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Monday
Jun112018

Florida - Persuasion or Turnout...or both?

In the never-ending quest to simplify Florida, one of the ongoing debates about winning the state is whether Florida is a state won by winning persuadable voters, or whether it is all about turning out one’s base. 

I remember when I started with Obama, I got a ton of advice – most of it unsolicited (much was helpful), though a significant portion went something like this:  “Steve, nothing matters but I-4…Steve, if you don’t maximize the Jewish vote, you can’t win…Steve, field is dumb, it is an air war state…Steve, TV is dumb, it is a field war state…Steve, you have to do better with absentees...Steve, don't waste money trying to convince Democrats to vote by mail...Steve, you have to watch your floor in North Florida, or you can’t win…Steve, you have to take Obama to Condo X, or you won't win...Steve, you have to pay for bus benches in Miami, or you can’t win.”  You get the point.

Here is the secret – all of it matters.  Florida is neither a persuasion state, or a turnout state.  It is, in my honest opinion, both.  It doesn’t matter if it is a Presidential cycle, or a midterm year, Florida is a state about managing margins, everywhere.

Avid readers of my blog (thank you to all three of you) have read me refer to Florida as a self-correcting scale.   The bases of both parties do a nice job of balancing – or cancelling themselves out, almost regardless of population or demographic shifts.   

Before we go any further – it is important to note that this phenomenon is almost exclusively a result of my party losing vote share among non-Hispanic whites.  If we were winning non-Hispanic whites at a level anywhere near Obama 2008, based on the demographic shifts in Florida, we would be a leaning to likely Democratic state.  At the same time – if Florida wasn’t experiencing demographic changes – and the Republicans weren’t losing share among voters of color – particularly Hispanics, we would be a predictably Republican state.   Functionally, if either party can broaden their own coalition, Florida quickly gets less competitive.

But these two factors have largely cancelled each other out – hence the self-correcting scale.

Let’s review quickly how Democrats and Republicans win Florida. 

Because I am a Democrat, let’s start there.  Democrats earn their votes in a handful of counties, specifically: Leon, Gadsden, Alachua, Hillsborough, Orange, Osceola, Palm Beach, Broward, and Dade.   Winning Democratic candidates typically do a few other things: win Pinellas, win St. Lucie, win a few North Florida counties like Jefferson, maintain reasonable margins counties like in Duval, Sarasota, Volusia, and Seminole.    They also maintain a reasonable floor in North Florida, suburban/exurban counties around I-4, and the Fort Myers media market.

For Republicans, their math is a little different – they win a lot more counties, but by relatively smaller margins.  Their win comes from winning in places like Pinellas and St. Lucie, and running up the score in places the Panhandle, the First Coast, the suburban and exurban counties around I-4, and in southwest Florida. 

I’ve written extensively about this dynamic in Presidential cycles.  You can read my primer on Florida here, or my 2016 debrief here and here, but in short, I would argue there was a lot of misreading of the Obama wins in Florida.  Yes, they were driven by significantly increasing the margins in the Democratic base counties over Kerry, and growing them in 2012.  But here’s the thing – that alone wouldn’t have won the state.  In both 08 and 12, Obama generally kept the margins in check in the GOP counties – and he won the few battleground counties that exist in Florida. 

Take Obama 12 and Clinton 16 – both races decided by a roughly one percent margin.   For all the chatter about a “less than enthusiastic” Democratic base, Clinton won the base Democratic counties by more than Obama did.  Her problem wasn’t turnout.  Her problem was Trump winning the few battleground counties, and setting new records in both share of the vote and actual vote margins in those places where they must run up the score to win, and where we need to keep it in check.  

I can read your mind – “That’s interesting Steve, but this is a midterm cycle, and you know it is different.”

Yes, it is – and no it isn’t.

Yes, it s different because the electorate is smaller, and at least in the last two cycles, been more Republican (a fact impacted by two consecutive midterm waves for the GOP), which was a change from 06, where turnout marginally leaned Democratic (and Dems won 2 statewide races). 

But there are a lot of similarities between the Presidential and midterm cycles.   Both Republicans and Democrats still need to carry their margins in the same counties as they do in Presidential cycles.  While the vote totals are different in individual regions and counties are different, the functional roadmaps for winning isn't.

Rick Scott won two elections by a point, however, the shape of those wins was quite different, and in those differences lies the path to how the Democrats can win in 2018.

In 2010, the Democratic struggles were a creature of three real problems:  Hispanic drop-off from 2008, lower participation among white Democrats particularly in Central Florida, and wave of GOP and GOP-leaning NPA voters who saw voting for the GOP as a way to send a message to President Obama.  From a math standpoint, this led to lower than necessary margins in South and Central Florida base counties.   But here is the thing, Scott ran up some very large margins in parts of the state, Sink kept him in check in many others.  In fact, she kept him in check by more than enough in many GOP counties to have a winning coalition if the Democratic counties had performed well.   But they didn't.   The lesson of Sink:  Florida isn’t alone a persuasion state.

Crist’s math in 2014 was quite different.  Crist ran on a far more progressive platform than Sink, with a fairly robust turnout operation – certainly not the size of Obama, but the largest in midterm cycle history for Florida Democrats, and as a result succeeded to run up the score in the base Democratic counties, winning the three South Florida counties by almost 100,000 more votes than Sink.   He also did well enough in the “Crist counties” – the stretch from Pasco through Sarasota, where his brand is most established, winning those counties by a total of almost 2.5%, where Sink lost them by a half of a point.   

But the floor fell out for him in North Florida.  Despite North Florida shrinking as a percentage of the electorate from 2010 (20%) to 2014 (19%), Crist lost the region by 8% more than Sink did, netting Scott’s margin roughly 107,000 more votes, more than wiping out the gains Crist made in the base Democratic counties (97,000 votes).

One other way of looking at it, Crist won the base Democratic counties by 92,000 more votes than Sink did.  He lost everything else by 95,000 more votes than Sink.   The lesson of Crist, as was also the lesson of Clinton:  Florida isn’t alone a turnout state.

If Clinton has her margins in the base counties, plus Obama’s elsewhere, she wins by a point or two.

If Sink had her math, plus Crist’s margins in the base counties, he wins by about a point. If Crist has his margins, plus Sink’s margins only in North Florida, he wins by almost a point. 

2018 will be different yet.  The Democratic nominee will benefit from an electorate that is more diverse, meaning the base county margins should rise, and I think there is a lot of room for growth in the Orlando urban core.  However, at the same time, they will be unlikely be able to count on some the margins Crist won in his corner of the state, and will have to contend with areas where the GOP population is growing.  The questions aren't as simple as how do we turnout more voters, but also have to include questions like how do we keep Duval looking more like it did for Obama, Clinton, and Sink than it did for Scott in 14 or Rubio?    

For Republicans, they must deal with the fact demographics are changing in a way that helps the Democrats, and that 2018, unlike 2010 and 2014, will almost surely not be a very good Republican year, as we've seen in each of the competitive special and off-cycle elections this year.

I believe that in Scott/Nelson, as well as in the Governor's race, Florida starts this year somewhere around 47-47 -- maybe even 48-48, and we will be fighting over the path to that remaining 150,000 votes or so that a winning candidate will need.   Some of those votes are found by increasing turnout, others won and lost in the persuasion fight.  The candidate who wins in 2018 won't find those votes by getting just one of those things right, they will succeed in building the right answer to a puzzle.  That is just how Florida works these days.

