This is how Florida became the state to watch in presidential politics

Cover for Spring 2016 issue.
Cover for Spring 2016 issue.
Published June 10, 2016

Over the past half century, Florida has changed from solidly Democratic to a two-party state that media, candidates and analysts watch closely to see which way the nation's political winds will blow. How did this happen? Why, going into the 2016 election year, does Florida qualify as a premier swing state?

Florida's political evolution began with explosive population growth, sparked after World War II and continuing for decades. This boom transformed what was a mostly rural, white, poor population of less than 2 million into the nation's third-largest state — a cultural mosaic of 20 million people who mirror the racial, ethnic, religious, age and geographic makeup of the nation.

As people moved to Florida from the Northeast, Midwest, other parts of the South, Latin America and the Caribbean, they altered the political landscape. A state that had been dominated by the Panhandle's "pork choppers" — white, segregationist, conservative Democrats — grew into a demographic and political microcosm of the country. With voters now split among Democrats, Republicans and independents, Florida has more Electoral College votes up for grabs than any other large state (29 Electoral College votes in 2016, compared to eight a half-century ago). This has transformed Florida into the nation's largest swing state, a political powerhouse.

It's not surprising that Florida has voted for the winning presidential candidate in all but one year since 1964. And it's not surprising that when political pundits are attempting to read the tea leaves, they look to Florida for clues.

Growth leads to transformation

Florida attracted newcomers for a variety of reasons. Some wanted to escape cold weather (retirees). Others, primarily from abroad, came in search of political freedom or economic opportunity. Investors saw profits to be had from Florida's appeal to tourists and its new residents. And young people saw jobs.

Many who had been registered Republicans elsewhere began showing up at the Florida polls. The national emergence of a new Republican Party, with its emphasis on smaller government and lower taxes, won a strong following among Florida voters. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan persuaded many conservative Democrats to move to his camp, although some were slow to actually change their party registration. A number of young voters, too, found his optimism appealing.

By 1996, Republicans controlled both houses of the Florida Legislature and made up a majority of the state's congressional delegation. The 1998 election of Republican Jeb Bush as governor made Florida the first state in the South with Republican control of both the executive and legislative branches of state government.

As 2016 began, Republicans made up 35 percent of the state's registered voters, and Democrats, 38 percent. The remaining voters were independent, registered as either No Party Affiliation (24 percent) or a minor party (3 percent). While the major parties were nearly at parity, Democrats still outnumbered Republicans.

Over the past decade, however, both major parties' share of registrants has been shrinking. Increasingly, Florida voters (many young, Hispanic and Asian) are registering as independent, a pattern found across the nation.

Spend your days with Hayes

Spend your days with Hayes

Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter

Columnist Stephanie Hayes will share thoughts, feelings and funny business with you every Monday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Between 1964 and 2012, Florida's population growth doubled its number of Electoral College votes (which determine who wins the presidency). In 2016, Florida's Electoral College votes are far more up for grabs than those of New York, California or Texas (each more one-party dominant) and more plentiful than in other key swing ("purple") states like Ohio, Colorado, Nevada and Virginia.

Adding to Florida's political importance is big money. Floridians contribute millions to candidates, political parties, political action committees (PACs), Super PACs, and the independent soft-money groups known as 527s. In previous elections, only California, New York, the District of Columbia and Texas routinely ranked ahead of Florida in total campaign contributions.

But to better understand Florida's transformation, we need to look at two elements that characterize a swing state: the habit of picking the winning president; and a diverse electorate, particularly with regard to race/ethnicity and age.

Since 1964, Florida has voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election except 1992 when Democrat Bill Clinton defeated incumbent Republican President George H. W. Bush. In that election, the state's voters narrowly picked Bush (41 percent) over Clinton (39 percent).

In the 21st century, legislative contests aside, Democrats have won statewide contests (U.S. Senate and the Cabinet's chief financial officer) and have come really close in others (governor). Heading into the 2016 contest, it is important to recall that Democrat Barack Obama bested Republican Mitt Romney by a mere 0.9 percent in 2012 — the closest race in the country.

