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So, about Tuesday night...

OK, it is time to talk about that thing that happened.  No, not the Jaguars blowing a 16-point lead in the 4th quarter – though I have plenty to say about that – I am talking about the election. 

Before I get into it, this election was the third consecutive Governor’s race decided by a point or less, bracketing two consecutive Presidential elections decided by a point.  This drives homes two points:  One, Florida, for all its dynamic growth and demographic changes, is very stable; and Two, when organizations like Quinnipiac try to peddle off polls showing candidates in Florida with 6-point leads, or 9-point leads, you now know what to do with that information (a post/rant on public polling is coming soon).

There are a lot of reasons why Florida is very competitive – you can read my take here – but it is what it is.  Big chunks of Florida cancel each other out, and both parties have large, and quite dug-in bases – and neither have a base that alone gets them to 50% + 1.  Winning Florida (or losing it) is about managing the margins throughout Florida. 

A couple of things – for the sake of this exercise, I am going to look at the Governor’s race, for one, and only one reason:  the consistency of comparing races over time.  In terms of the Senate race, much of the difference between Nelson and Gillum occurred in places like Brevard, where Nelson has a very long history, and Pinellas, where again, I think Nelson’s history on the ballot helped him out.    Gillum did slightly better in Duval, and in Orange/Osceola counties – which is likely a testament to the work Scott did after Hurricane Maria as much as anything.   But overall, the margins are similar.

Also, there are a lot of ways we could view this race, but since it is my blog, I am going to start by breaking it down as GOP base markets (Pensacola, Panama City, Jacksonville, and Fort Myers) versus DEM base markets (Tallahassee, Gainesville, West Palm, and Miami) – and the I-4 markets (Orlando & Tampa). 

Let me start at where I ended a piece in early October, my view at the time on the race: While I am currently bullish about my party’s chances, both from the standpoint of mood, and Dem opportunities for growth, if DeSantis and Scott are able to replicate Trump like share of the vote in the large suburban and exurban counties around I-4, things could get very tight, very quickly.” 

So, let’s break that statement into two buckets – Dem opportunities for growth – and the large suburban and exurban counties around I-4, starting with the former first.

If we go back and look at the previous two Governor’s races, the two parties pretty much matched the other in their base counties.  In 2010, Democrats won their base markets by 33,840 more than the GOP did, and in 2014, the margin was 14,360.   Fast forward to 2018, and Andrew Gillum won the base Democratic markets by 109,809 more votes than DeSantis won the base Republican markets. 

How did Gillum expand the Democratic advantage in the base markets?   One word:  Miami.

In fact, if you add up the three non-Miami Democratic markets, Gillum and Crist won them by almost the same margin (102,390 for Gillum, 102,698 for Crist), but Gillum won the Miami market by some 143K more votes than Crist did.

In fact, the same dynamic played out for DeSantis– outside of Fort Myers, he won the other base Republican markets by almost exactly what Scott won them by, but because Gillum was able keep him in check elsewhere, particularly in the Jacksonville market, DeSantis’ growth in the GOP market came nowhere near matching Gillum’s in his. 

*There is an argument that DeSantis did a good job keeping the Miami, particularly Dade margins, from being even larger, but that is for a longer look at Miami.

So how did DeSantis win?  The second bucket of this exercise, which is the same way Trump did.  Literally, exactly the same way.

As I sat in under the press tent at the Gillum Election Night Party, trying to make my rain-soaked laptop work, I felt the same sense of doom as I felt in 2016 -- twice.  First when the Pasco absentees came in, then around 7:50pm, when it became clear the Gillum/Nelson leads were not good enough to overcome the likely GOP advantage from the counties that would report at 8:00 EST, when the Central Time Zone polls closed.  The exurban counties in I-4 had done it again.

We know that Democrats grew their margins – significantly, in the places where my team historically runs up the score – and more than the GOP did in their traditional markets. But then we get to I-4.  Gillum lost the I-4 markets by 146K votes, or just under 70K more votes than Crist did.  Nelson lost the markets by slightly less – 138K or so votes.  Those margins more than offset the gains elsewhere and added up to a loss. 