Sunday
May272018

Resiliency in the Philippines

As anyone who has participated in these kind of exchanges know, there is a typical flow to the days:  breakfast, followed by a formal courtesy call or two with a Mayor/Governor/Legislative Leader, some kind of early afternoon lunch with a mix of elected and civil society types, maybe another political meeting in the afternoon, followed by a cultural activity, then dinner with community leaders/friends of the host. 

I’ve done three overseas trips and hosted three groups, and the basic rule is pack as much in as you can.  For me, Friday was supposed to be a day like that:  Breakfast in the morning, a meeting with Joy Belmonte, the Vice Mayor of Quezon City (the largest city in Manila), lunch with a few local Mayors, afternoon meeting with a few more, and a dinner with several people I first met when I came to the Philippines in 2013.    Of all the days of the trip, this was one I really looked forward to, as it would be a chance to reconnect with some old acquaintances, including Vice Mayor Belmonte.  It was the “old home week” day of the trip.

Then the fire happened. 

A day or two earlier, a small electrical fire started in an urban home in the city, but since that home was in a tightly cramped informal settlement, by the time it was contained, it had wiped out 400 homes in the neighborhood, displacing between 1500-2000 people.  The fire destroyed everything – people who already had very little survived with nothing more than the clothes on their back.  So rather than meeting with me, the Vice Mayor said she would pick us up at the hotel, and we’d all head to the temporary camp housing the victims to help distribute relief supplies.

The temporary camp was set up in a local park with an amphitheater.  For Tallahassee residents, the park would remind you of Cascade Park, so imagine the amphitheater there being set up as temporary housing for 1500-2000 people, with the roof only providing moderate relief from the elements.   When we arrived, there was a very rudimentary health care tent, a pile of donated clothes people were wading through to find stuff that fit them, and a couple of hoses for personal cleaning and drinking water.  It’s the kind of place most of us couldn’t imagine calling home for more than a few hours, let alone for days or weeks.

Frankly, at first, I felt really out of place, completely overwhelmed and helpless, and almost exploitive being there.  I didn’t want to be the guy that just showed up because I should.  The local politicians offered to let me hang out bags, but that honestly made me feel worse – so I went in the back and helped move supplies from a truck.   In the midst of trying to be useful, I saw a woman and her kid with several bags of supplies sitting under a tree.  Assuming she might be waiting for help, I asked if I could carry her stuff to where they were sleeping – and ended up striking up a conversation.   Turns out, this woman, now homeless from what was basically a slum, was putting two children through college, literally sacrificing everything to give her kids a better life.   She was a good reminder to never judge a book by its cover.

The more I talked to people, the more I saw that despite the outward impressions of total misery, there was near universal joy among the people, and genuine kindness towards me for simply being there.  Instead of holding back tears or hiding in the back, I found myself fist-bumping with kids, and hugging grandmothers.  I left there bouyed by their optimism and spirit.

Before coming, I talked to several experts, and the words they kept using to define the Filipino people: happiness and resilience.   This is a place that has been the center of many wars, including one we fought to colonize the country, and another to free it from the Japanese.  Typhoons batter the islands many times each season.  Governance here is messy – from the Marcos years, to Duterte today, to the corruption that you hear about from nearly every one in civil society.  This is a place of survivors. 

After leaving the camp, I sat down with several mayors who are successfully taking on poverty, including Kauswagan Mayor Rommel Arnado, himself a Filipino-American who decided to renounce his American citizenship to go home and run for Mayor in his ancestral home.  Mayor Arnado developed a program called “arms to farms” to encourage separatist rebels on the island of Mindanao to give up the fight.  Basically, if you would volunteer to give up your arms, the city would help you get into organic farming.  The program is now being replicated in cities in other war-torn areas.    In another, Siayan Mayor Flora Villarosa has reduced the poverty rate from 97.5% to 60%. I asked her how, and after reeling off some deliverables, she said fundamentally it was about teaching people how to dream bigger than their next meal. 

The issues here are immense.  First, the geography of the country is almost unmanageable, and the infrastructure is woefully underprepared for a growing country of 100 million people.  Getting around here is slow, and so much productivity, and honestly, just hours of life here are lost sitting in traffic.  I’ve been in seven hotels in the last eight nights, and after hours every day in the car, I am beat – I can’t imagine doing this day in, day out.   And the poverty – it is every where you look.   But it is hard to not feel hopeful after spending a week with young leaders. 

I am writing this while traveling from my last speaking event, making the 60 mile, but nearly 3-hour journey to the airport, to fly to Manila, for my trip home.  When you drive this slowly, you can see life in slow motion.  Just as we left, we drove through a pretty significant storm, a rain that was broken by a rainbow that developed over a nearby volcano.  As the rain subsided, people came back to the streets, kids started playing basketball, road side markets got busy again, and life returned to normal.  The history of this country has been one storm after another, followed by a resilient people recovering.

This is a place that is important to America for a lot of reasons.  The strategic location of the country is an obvious reason, but so is the relationship of Filipinos to America – this place is western, and nearly everyone you meet here has family in the US.   There are a lot of reasons to be engaged here, with one of the strongest being the countless young Filipino leaders committed to getting it right – and that is the whole point of the Young Southeast Leaders Initiative, to create relationships between rising young leaders in the ASEAN region and young Americans who share common goals.  I’d argue this program, and the similar ones that operate in other regions, are some of the most important tools in our forward-facing diplomatic toolbox.

I am truly grateful for ACYPL, the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, and the State Department for the opportunity to come back.  I am indebted to my brother for life, L.A. Ruanto, who took a more than a week from his family to take me around the country.  The place has been kinder to me than I deserve.   Someone once said of travel that when you travel, you never feel completely home again, because you leave a piece of your heart behind.   That is certainly the case for me and the Philippines.  Nonetheless, I leave this place renewed by the inspiring leaders I’ve met, and hopeful that life won’t make me wait another 4.5 years before returning.

Wednesday
May232018

Laguna, Laguna

The things that get your attention here run the gamut, from the obvious issues facing most developing world countries:  urbanization and traffic, poverty, and the challenges of government to provide basic services – to more cultural things, like which western brands seem to have found a foot hold here, such as Kenny Rogers and RC Cola.  For me, one of the striking elements is just how young the population is, as it is all over the region.   More on that in a bit.

The last day and a half have been spent outside of Metro Manila.  It is a very different perspective.  Life here almost seems to revolve around the road -  homes and businesses come right up to its edge, and when it isn’t serving as its primary purpose, it is almost the community front yard.  Drive through towns and you will find places where people have erected their own road blocks and traffic control devices, to force life, and you to slow down.    One other thing, unlike many places in America, economic life in provincial Philippines remains functional – even if most of the economic activity is derived from people selling services and things to each other.  Like so much of the developing world, entrepreneurship is survival. 

When I was here four years ago, we got out of Metro Manila for a day, but that experience was in a government-issued bus, escorted through traffic by local police.  This time, it was in the backseat of a Toyota Four Runner, with no one to help us get through the mass of trucks, cars, jeepneys, “tricycles” (moped with a side car), actual bikes, and people walking.  It is slow going.  One day, we drove the distance of roughly 40 miles to visit with the provincial Governor of Quezon, and the trip took two hours each way.  All told on Tuesday, we spent 8 hours in the car, covering a distance that in Florida would probably take no more than 3 hours.

Over the last few days, we had a chance to meet some interesting people, including Quezon Governor David Suarez, who was kind enough to invite us into his home.  Despite having a geographically massive constituency (12-hour drive north to south), Governor Suarez is doing some innovating things, particularly with health care, on a total provincial budget of just 40 million US a year.  But the highlight of the last few days, as it is on all these trips, is the chance to meet with young leaders.

