Earlier this week, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com wrote a piece asking the question, Is Florida Still a Swing State? In his short piece, he offers a few thoughts suggesting that the state is slipping out of swing state status, concluding that he isn't so sure that Florida will retain its place as a (or the) central battleground in Presidential elections.
While I won't question Nate's credentials (if you aren't reading his stuff, you should be), on this one, I couldn't disagree more.
Whether or not Florida is a swing state seems to be central to any national political discussion since well, Florida became a swing state. Sometimes, I find this conversation starting with my good friends whose most favored state has far fewer electoral votes, but sometimes it is based on the assumption that today's Florida is the same as your father's Florida.
At this point in 2008, most people believed Florida was solidly in the 'red' column, and not without some reason. As late as April of 2008, polls showed McCain with a 15 point lead here. I am pretty confident that I was one of the very few strategists who thought Obama would win Florida. In fact, more than one close friend thought I was totally nuts when I signed up for the campaign. But I have tended to subscribe to the Bob Graham view of Florida: that the state's demographic changes would eventually catch up to and eventually change its politics. Not surprisingly, Graham was right.
The problem with most political assessments of Florida is most folks view it through one of two lenses: 2004 Kerry or recent Gubernatorials. Both are perfectly reasonable places to start, but neither tell the whole story. Now I will give you that there are two Floridas, a Presidential Florida and a non-Presidential Florida. But since Nate's piece is about Presidential elections, this piece will focus on that. Why Alex Sink can (and should) win is coming soon, don't worry!
So why is Florida still a swing state? First, look at its history. Since 1992, no Presidential election in Florida has had a margin of more than six points, and arguably, Democrats have won three of the last four ('96 Clinton, '00 Gore and '08 Obama). Take out '96 and '04, and over that same time, the largest margin was our 2.5% win in 2008 (Bush '92 was +2; Gore/Bush tied), despite Silver’s assertion that Florida was a “come along for the ride” state.
But in many ways, that is just the beginning of the story. Since Florida's entry to swing state politics, the state has changed dramatically, and those shifts continue even in the face of a somewhat tough political environment. In 1992, the Democratic voter registration advantages were dependent on a large contingent of old-line "Dixiecrats," voters who haven't supported a Democrat at the Presidential level since Carter (the first time) or Johnson. Since that election, those voters have largely registered as GOP and settled in as the core of the Florida GOP electoral math.
However, if you look at the voter registration numbers now, the current Democratic advantage is roughly the same margin as 1992. How? The Dixiecrats have been gradually replaced by three populations: a growing (and diversifying) Hispanic population, a softening of GOP partisanship--most pronounced in the Tampa area, and an increased African American registration. Granted, the last is largely due to Obama, but the first two are demographic. These trends can be seen pretty much everywhere south of Jacksonville and the Panhandle. For example, of the 120 state house seats, some 80 of them have had a net registration gain toward the Democrats since the 2002 redistricting. These new Democrats are far more predictable than the Dixiecrats were for the Clinton campaign in 1992.
Moreover, some of the Democratic gains are taking place inside the most solid of all GOP bases: Cuban voters. Second and third generation Cuban Americans are much more independent, many are even proud Democrats; but more importantly, hard-line Cuban Republicans are being surpassed in terms of population by non-Cuban nationalizations and Puerto Rican (American citizen) migration. Non-Cuban Hispanics are growing much faster than Cubans, and with some naturalization ceremonies in Miami adding well over 10,000 new citizens at a time, the South Florida Hispanic population is only getting more diverse. And as for Silver’s claim that Obama has an uphill climb among Jewish voters, let the history show that despite relentless and scurrilous rumor-mongering attacks against him, he carried the three South Florida counties home to the largest Jewish populations by margins higher than both Kerry and Gore.
In fact, by 2012, Hispanics could make up as much as 14-15% of the statewide electorate, and among the Hispanics fastest growing segments of the population. In fact, the census projects that people of Hispanic origin have risen from roughly 17% of the total Florida population in 2000 to 21% in 2008. Driven in part by this trend, the Democratic base is growing faster than the Republican one, hence the dramatic changes in registration over the last 10 years.
That being said, Silver argues that the President's struggles with health care and other issues are the primary driver as to why Florida could lose its swing state status, to which I would argue that Florida is in no different position than any other state. First, I believe that once the media does its job and starts reporting about what is in the health care reform package, instead of just the sport surrounding its passage, support will grow. For example, an estimated 3.2 million Floridians will benefit by closing the “donut hole” in the Medicare prescription drug benefit, while another 2.5 million could receive tax credits to help pay for insurance.
In fairness, come 2012 if the American people do not believe this President has taken steps to improve the economy and their personal futures, I will be the first to agree that this conversation is purely academic. But I have a ton of confidence in this President and believe that the economy will be in a better place by the time that the next Presidential election rolls around. For those Republicans rolling your eyes, I would point you to President Reagan's standing at the same point in history, and if I am remembering it right, he did okay in 1984. But back to Florida '12, a healthier economy means the President will run well on the I-4 corridor, a place that has been particularly stung by the tough economy of the last three years. When buoyed by the fact that the partisan numbers are, in fact, trending ever so slightly to the Democratic column, Obama will do just fine here in 2012.
At 28 or 29 electoral votes and a growing base, it is hard for me to believe that national Democrats won't seriously contest the state's electoral votes for many Presidential elections to come, as they should. That may not be welcome news for other states which may not carry the same sized Electoral Vote bat, but for the good people of Florida, it means the sun will shine bright on our place in the political world.