived a bitter Republican primary battle with Pat Buchanan being the primary challenger, while Clinton faced no real opposition in winning the Democratic nomination. The election stirred few voters, and the 49 percent turnout was the lowest since 1924. Clinton became the first Democrat since FDR to win two consecutive terms.

Clinton and Gore once again carried four of the 11 southern states, and this time Florida was a blue state pick-up. Clinton won 49.2 percent of the national vote to Dole's 40.7 percent. Clinton won Florida 48 percent to 42.3 percent for Dole. Ross Perot who won 19 percent of the national vote in 1992, won less than half that amount in 1996 with his 8.4 percent total.

The 2000 presidential election was one of the closest in American presidential history, and one of the most controversial. Shortly after the poll closing in Florida, CBS would call Florida for Gore and the Democrats. Several hours later, all the networks retracted their call and put Florida in the "too close to call" category. Around 1 a.m., the networks declared that Bush and the Republicans had carried Florida. More than 90 percent of the Florida vote was counted and Bush had a 100,000 vote advantage. Al Gore announced he was heading to Nashville to give a 2 a.m. concession speech.

Before he could give his concession, Gore received calls indicating that the vote in Florida had tightened and their were controversies involving vote counting. Challenges were made concerning antiquated voting machines, faulty ballots including the "butterfly" ballot that led to voter confusion, illegal purges of minority voters and numerous other problems.

The election results in Florida were so close that an automatic recount was required. In a scene very reminiscent to the 1876 challenge of the Florida presidential vote, the next 36 days were spent with both sides mounting a political and legal challenge to the election results. Bush had a political advantage in that the networks declared him the victor and many newspaper headlines carried that story. Also, George Bush's brother, Jeb, was the governor of Florida and controlled much of the election processes. Legally, Gore had an advantage by his stated theme of "count every vote."

A multitude of cases were introduced in both the Florida and federal courts. A recount of the contested ballots was started and stopped. On Day 36, the U. S. Supreme Court handed down its 5-4 Bush vs. Gore decision which ended the recount and made George W. Bush the president. In one of the most important concession speeches ever made, Gore said that while he disagreed with the court's decision, he respected the rule of law. The 537 vote margin for Bush resulted in a margin of victory of 0.009 percent. Gore received more than a half million more votes than Bush nationally, but Bush won the electoral vote battle.

In 2004, Republican President George W. Bush was opposed by Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. The first term of the Bush administration was dominated by the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Although the American public rallied around Bush after the Sept. 11 attack and the war in Afghanistan, Bush's decision to invade Iraq undercut his support. This was especially the case as the public grew tired of the wars and after no weapons of mass destruction (WMD) were found in Iraq.

Bush defeated Kerry by 3 million votes nationally, although his 2-point win over Kerry was the smallest margin of victory for any two-term president. Once again, all of the southern states voted Republican. Bush won Florida with 52.1 percent of the vote to Kerry's 47.1 percent.

The 2008 election contained numerous important elements. On the Democratic side was the opportunity to elect either the first woman presidential nominee or the first African American presidential nominee. After a long and sometimes bitter battle, the Democrats selected Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as their candidate.

Republicans faced the task of finding a nominee who could turn around the growing negative image of the Republican Party. Bush's popularity had fallen to the 30 percent level after eight years in office. The public was tiring of the long wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and the failure of the Bush administration to find WMDs in Iraq. In addition, the collapse of Wall Street and some of the largest investment banks led to concern that we were on the verge of a major economic collapse.

War hero and prisoner of war John McCain won the Republican nomination and selected Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate. McCain was not able to stop the growing momentum for change. Obama defeated McCain by 10 million votes.

Obama and the Democrats quickly focused on adopting the Affordable Care Act which was passed with only Democratic votes. It remains a primary point of contention between the two parties. Obama did stave off the stock market collapse, which may be the major accomplishment of his administration. Others would argue that the killing of Osama Bin Laden was the major victory.

In 2012, Obama faced no opposition within his party for reelection. The Republican contest was wide open, and eventually former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney would secure the nomination, overcoming concerns about his Mormon religion.

Although Republics were confident that Obama could be defeated, Obama easily won reelection with 51.1 percent of the vote to 47.2 percent for Romney. In Florida, Obama won by 75,000 votes or less than 1 percent.

On Tuesday, Florida voters will help to select the 45th president of the United States. If Democrats carry Florida in 2016, it will mean they have carried the state in four of the last six elections. One of the Democratic losses was in the 2000 election which George W. Bush won by 537 votes and, where most observers agree that more voters intended to vote for Gore.

After 120 years of Florida being part of the solid Democratic South and 40 years of Republican dominance in Florida presidential elections, Florida presidential voting is now effectively deadlocked between the two parties. The Sunshine State is neither red nor blue but purely purple.

Darryl Paulson is professor emeritus of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.