Four years, one of the more memorable moments was visiting the Governor of Laguna Province, a fellow named ER Ejercito, who is one of the Philippines’ more productive actors, playing the role of the bad guy in more movies than I could name, who has since been removed from office for breaking campaign finane law.  He was one of the more colorful characters I’ve ever met.  He wanted to turn his province into a tourist destination and made a series of advertisements to the catchy jingle “Laguna, Laguna, Laguna #1.” 

Despite the jingle, it wasn’t a place I ever thought I would come back to.  I mostly remember it for the crazy four-hour meeting with Governor ER, and for the meal that I suspect put me on my back for 24 hours on the last trip.  But nonetheless, here I was Monday evening, in a cramped room, with little to no air circulation, with about 50 youth leaders. 

Little background on Philippines political structure:  Within cities, communities are broken up into neighborhoods, known as Barangays.  These Barangays have their own elected officials, something akin to ward leadership in some urban communities, to oversee the basic functions of the neighborhood.  Within the Barangay is a second elected set of elected officials, the Sangguniang Kabataan (or SK for short).  The SK’s are officials under the age of 30, elected by people also under 30, who are given 10% of the neighborhood’s budget to address youth specific needs, like recreational needs, and often even more basic concerns.     This whole thing is a massive enterprise.  Within the town I was in, San Pablo – roughly the size of Tallahassee, there are 80 Barangays, and equal number of SKs.

For me, I never cease to be amazed by the drive of young leaders in the developing world.  Often times, they are organizing for change with virtually no resources, and many times, with an oppressive, or at least dismissing government who sees them as just being in the way.    The SKs are no different.  Many question their role, but what I found was a roomful of engaged and curious young leaders, very aware of the challenges they face, but nonetheless committed to using their new found public platform to lead. 

The challenges facing them are enormous.  Corruption and patronage remains a massive problem, and often higher offices are simply swapped between members of the same family.  The infrastructure woes stifle productivity.  There are kids who can’t go to school because they don’t have shoes, and when they can get to school, often must drop out early to work.  Informal settlements tend to trap poverty in its place.  But these kids seemed up to the challenge, and in it, possibly some interesting ideas for ways to engage more young people in policy making in the USA.

Saturday
May192018

Back in Manila

They say when you go somewhere for the first time, you go for the place, but if you go back, you go for the people.  Yesterday, I returned to the Philippines.

My first trip to Manila was rough (if you are curious, I wrote about that trip here and here).   Manila is a sprawling, gritty developing world city, a place with unimaginable traffic, and water so bad that you must be careful brushing your teeth.  Poverty is everywhere, as the city – well, really the country, is a place of have’s and have nots, with almost nothing in between.   Somewhere around 20 million people live in the metro area, and most of them live in extreme poverty.  It is hard to walk 100 meters in any direction without seeing some evidence of it.

Last time I was here, I got sick.  I am not sure if it was food or the air pollution, but I spent most of five days here largely subsisting on jamba juice, Gatorade, and some trail mix that a colleague had carried along.  While truly grateful for the experiences and the friends I had made, on the last morning of the trip, I was happy to see the airport.  While there are many beautiful places in the country, there is a reason why Manila isn’t high on the “places to spend your vacation” list.   

While the relationship between our two governments has been at times a little up and down, what is unmistakable here is the affinity for everyday Americans among everyday Filipinos.   Beyond our historical ties, some four million Filipinos live in the United States, and it is rare to meet someone here who doesn’t claim some family in America.   And meet people here you will, as this is a land of lovely and joyful people.    I made several friends on that 2013 trip, people who thanks to social media, I’ve kept up with.  But in all honesty, I still wasn’t sure if I would come back.

Last fall, I hosted three guys from southeast Asia, in the USA as part of the American Council of Young Political Leaders partnership with the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, one each from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.  They spent a month with us in Tallahassee, interning in various jobs, seeing Florida, and meeting with experts and political leaders who worked in the same space in the USA that these guys work in their home country.  From time to time, hosts like me get a chance to repay the visit – follow on travel, as they call it. 

The Filipino in the group, Lord Arnel Ruanto (known as LA), sold me on the need to give the place another shot.  Actually, I didn’t have much of a choice – he asked me 2-3 times a day for a month when I would come and let him show me around the place.   So, when the chance came to come back and observe his work, there was only one possible answer.

Here I am, staring out over Manila Bay, back in a place I never thought I would visit once, let alone twice.  Our schedule is packed with 14 to 16-hour days, and at one stretch, five hotels in five nights.  I am giving four talks, participating in another 4-5 roundtables, and spending hours on the country’s roads.  He’s jammed 2+ weeks of activities into essentially a weeklong schedule -- while this time, I packed granola bars and my own supply of medicine! Like every one of these experiences, I look forward to seeing new places, and meeting people who are doing important work in their communities.   

However, that’s not why I came back – I came back for the same reason that I will surely come back again --- the desire to see old friends, the opportunity to meet new ones, to experience the both the comfortable and uncomfortable challenges of the journey, and through it all, the opportunity to again spend time with some of the most joyous people you will meet anywhere on the planet.

Anthony Bourdain once said: "Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind."   In that same spririt, I am back in Manila. 

Thursday
Apr192018

Orlando Revisited

Back in 2012, I wrote a fairly deep dive about metro-Orlando, titled Orlando Rising, to look at what was happening in the Orlando urban counties, and how both Hispanic and African American growth rates were radically changing the area's politics.  

Six years later,  I wanted to take another look, but this time with a broader lens -- not just metro-Orlando, which tends to get all the media focus, but on the media market as a whole, because, as I think this piece will show, what is happening in the Orlando media market right now is very much the story of what is happening in American politics.    Bear with me, there will be a lot of data in this piece, and hopefully by the end, you will see what I mean.

Before we begin, for those of you who are regular readers of my blog, you've probably seen me refer to Florida's political math as a self-correcting scale.  For all the state's dynamism in population growth and demographic changes, the state's politics almost seems to play by Newton's Third Rule of Motion, that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, or in political terms, for every trend that benefits one party, a seemingly opposite, and a remarkably equal trend benefits the other.  This is why, despite changes in the electorate and changes in national mood, the last four major contested statewide elections - the 2010 and 2014 Governor's races, and the 2012 and 2016 Presidential, were all decided by a point, and why there is no reason to believe the 2018 Governor's race, and the 2018 Senate race between Scott and Nelson -- and eventually the 2020 Presidential race won't follow suit.

In some ways, no place is more emblematic of this than Orlando.   It is the fastest growing major media market in the state, and home to one of the fastest changing populations.  Between 2006 and 2016, the market added over 600,000 additional voters to the rolls, of which 49% were either African American or Hispanic, with another 5% coming from growth among Asian voters.   Drive around metro Orlando and you can see this change with your own eyes, as the city is growing into a diverse, global metropolitan center.  

Yet for all of this, Donald Trump won the Orlando media market by virtually the same percentage margin as George Bush did in 2000.  That point is worth repeating:  despite the vast demographic changes happening in Central Florida, Trump's 2.9% margin over Clinton in 2016 in the Orlando media market was basically the same as Bush's 3.3% margin over Gore in 2000.  

How is that possible?  Well, let's start back in that fateful election.