Diversity: analyzing the numbers

Florida's racial/ethnic makeup mirrors that of the United States more than any other swing state. But population percentages alone do not perfectly translate into a group's share of the electorate. Specifically, the percentages of minorities in the population do not match their voter-registration percentages.

For example: While nearly 24 percent of Floridians are Hispanic, only 15 percent of registered voters are Hispanic; and African Americans compose nearly 17 percent of the population, but only 14 percent of registered voters. These disparities are due in part to a higher number of ineligible voters in those groups, which include more people under age 18, more non-citizens, and more incarcerated persons. Looking at it a different way: It's estimated that just 48 percent of the state's Latino population and 64 percent of its black population are eligible to vote.

Another interesting fact revealed by the statistics: A person's religious beliefs may be a stronger voting cue than his or her political party affiliation. The religious affiliations of Floridians mirror those of the nation: 70 percent Christian (Catholic, 21 percent); 6 percent are of non-Christian faiths (Jewish, 3 percent; Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and others each less than 1 percent); and 24 percent claim no religious affiliation.

White evangelical Christians (24 percent of Florida voters in both 2008 and 2012) are the most solidly Republican. Protestants and Catholics (more recently) lean Republican. Jewish voters and those who identify themselves as secular or "other" heavily favor Democrats.

The numbers also undercut the popularly held perception that seniors are Florida's dominant voting group. By 2012, this stereotype was no longer true: Voters were almost equally divided between those over age 50 and those younger than 50. As aging (and politically divided) baby boomers replace older, more Democratic-voting voters, the state's senior vote is trending Republican.

Florida's largest age cohort are those between ages 30 and 49. This group is increasingly registering as independents, although many vote Democratic. Younger voters are likely to be racially/ethnically diverse, single, college-educated, secular, and residents of heavily urbanized areas.

In addition, millennials (between ages 18 and 34) now outnumber baby boomers — a fact not lost on 2016 presidential candidates. We can expect both major parties to court college students and promote voter-registration. Millennials are under-registered relative to their proportion of Florida's population — a pattern found across the nation.

Florida's geographical population concentrations — important in Get-Out-The Vote efforts — show a similarity to the rural/urban/suburban picture nationally. Among Floridians who voted in the 2012 presidential election, 13 percent were from rural areas, 27 percent urban, and 60 percent suburban. For the nation, it was 21 percent rural, 32 percent urban, and 47 percent suburban.

The key Florida swing vote came from suburbs in large metropolitan areas. Many of these key suburban areas are in the I-4 corridor — a major thoroughfare cutting across the state from the Tampa-St. Petersburg area east to the Orlando-Daytona area. More than 44 percent of all Florida's registered voters live in the Tampa and Orlando media markets. The area is nearly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, with heavy concentrations of suburban and independent voters. It's considered the swing part of the swing state, or "the highway to heaven," for candidates running statewide.

So how will Florida's swing-state status affect its residents in 2016? If the 2012 presidential election is any indication of what's to come, it will mean they can expect more of everything — visits by candidates and their surrogates, television ads, mailers, robo calls, and knocks-on-the door from neighbors and party activists.

Florida voters should expect to be under a microscope when candidates, parties, and pundits try to analyze the nation's political landscape — and influence results. Florida's diversity makes it the best state in which to study slices of the electorate (race/ethnicity, religion, age, geography, and party affiliation). Candidates know that micro-targeting these groups is essential to delivering political messaging and forming Get-Out-The-Vote strategies. Turnout — the hardest thing to predict — is critical to victory.

As both parties hustle to keep up with the rapidly changing demographics, politics, and media habits of Florida voters, it will be fascinating to see whether in November we can say once again "as Florida goes, so goes the nation." One thing is for sure: The state's status as a key swing state in presidential politics remains intact. Florida offers the nation a front row seat for observing the impact of a much more diverse electorate.

Susan A. MacManus, Distinguished University Professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa and a respected Florida political analyst for state and national media, is the author and co-author of numerous books, including Politics in Florida (fourth edition).