But that is not the end of the story – and here is where the 2016 comparison sets in – just like Clinton, Gillum ran up new high-water mark margins in the urban areas, particularly around Orlando.  In total, Gillum won the urban counties of I-4 by 120,000 more votes than Crist did – and this is despite winning Pinellas County by some 30,000 votes less than Crist (the Crist margins in Pinellas were much more about Crist than they were about Democratic party performance).  However, where Crist lost the suburban and exurban counties around I-4 by about 157K votes, Gillum lost them by 355K.

Or more simply:  the counties around the urban I-4 counties delivered DeSantis with more of an increased margin than the Miami media market delivered for Gillum.  In a race where most everything else stayed the same – that made the difference.

Here is another way to look at it:

If you look at 2014, the Scott margin of victory pretty much matched his win in the Orlando media market, with his margins from North Florida, plus Tampa and Fort Myers almost exactly balancing out what Crist won South Florida.  Guess what happened again?  Literally the exact same thing. 

For Democrats, the Orlando math is a good way to highlight the problem – it is very hard to win a pure turnout fight.  When you look at 2018, the margins in urban Orlando were spectacular, and just like on Election Night in 2008, looked almost unmatchable.  But the problem for Democrats – the GOP margins everywhere else grew too, in some cases by a lot more, and cancelled out the gains.   For example, Gillum won Orange County by 85K more votes than Crist did – but if you add up the six republican counties in the Orlando market, he lost them by about 84K more votes than Crist.

Broadening out to the two markets combined, just like Clinton, Gillum won the I-4 urban counties by more votes than Obama did in 2012.  But whereas Clinton lost the non-urban I-4 counties by nearly 450K, and Gillum by 355K, Obama lost them by under 220K votes.  In fact, to prove the point of how important it is for Democrats to be more competitive in these counties, had Obama in 2012 lost the non-urban I-4 counties by as much as Gillum, we would have lost Florida that year.  

Nothing demonstrates this shift more than Volusia County, a place Obama won in 2008, lost by about 3K votes in 2012, and where both Nelson and Gillum lost by more than 22K votes – or the three counties north of Tampa (Pasco, Hernando, and Citrus), where Obama lost by 23K votes in 2008, 37K votes in 2012, but both Gillum and Nelson lost by more than 75K votes.

And here is where my frustration sets in – and not with either campaign – but the mindset generally of approaching the state, this idea that Florida can be won entirely in a few corners, or that Florida is just a turnout state.  Look at the difference between the Ag Commissioner’s race, and the Governor’s race.  In the Ag Commissioner’s race, the Democratic candidate, Nikki Fried, had better margins in 38 counties compared to the Governor’s race, including 33 that both candidates lost.  In other words, losing by a little less in a lot of places added up to the difference between winning by a little, and losing by a little.

This piece is not a criticism of any campaign.  God knows I’ve been on enough conference calls to know campaigns must make hard decisions, and often those decisions, particularly the ones Nelson often faced against a far better financed opponent, were a choice between two sub-prime options -- and that all of those decisions look easier in hindsight, and when you are on the outside.   And to their credit – especially Mayor Gillum, the campaigns did spend a lot of time in some of these communities. 

Instead, I lay this out to answer the question I’ve gotten a lot this week: what can we do differently?  From my view, the answer today is the same as it was when I got this question after Bush beat Kerry in Florida – you can’t take on these kinds of margins in Republican counties and hope to make it up elsewhere.  Sure, you might get a win here or there, but over time, it is just a losing proposition.  And here’s the thing – the same math exists in 2020, and in 2022 – in other words, getting right up to the edge of winning, unless my side is willing to drive a conversation about the math problem that we have. 

There are a lot of things to fix, but step one is voter registration.  In 2008, when our campaign shut down, Democrats had a nearly 700K advantage in voter registration.  Today it is just over 250K.  We need a sustained and permanent voter registration effort, which by its own nature, will keep us to remain engaged in the types of emerging communities where we are growing – as well force us to engage in many communities where we have not.   

I have a few pieces I will work on over the holidays – the aforementioned one on why I think the public polling continues to be a mess in Florida, as well as some more specific deep dives into individual markets. 

Thanks again for reading.  I really do appreciate it.  Happy Thanksgiving.

PS -- At least the Noles stomped the Gators in basketball on Election Night.  :-)

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