In 2000, Bush won the urban core of the market by about 2 points, and the surrounding counties by about 4.5% -- a difference of about 2.5%.  For my purposes, I describe the urban core as the counties of Orange, Osceola and Seminole, and the surrounding counties (going west to east then south): Marion, Sumter, Lake, Flagler, Volusia, and Brevard Counties.  In 2004, Bush did a little better in the surrounding counties, winning them by about a 6.5% larger margin than he won the urban counties, but stlll, voting behavior across the entire market was pretty consistent.  

Fast forward to 2016, and we saw an entirely different map, with the urban counties and surrounding counties functioning as differently as two base states:  with Clinton winning the urban counties by 18%, and Trump winning the surrounding counties by 21%.  Two Americas, right in one 9 county region.

Let's break this down a little further, starting in the urban core.

Of the 2.7 million voters in the 9 county media market, 48% of them live in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties.   For those unfamiliar with the region, Orange is home to Orlando, with Osceola located to the south and west, and Seminole to the northeast.  Osceola for many years was a mostly rural county, and now is home to some of the fastest growing Puerto Rican communities in America.  On the other hand, Seminole is largely a bedroom community, traditionally very Republican, which is trending more Democratic as the county gets more diverse.  The urban core (which economically includes Lake County) is the 32nd largest economy in the country, bigger than both the countries of Morocco and Kuwait.  

Change here has been rapid, and significant politically.  On the rapid side: the number of people who voted in the 2016 Presidential election was nearly double what it was in 2000.  Between 2006 (when the state standardized the reporting of voter registration by racial and ethnic background) and 2016, the voter rolls grew by 303,000, with 78% of that growth coming from people of color.   On the political significance side, these three counties went from giving Bush (43) a roughly 9,000 and 34,000 vote margin respectively in 00 and 04, to giving Clinton a 166,000 vote margin in 2016.     Another 40,000 voters have been added to the rolls since 2016, and the ratios remain the same.  

Driving this change:  voters of color, particularly Puerto Ricans.  And this is the story that gets written about all the time, the idea that this trend, and this trend alone -- particularly in the wake of President Trump's complete botching of post-Maria clean-up in Puerto Rico, and the fallout both in terms of migration and politics, will drive Florida blue.  

And yes, if demographic change, particularly among Puerto Ricans, was the only factor at play, Florida would be a solidly Democratic state.  To this point, if you take just the urban Orlando counties, then add Dade and Broward counties, Hillary Clinton won these 5 counties by 500,000 more votes than Al Gore did in the tied election of 2000, with more than 40% of that change happening in Central Florida.  It nothing else in Florida changed, she would have won the state by roughly 5 points. 

But alas, looking at only the change in urban Orlando doesn't tell the whole story.

Again, the Orlando media market is comprised of nine counties, the three described above, and six others, which wrap around the north and eastern sides of the urban core.  While there are some rural areas in these six counties, they are more "exurban" in nature.  The counties to the north: Lake, Marion, Sumter, and Flagler, are home to large retiree populations, anchored in the northwest corner of media market by a community known as "The Villages."  To the east, Volusia and Brevard have a rust belt, blue collar feel to them.  For many years, Volusia, home to NASCAR, was considered a base Democratic county, and Brevard, home to the Space Coast, is the area Bill Nelson served in Congress.  

While alone, none of these counties can compete politically or from a population standpoint with the Orlando urban core, taken as a whole, these six counties are home to more voters than the urban counties, and since 2006, in terms of voters, they are growing at roughly the same rate as the urban core of the media market. 

Going back to that idea of Florida, or in this case, the Orlando DMA being a self-correcting scale...

Between 2006 and 2016, the voter rolls in the urban counties grew by roughly 315,000 voters, while the rolls in the surrounding counties grew by just over 303,000.  As the urban counties grew more diverse, adding about 120,000 more African American and Hispanic voters than the the suburban counties, the suburban counties added 130,000 more non-Hispanic white voters than the urban counties.    Thus, given the nation's current political voting behavior -- the more diverse and Democratic-trending electorate in the urban counties voted overwhelmingly for Clinton, while the fast growing, and GOP trending white population in the surrounding counties turned out a similar margin for Trump.

The difference between Obama in 2008/2012, and Trump in 2016 was the margins in those surrounding counties.   Whereas Clinton lost those Orlando exurban counties by over 211,000 votes, Obama kept the margin to roughly 115,000 in 2012, and just over 67,000 in 2008.   Both Nelson and Scott have traditionally done well in this market, so whether Orlando looks more like 2012 or 2016 will go a long ways to deciding not only their race, but also the Governor's race.  And if my party can figure out how to claw back a few points of white support on a regular basis, both this market, and Florida do start to look a lot more "blue."

And I know what question is coming next:  But Steve, you are forgetting the Puerto Rican migrants from Maria will swamp the GOP in Orlando and everywhere in 2018.  If you are curious, here is the piece I wrote about this in October, but the answer then, as it is now, is yes, the growth of Puerto Ricans will impact Central Florida politics, but no, it won't change the state alone.  

Since the 2016 election, the voter rolls in the Orlando market have grown by about 55,000, and while in fairness, they have grown the most in the urban core, at this point, it would be a stretch to say that more than 15,000 to 18,000 of that growth is from Maria, numbers which at this point, are somewhat balanced out by white growth in the surrounding counties.  In fairness, I suspect the average Maria migrant, having upended their life, is focused on everything other than registering to vote (which is a good reminder that big gains in voter registration don't happen organically), so the number will surely grow, but unlikely anywhere near where some of the outside experts predicted back in October.  

The challenge with covering the political mechanics of Florida is Florida is complicated, but it is also close, and the latter particularly always drives a spate of stories trying to determine the silver bullet that will drive the state in one party's direction or the other.  But there are no silver bullets, or as my friend Kevin Sweeny often likes to say, the secret is, well, there is no secret.   It is a state that is just work, never easy on either side of the path to 50%.  And arguably, no place exemplifies this more than the Orlando media market.  In Florida, the more things change, the more things stay the same.

 

Monday
Feb122018

The Message of Sarasota.

2010 was like a living a broken record.  No matter what candidates said or did, or whether they ran embracing themselves with the President, or running as their own style of Democrat, it just didn’t matter.  Voters were looking to send a message, and people who had Democrat on their name tag were the only vessel that existed. 

My model for Sarasota going into Election Day said that if Republicans turned out between 2,000 and 2,500 more voters than Democrats during the day, Good would hold on, but it would be tight.  In terms of turn out, that’s what happened. 

If you look at what happened with turnout, in 2010 or 2014, the GOP wins easily, in a normal election (do we have any of those) – with this electorate, the GOP probably would have won, or the Good would have won a real close one.  But as the margin demonstrated, this wasn't a normal election.

Yes, Margaret was a good candidates, and yes, candidates and the campaigns they run matter.  Yes it helped that there was national focus on the race, Vice President Biden endorsing, grassroots money from everywhere -- nor did it hurt that Corey Lewandowski came to town to reinforce that message.  All of these things mattered.

In 2010, a lot of fantastic candidates lost, and lost for reasons outside their own control.  The lost because voters wanted to send a message, and since the President wasn’t on the ballot, they used the only proxy they could.

Not all special elections are created equal, and not all outcomes matter the same.  This one probably matters more than most.  Here's a few of my reasons why.

First, let's go back to a little reminder about Florida.  Most of Florida mirrors some place else in America.  Why did Donald Trump go to Pensacola to do rallies for Roy Moore?  Well, that part of Florida is very similar to the deep south.   Go a Jets/Dolphins game in Miami, and you might think you are at a Jets home game, or a Steelers/Jaguars game in Duuuval, and in addition to seeing the Blake Bortles led almost AFC Champions, you will get a good sense of where a lot of Duval comes from. 

Sarasota, like much of Florida from Tampa south to Naples, has a Midwestern feel, a result of migration that came down from the parts of America accessed from I-75.  So, the voters here, in large part, have more in common with voters from suburban communities in the midwest.  In other words, these are the kinds of voters who voted for Bush, voted for Obama -- at least in 08, and in many cases, also in 12, then voted for Trump. There are red states and blue states.  There are also Trump Republicans and Old Guard Republicans.  These are Old Guard. 

This district is very white, and has an older average age than most.  For evidence, among the voters who voted early, 94% were white, and 90% were over the age of 50 - two numbers that based on the overwhelming GOP advantage on Election Day will likely only rise.  In fact, out of the 27,000+ voters who have already cast a ballot, just over 900 are under 35.  In other words, this is not a district where change comes from younger ethnic voters surging, like it has in many other specials around the country.  Change comes here two ways:  Democrats voting, and swing voters sending a message.

Personally, I've always been a bit obsessed with this district.  Besides being a great community to visit,  when i first worked for the legislature, this district was represented by a Democrat, Shirley Brown, and in 2006, when I ran the Florida House Democratic Caucus, winning this seat back was one of my personal goals.  In 2008, we laid down a real marker here during the Presidential campaign, putting a real operation on the ground, sending in both Obama and Biden, and almost winning the county for the first time since FDR.  Why?  Because if we are doing the things we need to do to well here, we are going to do well a lot of other places. 

One other factoid about the district:  The last two times the Democrats won this seat in an open seat:  1992, and 2006, both pretty good years.  Last time Republicans won it from a Democratic incumbent: 2010, not exactly a great year for my team.  You get the idea.

So here are a couple of my takeaways.

1.  Women.    Largely the story in special elections around the country, women were the story here in Sarasota.  Before Election Day, women were driving turnout, and while we don't have Election Day data yet, I assume this pattern continued.  Democratic women make up 19% of registered voters, but make up 26% of voters so far in this special election.  In fact, while district wide turnout for early vote was 21%, turnout among Democratic women is 30%.  And these weren't just super voters:  Good was turning out a lot more Democratic women who had little or no primary voting history.  

2.  Swing voters.   I thought Good was up somewhere around 8 points going into Election Day (her pollster told me his model had her up 11, and yes Tom, I said that seemed a little "rosey") -- and that was based on her winning about 15% of Republicans and winning a sizable majority of NPA voters.  She ended up ahead after Early Vote by 12 points, which means she had to be winning NPA voters by a margin of close to 2:1.  In addition, Republicans had roughly a 16 point advantage on Election Day in terms of voters, and for her to maintain a strong win, she needed to maintain similar margins.  

If you go back to 2006 or 2010, one of the signs that the wave was coming was chunks of NPA voters began to really perform as partisans.  You'd see it first in the self-ID question in polls, where polling was coming back more Democratic or more Republican than it should, and same in the early voting.  Not all NPA voters are created equal, but if older white NPAs -- driven by women turning out -- are performing more Democratic, that's going to be a good sign for 2018.  I've argued for some time Trump fundamentally misread his own election (something Democrats have also been guilty of).  Trump has been gambling he can be a 40% president and appeal to a small segment of hard right voters and be sustained by them, but last night was just the next proof point that this is toxic for the GOP, at least among swing voters.

3. Republicans.  Nights like this require two things:  the "Blue Wave" and the "Red Revolt."  I lived the opposite in 2010, where Republicans came out of the woodwork, and elements of the Democratic coalition either stayed home or sent a message with their vote.  Republicans outnumbered Democrats by 13,000 in this district, and by roughly 2,500 in terms of people who voted in the special election. 

Two things - final partisan model will be a few points more Democratic than registration -- and several more Democratic than 2016.  In other words - Democrats showed up and Republicans didn't.  But at same point, in a seat where again, 2,500 more Republicans voted, Good doesn't win by winning a sizable number of Republicans. 

Putting a finer point on it:  On Election Day, Republican voters outnumbered Democrats by over 2,000.  They only won the day by 110 votes.  A bunch of Republicans chose to revolt today -- both by not voting, and by voting for Good.

In years like this, when swing voters are frustrated with the incumbent President, their only vehicle to express their frustration is through members of the incumbent party.   And in HD 72, that revolt happened with center-right voters -- which in some ways, is why this matters more than some other races.  Just as Democrats struggled in 2010 and 2014, when their base voters stayed home, as Obama proved in Florida in both 08 and 12 -- and in a lot of states in the midwest in both cycles, Republicans face real math problems if they can't run up the score with voters like these.  

So yes, this matters.  It matters for confidence, but more than anything, it matters because this shows center-right moderates felt the need to send a message - and the only way they could send a message is to vote against the President's party.  And trust me, having lived through 2010 and 2014, this is the biggest challenge Republicans will face in the coming months, figuring out how to navigate their own base, while still talking to voters who are dissatisfied with the direction of the Presidency.  

Energy around this race was ridiculous. Good received almost 3,000 contributions in the last month, which is pretty much unheard of in a State House race.   I had Democratic friends from literally every corner of the country asking how they could make phone calls, or help out. 

The folks on the ground did a great job of harnessing grassroots energy.  I remember in 08, sometimes it is hard just to guide the mob of supporters in the same direction, and just like in the Miami race, the party folks from House Victory, the FDP, and the rest of the progressive groups are working together, not against eachother.  Terrie Rizzo, the FDP Chair; State Representative Kionne McGhee, the incoming Democratic Leader, and Reggie Cardoza, who runs House Victory, all deserve real credit in sticking the sword in the ground here and seeing it through.  In addition, congratulations to one of my best friends, pollster & strategist Tom Eldon, who I think is now 5-1 lifetime in this seat. 

And to the GOP team that lost, I've been there.  In 2010, more often than not, all you could do was never enough.

Nine months out, the win matters for what it says about politics now, but it in some ways, it matters less about Florida than it does about those parts of the country where these Florida voters come from.

But more than anything, I do think we are in this for a while.  Voters keep voting for change, but as long as Washington keeps reading their calls for change as a mandate for one way, just as we've seen a lot of this for the last decade, I think we will see more nights like this for some time to come.

 

Sunday
Feb042018

The Sarasota Special Election

In eight days, there will be a special election in Sarasota.  It is a race that probably shouldn't look interesting, but alas, it is turning into one heck of a fight.

For those of you not from Florida, the corners of this state take on the characteristics of the part of the country where people migrate from.  Sarasota, like much of Florida from Tampa south to Naples, has a midwestern feel, a result of migration that came down from the parts of America accessed from I-75.  So the voters here, in large part, have more in common with voters from the northern suburbs of Chicago (the district used to be spring training home to the real Chicago baseball team, the White Sox) than they do with voters who live just twenty miles to the east, in the more rural parts of Sarasota County.  

The seat became open when the incumbent, Republican Alex Miller, resigned due to a change in her business.  The Republicans have nominated James Buchanan, the son of the area's incumbent Congressman, Vern Buchanan. The Democratic candidate is Margaret Good, a local attorney. 

House District 72 is a lean Republican district.  Romney won it by 4, and Trump won it by 5.  Overall, Republicans have a ten point advantage in voter registration. 

However, despite these numbers, this is a place where Democrats have won:  from 2006-2010, this seat was held by a Democrat, Keith Fitzgerald.  In 2014, Charlie Crist beat Rick Scott by about 1.5%, and in 2008, Obama and McCain played to a draw.

Nonetheless, conventional wisdom would say this seat should be a little more Republican in a special election, due to their super voter turnout advantage, but alas, this isn't a conventional wisdom year. With a week to go before the Election, Democrats are turning out their voters at a higher rate than Republicans, and the race appears to be headed to a very tight finish. 

Just how close?

Well as of this morning, some 20,621 voters have cast a ballot either by returning an absentee ballot, or by voting in person at an early voting site, with Republicans holding a 199 ballot advantage.  

So far, just under 17% of District 72 voters have voted.  Democratic voter turnout is at 22.5%, while 17.5% of the district's GOP voters have cast a ballot.

So how does this district typically perform?

In the last three top of the ticket races:  the 2012 Presidential, the 2014 Governor's race, and the 2016 Presidentials, there is a distinct pattern:  Democrats have won the votes cast before Election Day, and Republicans have won Election Day.

In 2012 and 2016, Obama and Clinton went into Election Day with a 3.5 and 5 point lead respectively.  In 2012, Romney won Election Day by 15%, and in 2016, Trump won by 26%.  

But 2014 looked a bit different, and in it, the path for how Democrats win here:  Crist went into Election Day with an 7 point lead, but this time, Republicans only won Election Day by 6, leading to the Crist win in the district.

But since 2016 was more recent, let's take a closer look at that race.

Overall, Republicans had about an 11.5% advantage in the share of electorate.  The way this broke down:  Republicans held a 5.5% advantage in the share of voters who voted before Election Day, and about a 23% advantage on Election Day.   Just as in this race, Democrats had a higher turnout rate before Election Day than Republicans, but on Election Day, Democratic turnout cratered, and GOP turnout spiked. 

This translated to Clinton 5 point advantage among the 68% of the HD voters who voted before Election Day, and Trump winning the remaining voters on Election Day by 26, for an overall Trump 5% win.  

If you compare where Good is today compared to Clinton, in terms of turnout, the district is definitely more Democratic than it was going into Election Day in 2016.  By any fair assumption, given the district's current turnout, and historical performance, she should be ahead by at least as much as Clinton was going into Election Day.  The unknown question, can she hold on -- and just how much of a lead does she need to pull off the upset?

Eight days out, there are two big questions.

Republicans have more outstanding vote by mail ballots, so they see their numbers improve -- though over the last week, the delta between the two parties hasn't changed much (remember Democrats in 2016 statewide left a lot more ballots on kitchen tables than did Republicans).  Right now, Democrats have returned 68% of their ballots, and Republicans have returned 65%, so I will be curious over the next week if the GOP can close that gap.  What the final margin going into Election Day looks like will say alot about the next point.

How much can Good lose Election Day by and still win? If Election Day looks like Crist 14, she wins.  If it looks like Trump 16, she loses. Almost surely, it will land somewhere between the two. Turnout can be hard to predict in these races.  With more than a week to go, the turnout rate is already higher than the entire State Senate special election in Miami last fall.   In the recent St. Petersburg Mayor's race, 37% of the total vote came on Election Day.  In the Miami State Senate race, it was around 27%.  By the end of the week, this picture will be much more clear.

But one thing is for certain, this race is headed to the wire.  Again, in a conventional special election, in a conventional year, this is a race we would not be talking about.   But it isn't, thus we are, and at this point, a Democratic win here is far from improbable. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saturday
Jan132018

Ode to Shitholes

The first time I went to a "shithole," I didn't get nervous until the last few minutes of the flight  It was late December 2006, and we were headed to Guatemala to spend New Years with some good friends.  As the plane desended towards the airport, it dawned on me - "Holy s*it, I am about five minutes away from landing a Third World country." 

My first hour in Guatemala was in itself quite unique.  Immigration was basically a single desk at the end of a fairly dim hallway.  "Baggage claim" was literally a zoo, in that the small belt carrying the luggage from the flight, contained both luggage, and some livestock.  And the exit of the airport was nothing but a sea of humanity, where fortunately in this case, we were about a foot taller than the average Guatemalan, meeting another white guy who was taller yet.  Oh and the traffic leaving Guatemala City - yup, this wasn't Tallahassee.

Most of my friends said "you are going where for New Years," but for me, the different places have always had the appeal.  The more remote, the further afield, the better.  My mother's parents traveled around the world, so I maybe that is what drove my fascination, or maybe it was growing up next to a Kenyan-American.  I haven't traveled as much as I would have liked.  The first fifteen years of my adult life were a blur, but I am up close to 20 countries now, a solid half of which certain people might consider to be shitholes.    But what I do know, the list of places I want to visit is far longer than my life will allow, and gets longer every day - and most of them are a little off the usual path.

A friend of mine once said about travel and living in "shitholes" that "the longer you are there, the harder it is to say 'I'm sure' about anything."  Mark Twain once said "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."  My experience is more like this: when I am in the "nice" world, I walk away learning something new about the place or feeding my interest in history - akin to going to a museum, while when I am in the "shithole" world, I learn something new about myself and humanity in general.

The first time anywhere, it is easy to overthink the things that are different.  I remember on my first trip to Malaysia (hardly a "shithole" despite perceptions), I went for a run after a long plane flight.  Along the road, I found myself getting a little self conscious, as it felt like people were watching me, then it dawned on me - I was out in running shorts in a largely Islamic country, and maybe I was being disrespectful.  Returning to the hotel, I said something to my local buddy, who responded "Steve,  you are a six foot tall white guy, and you were running in the blazing sun in 100 degree heat - of course they were looking at you.  They probably thought something was chasing you. Run in the morning and you'll be like everyone else."   And he was right.

Life in the "shithole" world often isn't easy.  People learn to be resourceful.  They have to tolerate things in their daily life that we would find completely unacceptable here.  And often times, they are forced to live in places with governments who are unworthy of those they serve.  In addition, there is the perceptions that come with the places where they live - backwards, dangerous, extreme, etc., perceptions which end up being projected on to all who live there.  

But at the same time, when you spend a few weeks in the developing world, you will also come back with a new sense of respect for the people that live there.   Whether we want to admit it or not, it is easy to look down on the rest of the world, as if, for example, a guy living in Haiti, or Cambodia, or the Congo is somehow lesser, when in fact, after you meet him in his place, you learn he isn't lessor-- he's just different. 

You will also find people doing truly remarkable things in very difficult circumstances, people like Ole Keegope, a young woman in Botswana, who is helping run an organization that is slashing HIV infection rates in rural villages by changing the way people talk about relationships and sex, or Gabriela Blen, who not even 30 and at great personal risk to herself, is taking on public corruption in Honduras, or my friend LA Ruanto, who in the Philippines is training the next generation of civic leaders, one high school at a time.   It is hard to not be inspired, watching people create change, often with little or no resources -- and even more often, in the face of hostile governments.  There is a reason why people who come from places like this succeed when they come to the United States - because they are already survivors.  

It is impossible to travel in the developing world without coming back with a healthy sense of the blessing of being born American.   What you find in distant corners of the world is America isn't just a place - it is an idea.  Sure, plenty of people have strong disagreements about American policy, especially now, but nonetheless for so many of the people you will meet, there is a great desire for an America where we are, as Reagan called it, "the shining city on a hill."  I remember meeting a man in Africa who said to me "the world is better when America is a place we all aspire to," or recently in Malaysia, where a guy said to me "America, the place where anyone can do anything."

As Twain said, travel is vital to challenging our own prejudices.  As a white American, guys like me can go to Europe without really stepping outside of a comfort zone, but go to Sub-Saharan Africa, or Southeast Asia, and there is no way to run away from being different -- but it is also in these moments when you can begin to undertand what Maya Angelou's meant when she wrote "in minor ways we differ, in major we're the same."  Sure, cultures, religions, and traditions are different, but functionally, the vast majority of people you will meet out there in the world are good and welcoming people, who get up in the morning wanting the same thing as we do:  a good job to provide for their family, a safe place to live, and a better life for their children.  

Yes, there are many places in the world that are unpleasant, dirty, war torn, and undesireable.  But none of us on this planet have a choice where we were born.  I was born to a relatively well off family in rural Illinois.  My life by America standards has had its ups and downs, by any global standard, my life has been pretty easy.  Compare this to my friend Ali Ahmad Wali Zada was born in Herat, Afghanistan.  He's a smart dude, and like me, has a few college degrees, and a curiosity about the world.  Oh, and he lost his legs in a terrorist attack.  Just the luck of the birth draw.  

Which is why this whole shithole thing really burns me, because it perpetuates an idea that someone's place somehow is indicative of the quality of their person, as does this idea that "merit" is somehow tied to the ultimate lottery: where you were born.   And as a nation of people who, outside of a few, come from families who were not born here, judging people on where they are from, not who they are, isn't who we are.

If you haven't spent anytime in the developing world, make it your next trip.  Go to explore, go to learn, and go to be inspired.  And if nothing else, go for the food.  Definitely go for the food. 

 

Saturday
Oct142017

My friend Linda

I am still mad at myself.  Following the American Council of Young Political Leader's fifty-year gala last September, I was standing around to congratulate my friend Linda Rotunno on an amazing event, but she was rightly mobbed.  No big deal, I'm in DC every 6-8 weeks, and surely I'll see her on the next trip, so I just took off.   That was the last time I saw her.

For the most part, I've lived the dream.  Not a lot of kids who were born in a dying Midwestern town grow up to work for a  President.  Plus I am blessed with a wonderful spouse, and great friends.  But into my late 30's, there was one piece missing - travel.  And by travel, I don't mean to spending a week in London, I mean, go places people don't often go, and meeting interesting people.  

When I was a kid, I would spin the globe in my room and pick places I would visit.  The farther afield the better.  I've long had a curiosity for different cultures, so much so that I had once thought I would go into the foreign service, or maybe the Peace Corps.  But before i knew it, life took over.  My career took off, I got married, and in a flash, fifteen years had passed, at least until the day when my friend Chip Burpee sent me an email, with an application for the American Council of Young Political Leaders.  It seemed too good to be true - someone would pay to fly me to a foreign country for a couple of weeks.  Sign me up.  A few months later, I was on my way to the Philippines and Malaysia.

Linda ran the organization, and I just happened to sit by her at the dinner our team had before we headed halfway around the world.  i remember instantly liking her.  A month or so later, I was back in DC for this or that, and took Linda to lunch, to thank her for the opportunity.  From that day forward, I rarely went to DC without visiting her, even though often those conversations were just me listening to her stories.

While some 20 years older, she had been a hack like me early in her life, and later in her life, had found herself in this world of organizing political and cultural exchanges. Personally, I couldn't get enough of it, and she made it easy for me to remain engaged, first by asking me to host a group from Pakistan and India in 2014, then in 2015, knowing she was fulfilling a dream of mine, sent me with a group to Africa.  

In early 2016, upon returning from Africa, we got together for one of our routine meals.  After listening to me ramble on about Africa for an hour, the topic changed -- she had just learned prior to our meal her cancer had likely returned.  

She didn't seem overly concerned.  She continued talking about her dream to retire overseas one day, and spending more time in Asia with our mutual friend from Malaysia, Jack Lim.   And in the immediate, she was mostly concerned whether her doctor would let her make a 50 hour or so trip to rural Burma, to help a previous delegate to the US with the birth of her first child.   

Eight months later, when I saw her the morning of the gala, she told me she was feeling well.   What I didn't know was the cancer had come back with a vengeance.  Everyone who knew her knew it was a real possibility - very few knew it was imminent.

We talked about the group from Turkey I'd be hosting for the 2016 elections.  We talked about our friend Jack, who had wanted to badly to come to Washington for this event.  We caught up on the on the Burmese child from her winter trip, and she made me promise that I'd go there with her one day, just as she had taken friends of mine before. 

If she was feeling ill, she did an amazing job of hiding it.  

A year ago today, my phone buzzed.  A text.  Linda had died.  Cancer.  What?  How is this possible.  I called the guy who texted me, who confirmed, yes, she was gone. 

I texted a few people who would want to know, then called Jack.  It can't be true, he said.  But it was.  We both cried. 

The next day, two days after she passed, I got a note from Linda thanking me for coming to the gala.  

A year has passed. Jack is getting married in December at a wedding that Linda wouldn't have missed.  I am hosting three young leaders from af the world she loved.  I've hosted groups Pakistan, India, and Turkey, and today have new friends in far corners of the world.  I've traveled to the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia, Namibia, and Botswana, and one day, I'll fulfill the promise I made to go to Burma.   Today, my life is genuinely fuller, because of Linda.

I just wish I had hung around that gala long enough to say thank you one last time. 

Saturday
Oct072017

Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico and Florida Politics

Since Maria, the question I've gotten more than any other is "So if X number of Puerto Ricans move to Florida because of the hurricane, what does this mean?"

Honestly, I write this blog with some hesitation.  As I work on this piece, 80-90% of the population still lacks power and some 50% lack potable water, so politics is really the last thing anyone should be worried about.  But given the likely ongoing interest in this question, and in part because I use this medium to share my own research, I wanted to offer some thoughts.

Both Politico's Marc Caputo (here) and Washington Post's James Hohmann (here) have written interesting pieces on the subject, but I wanted to try to give it more data context.   So in this blog, I'll try to provide my thoughts based on analyzing census data, voter registration data, and Presidential election trends.  

For my Democratic friends, a word of warning about the latter - particularly regarding 2018, recent turnout in off-year cycles in Orange and Osceola County has been quite low.  Comparing the 2012 and 2014 elections, Osceola saw turnout drop from 67% to 41.3%, the third largest drop-off in Florida, and Orange fell from 68.1% to 43.3%, the sixth highest drop-off.  So if you want to take advantage of anything I will write about from this point onward, don't stop organizing.  

One other word of warning, this blog only looks at the impacts in three counties: Orange, Osceola, and Seminole, because the acute impact of Puerto Rican growth is likely to be most significantly felt here.  However, as we saw in 2016, the political impacts of Puerto Ricans in these three counties were outweighed by the Trump surge among whites in the outlying Orlando media market counties.  Alex Leary at the Tampa Bay Times just wrote a an excellent piece on this dynamic.  One last note: I wrote a piece called "Orlando Rising" about the demographic changes that were occuring in the region then, if you are curious for comparison purposes. 

So here goes,

Like so may things, the answer to the Maria question lies in history.

For the sake of this exercise, let's start the clock in 2000.  The 2000 election was by far the closest in our state's history, and thus provides a good balanced starting point when looking at elections.  We also have census data from 2000 to provide another benchmark.

In terms of voter registration, we can't really analyze data before 2006, since most counties in Florida grouped "Hispanics" into their race:  either Black or White.  One quick note, as I do in all my pieces, I will use Black, not African-American, because Florida also has a large Caribbean-American population that gets categorized into the same data. 

So let's start with Census data.  Keep one thing in mind, the 2015 data is based on Census projections based on their year round survey work.  While they are still fairly accurate, we won't see exact numbers until sometime in 2021 when the 2020 census data is released. So with that caveat...

In 2000, the Orlando urban counties had 1,434,033 total residents.  Of this population, 18.1% was Hispanic, and another 14.7% was Black.  The area's non-Hispanic White population was just over 62%. 

So let's move ahead to 2015.  Population in the tri-county area had grown to 1,967.255, with Hispanics now making up 29.6% of the population, with Black residents also increasing, to 16.3%.  Non-Hispanic Whites had dropped to 47% of the area's population. 

In fairness, the 2000 Census had fewer categories of people, so that 62% number is probably high, but regardless, that is a significant change. 

Looking at it another way, between 2000 and 2015, the area grew by 532,222 residents, of which roughly 325,000 are Hispanic, with the total Hispanic population growing from just under 260,000 to almost 585,000.  

Often overlooked in the region, the area's Black population also grew substantially, from 210,000 to 320,000. At the same time, the area's non-Hispanic White population grew by just 32,000 -- which is actually less than the Asian population, which grew by 45,000 over the same period.   Again, it is important to note the non-Hispanic White count was likely artificially high in 2000.

But any way you look at it, the Hispanic population exploded, and the entire area got much more diverse.

So what does that mean for the politics?

Let's start with voter registration.  I want to start with a caveat from Census data:  Hispanic is a self-reported data point on voter registration cards, and it typically under-represents the real number, as some Hispanics will only self-report as White or Black.  The census data above collects all Hispanics, regardless of their race.  This is one reason why if you look at public polling or exit polling, Hispanic share is often higher than the state's voter registration numbers, especially in Presidential years.

So going back to 2006, at the time the book closed on the 2006 General Election, there were just over 941,000 registered voters in the area, of which 17.5%, or 165,000 were Hispanic.  Another 12.3% were Black, with non-Hispanic Whites making up 62%, roughly the same as the Census proportions.  

Two other data points:  In 2006, Hispanics broke 43% Dem - 21% R, and 36% NPA, while non-Hispanic Whites broke 48% Rep, 30% Dem, and 22% NPA - which may seem high, but isn't for this part of the state, given the region's GOP tradition.

Fast forward to the 2016 book closing.  There are now 1,264,778 voters in the area, and Hispanics have grown from 165,008 to 312,323 voters, which equates to 24.7% of the electorate.  Black voters are up to 14.2%, and non-Hispanic white is down to 51.2%, a number that I believe, even before any possible Hurricane Maria impact, will be below 50% in 2020.

Those other comparative data points from 2006:  Hispanics are now 54% Dem, 14% Rep, and 32% NPA.  In fact, among Whites and Blacks, both political parties lost share of registrants to NPA (non-Hispanic White is now 46R-27D-27NPA).  In fact, the only place where partisans increased their share of the electorate was Democrats with Hispanics.   

Look at it another way, and the dynamic is even more remarkable.  Since 2006, the area's voter registration grew by about 323,000 voters.  Of that, 45% was Hispanic, while 21% was non-Hispanic White, and about 19% of the growth was among Black voters. The raw numbers are even starker:  Hispanic Democrats in the decade leading up to 2016 grew by 99,000 voters, while Republicans growth was just under 9,000.  

So how did that play out in elections?

In 2000, in the Orlando metro area (again, Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties): George W. Bush beat Al Gore by just under 9,000 votes -- a margin he actually grew to 33,000 votes in 2004.  When you think about the urban Central Florida core today, it is hard to think that just 12 years ago, Republican Presidential candidates actually won the region.  Again, this was a pretty Republican area prior to the recent demographic shifts.

But not any more.  In 2016, Hillary Clinton won those same three counties by over 165,000 votes. In fact, in just Orange County (Orlando proper), where John Kerry beat George Bush by 1,000 votes in 2004, Hillary Clinton beat Trump by 134.000 votes just 12 years later.  

Another way of looking ait, the two-party candidate margin shifted almost nearly 175,000 from Bush 2000 (almost 200K from 2004).  And this wasn't just the "Obama coalition" or "Obama turnout" -- Clinton's 2016 margin was about 65,000 votes larger than either Obama election.  In a word, this is demographics.

Another metric:  In 2000, Democrats had no locally elected Members of Congress.  A Democratic seat from Jacksonville meandered down to Orlando, but that was it.  In 2016, the region has three Democratic local Members of Congress, which reflect the growing diversity of the area:  a Puerto-Rican, an African-American, and a Vietnamese American.

So let's talk Hurricane Maria.

First, it is important to keep in mind just how much has changed in the last fifteen years in these three counties for Puerto Ricans.  In 2000, the community was emerging, as was the community's social and political infrastructure.  I used to say to reporters in those days who were writing about the early Puerto Rican political dynamic, one of the big differences between Miami and Orlando is you could figure out who the opinion leaders were in Miami, but it wasn't as easy in those days in Orlando.

Today is quite different.  Puerto Ricans who come to Orlando now will find a ready-made community, with a social structure solidly in place, a growing job market, and in many cases, friends and family already here.  In other words, while moving is never easy, migrating to Orlando following Maria will be a far easier adjustment than it was 15 or 20 years ago.

And far more than a Hispanic immigrant, the Puerto Rican impact on the politics is acute.  As long as a Puerto Rican migrates and takes up residence in Florida more than 30 days before a given election, they can vote.   As we've seen since 2000, the immediate impact in these three counties has been to the significant benefit of Democrats.

So what does it all potentially mean?

There is no way to know how many people could migrate to Central Florida.  Pretty much every estimate out there is a dart thrown against a wall.  

But we do know this.  Over the last ten years, 67% of the Hispanic voter registration growth accrued to the Democrats, while only 6% went to the GOP, so any growth from Maria, which is over and above the growth which is already happening in Orlando, will only exacerbate the local political trends.

Let me close with one note of caution:  Florida is a big complicated state, and there is not, nor will there ever be, a single silver bullet that "turns" Florida one way or another.  Florida is five or six really big states in one.  The North Florida media markets alone are the voting power of Iowa, and just Miami-Dade County has roughly the same voting power as Nevada.  

Despite Florida's razor close margins -- with only 18,000 votes separating Republicans and Democrats out of the 50,000,000 ballots cast for President since 1992, and with the last two Presidentials and two Governor's races each being decided by a point, Florida is historically close because of the sum of these diverse parts, not because of any one thing in any one spot.  You win Florida by managing the margins.  So while these trends help the Democratic balance sheet, a win in 2018 and 2020 also means reducing the Trump and Scott margins in other counties. 

To the latter point, Florida also has this interesting ability to find equilibrium - when it looked like the high migration to Florida from around the mainland would shift Florida forever into the GOP column in the early 2000s, large Hispanic and Caribbean growth balanced it out.  Of late, the demographic gains that Democrats have made have been balanced out with increasing support among Whites for Republican candidates.  And I expect this balance to continue going forward, at least through the next few Presidential cycles.  With that being said, I do think over time, Republicans will reach a ceiling with Whites (and Trump could well be the ceiling), meaning if the GOP can't find a way to improve its vote share with Hispanic voters, their math will get harder and harder.  But Democrats, remember, none of that is a sure thing.

So while a large migration from Maria will absolutely impact Central Florida politics, and those impacts will help Democrats statewide - it won't "tip" the state any more than any other population shift that could occur, because well, Florida is gonna Florida.  In a world where the Jaguars crush the Steelers, and lead their division after 5 games, literally anything can happen!

May God Bless our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico.