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Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Florida, But Were Afraid to Ask -- v.2018

So what is Florida?

10 media markets – many big enough to be battleground states (11 if you count Holmes being in the Dothan DMA)

Nearly 21 million Florida Women and Florida Men.

13 million registered voters.

7-8 million voters in 2018.

A fast growing and diverse Hispanic population.

A fast growing Caribbean population.

Last two Governor’s races decided by one point.  Last two Presidentials decided by a point.

An NFL team that was one blown call away from the Super Bowl.

Florida. Florida. Florida.

For regular readers of my semi-regular blog, this piece is a bit of an update from a piece I wrote in 2016.  You can read that one here.

The goal of the piece is to give outsiders, and folks generally interested in this place a bit of a baseline – a way to think about Florida, and some sense about how the place ticks.

Every political journalist asks the same question:  what is the single key to winning it?  (ok, jonathan martin first asks where to get good bbq).

The secret, as my friend Kevin Sweeny would say, is there is no secret.   The place is geographically huge, almost prohibitively expensive, exceptionally diverse in many ways, with huge chunks of voters who cancel each other out.  It is a place, that structurally, wants to be hyper competitive.  Take the Senate race – I’ve argued for nearly a year that despite what the polls say, both Bill Nelson and Rick Scott have a floor of 47 or 48%.  Both parties have huge and loyal bases – neither has a clear base path to 50%.  A handful of voters decide every election – and within that cohort one will find very few commonalties.    The place is both fascinating, and maddening. 

So, what makes it tick?  Why are the politics like they are?  And at a more basic level, what exactly is Florida?

Florida is a state, not a place.

Most states are places. Think about Texas, or even a state like Iowa, there is a sense of place to it, a commonality of experience – or as a marketer might say, an identifiable brand. Most states have it. Florida really doesn’t, that is, outside of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Florida isn’t a place in the same sense. It is a political circle, drawing 20 million people from vast, and I mean vast experiences and cultures into one spot. And almost everyone here has come from somewhere else.  When friends of mine joke about Florida Man, I often will paraphrase something noted American politico Christine O'Donnell once said:  "We are not a witch - we are nothing that you think - We are You."  Florida tends to reflect the nation, not stand out from it.

When I give talks about Florida, I often tell folks to think of our state as the new Ellis Island, except our ships come as cars and planes, from inside the borders of the country, and outside.  The same dream that drove people to come to America for centuries drive people to Florida today

Between now and 2030, Florida will add as many as 5 million more residents, grow to as much as 30% Hispanic, with a total population of well more than 50% coming from what are typically considered ethnic minorities.

The old saying about Florida is you go north to go south. North Florida feels like the traditional south, large rural areas, conservative towns like Jacksonville and Pensacola, liberal college towns, etc., while the rest of the state feels like wherever it came from. Go to Tampa, or most anywhere on the west coast, and there is more of a Midwestern feel – as most who got there, came down the I-75 corridor.  Go to a Chicago Bears/Tampa Bay Bucs game these days, and you might wonder who the home team is. 

Travel down the east coast and you can feel more northeastern influences, homage to the I-95 corridor and before that, the Flagler's railroad that brought them here.   Stay to the coastal side of the interstate, and the place is busy, almost one continuous city that goes on for hundreds of miles up and down the coastline.  Go to the interior of the interstates, and with the exception of Orlando – which is its own unique culture, the place is still very much Old Florida, with large expanses of agriculture and open space.

Then there is Miami-Dade, easily one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world. 87% of the population is non-white (meaning non-Hispanic white), and that number is growing. It is really its own city-state, much more like a Hong Kong, or a Singapore, than it is a city within a state.

Politically, all these places basically cancel each other out. The simple way to think about Florida is North Florida being Republican, South Florida being Democratic, and the state balancing along I-4 – though as this piece tries to show, it is a lot more nuanced.  However, it is true that Florida tends to be like a self-correcting scale – for every Democratic trend, there seems to be an equal, and countervailing Republican trend, which keeps the state exceptionally competitive – and while there definitely is a bit of a north/south split – these trends are playing out all over the state. 

This piece is long (and could be 2-3x longer) – and again, it covers a lot of the same turf as I covered in the similar piece in 2016, but hopefully, if you choose to follow my memos throughout the cycle, it will give some context to the places you will hear me talk about.    Also, while I recognize there are five statewide races on the ballot, for purposes of this, I will use Governor’s race numbers from 2010 and 2014 – for several reasons:  1. It is the cleanest comparison, and 2. Scott is on the ballot again in 2018.

So let’s get started.

People look at Florida different ways – I’ve settled on it being home to 5 states. 

North Florida

Home to 3.5 million residents, and close to 19% of the vote in a midterm, think of North Florida as the I-10 corridor, running from Jacksonville to Pensacola, with the addition of Gainesville. It has the lowest Hispanic and highest African American percentages but is over 2/3rds white. The region is slightly bigger in population than Iowa.

The distance between Pensacola and Jacksonville is roughly 360 miles, along a fairly sparse I-10, home to America's #1 truck stop, the Busy Bee at the Live Oak halfway point. Rural north Florida feels much more like Georgia or Alabama than the Florida that most people think of. While the population is growing along the coasts, creating red counties that are just getting redder, the reality is population in this part of the state is stagnant compared to the rest of the state. 

Florida’s two dry counties are located here, as are two of its largest universities, as well as the seat of state government. In addition, the region is book-ended by two of the oldest cities in America: St. Augustine and Pensacola. Both ends of north Florida have a large military presence, as well as significant acres of state and national forests.  America’s team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, also calls the region home, as does the leading college men's and women's basketball programs in Florida:  the Florida State Seminoles, and the school that can beat neither: The University of Florida.  It is also home to the state's public HBCU, Florida A&M University, also the alma mater of the Democratic nominee, Andrew Gillum.  

It is the most conservative part of the state, though in midterms, can bounce around.  For example, Scott won the region by 13 points, or about 139,000 votes in 2010 – but four years later, he grew his margin to nearly 22 points, winning by 246,000 votes.  Keeping in mind his statewide win margins were virtually identical in 2010 and 2014, Scott’s growth in North Florida is the primary reason he was re-elected.    And while there is room to grow for DeSantis (and Scott) from his 2010 numbers, a lot of that room is in places with very small numbers of voters.  Moreover, Scott’s margin of 22 points across North Florida was higher than Trump (19), meaning DeSantis will need to exceed Trump – and possibly even Scott to hit his vote goals.

In the past, Bill Nelson has done very well here for a Democrat, but this race is different.  It is hard to imagine a scenario where he does as well here as in the past – though it isn’t hard to imagine him doing better than the average Democrat, and in a race likely decided by 100,000 votes or less, this will matter.

That being said, a Nelson win would be keeping Scott between his 2010 and 2014 numbers, where for DeSantis, it is hard to see him winning without at least matching Scott in 2014, if not growing further.   For Scott, few places are as important to him as the Jacksonville market – home to 8.7% of the vote, it provided over 11% of his vote in 2014.  If Nelson takes some of that away, Scott’s path gets difficult, quickly.

There are also places to watch for Gillum.  There is a significant African American population in Duval which helped propel both Obama and Clinton to stronger than typical performances there, as well as in Pensacola, and around Tallahassee.  Add the significant student populations in Gainesville (UF), Tallahassee (FAMU, FSU), and Jacksonville (UNF, JU, Edward Waters), and there is definite room for him to grow.  Even marginal increases in turnout here significantly change the GOP math for winning.  I think he could very well replicate the Obama/Clinton numbers in Duval.  In fact, I’ll bet dinner to the first person willing to take me up on it that he will.   And go back to that Scott versus Trump number a few graphs ago – the biggest single contributor to Scott winning North Florida by a larger percentage than Trump:  Scott running up the score in Duval, while Clinton getting Trump to almost a push.  #DUUUVAL


Home to just over 4.2 million residents, or 20% of the state’s population, Orlando – in this case, defined as the Orlando media market, is the fastest growing market in the state. 25% of the total population growth in Florida since 2010 can be found in Orlando, and it arguably the place that has seen the most change over the last 25 years. The third largest market in Florida, would alone be the 27th largest state -- roughly the size of Oregon.   It will make up 21% of the vote in 2018.  If you want a really deep dive, I wrote a piece a few months ago about the market. You can read it here.

Just to provide some perspective, Orlando added over 500,000 new residents since 2010, and nearly 45% of them who are Hispanic, largely due to the migration of Puerto Rican families to Central Florida, as well as the growth of existing families. Hispanics have grown from 20% of the population to 25% of the population – in just seven years. Almost all of this is happening in two counties: Orange and Osceola, or more simply, metro Orlando, which sets up some interesting politics in the region.

There is a lot going on here. Drive south from Jacksonville, and you enter the market in Flagler County, a county which boomed in the 90s with a ton of retirement migration from the New York area, then just bottomed out, and in doing so, has gone from an emerging Democratic county to a reliably Republican one. Volusia to the south, home of NASCAR, and Brevard south of that, home to the Space Coast, both longtime manufacturing economies, have been hit hard over the last decade and a half, with Scott winning Volusia both in 2010 and 2014. Not surprisingly, Trump did very well in all three counties.  I believe a Democratic wave will impact counties in Florida – though I don’t expect much of it here.

Move down I-4 from Daytona into metro Orlando, and you see a different story. The economy is humming along, growth has returned, though there is still real income pressure. You also in these counties can see just how much the demographic changes have impacted the politics. Consider this, Crist won the three metro Orlando counties, Orange, Osceola, and Seminole in 2006 by over 50,000 votes, while Sink won the three counties by 25,000 in 2010, and Crist by 32,000 in 2014.

But one of the problems for the statewide math for Democrats, while the numbers in the urban core of Orlando are better for Democrats, the drop off in turnout in the urban Orlando counties, particularly in Orange and Osceola, has played a big role in the Democratic losses in 2010 and 2014.  For example, in both 2008 and 2012, President Obama won these three counties by over 100,000 votes, and Secretary Clinton by 166,000 votes in 2016.  If Gillum just splits the difference in margin between Clinton and Crist (+67K votes), these three counties alone more than make up the Scott win margin in 2014 (64%).

Now one of the interesting things at play here:  Puerto Ricans lean Democratic but are not solidly Democratic.  And Maria migrants, while not insignificant, aren’t the panacea that some national observers suggested a year ago.  This is both a persuasion, and a turnout question.  Honestly reversing the trends of Puerto Rican voters dropping off in midterms is a much bigger imperative than the Maria migrants (though both are important)

The other issue for Democrats, further north of Orlando is the Villages, a fast growing heavily Republican retirement community, largely of retired Midwesterners, and Ocala, which is home to Florida’s horse country. And what is interesting, when you combine the “Villages metro area” with the old manufacturing counties on the east coast, you find the Republican trends there almost balancing out the Democratic trends in the metro Orlando area. Scott in 2014 won the area by roughly 62K votes, increasing from his 44K vote margin 2010 – more than offsetting the Democratic gains in the urban areas.  And like Gillum, DeSantis does have room to grow in the market, largely due to these counties.

Despite all the trends that should benefit the Democrats, Scott increased his margin of victory in the market from 4.7% to 5.3%, and his margin in the market, 65,000 votes, mirrored his statewide win margin.  But there is all kinds of room for growth in the market for Democrats – even with Trump running up record margins in the exurban counties, Trump won the market by a comparably smaller margin of 2.9%.   

To win, DeSantis and Scott will want to see the market numbers model what Scott saw in 2014.  Given the likely growth in Democratic margins in SE Florida, anything closer to the Trump/Clinton margins is good news, though for Nelson and Gillum, if Puerto Rican turnout picks up, there is a real opportunity to this market closer to a push – and if they see those results, they are both could have a very good night.   

Tampa and SW Florida

The biggest “state” in Florida, almost 30%, or 6.25 million residents live in Tampa and SW Florida. The Tampa media market alone is the size of Louisiana, but when combined with the SW Florida counties, you are looking at a region the population of Missouri, equal to 10 electoral votes.

In fairness, Tampa alone could be a standalone region, but I add SW Florida here because it is more culturally aligned with the Tampa area than it is with its neighbors across the River of Grass. 

North to South, this region is well over 200 miles, yet drive down coastal US 19 and 41 from Citrus County in the north to Naples at the far south, and with very few exceptions, it is one now one urban area.  Interstate 75 runs through here, carrying with it a distinctly Midwestern feel to the people who have moved to the region.   In fact, 25-30 years ago, before the area really earned its own identity, if you went to a Tampa Bay football game against then division rivals Green Bay or Chicago, these games were basically home games for the away team. It is not quite as bad today, but you will still see large contingents in their hometown garb.

This midwestern feel is also key for another factor:  the wave.  Wave years tend to crash harder in the Midwest, home to a lot more “swing voters” and if you think of regions of Florida as a mirror of the places where residents moved from, if the Democratic wave really impacts the midwestern US, it will also be felt in this region.

The region is as “white” as North Florida and has the smallest African American population in the state (8.8% of registered voters, compared to 13.3% statewide). There is a fast-growing Hispanic population, which is starting to impact politics, particularly in Hillsborough County (Tampa), but outside of the traditional Cuban population in urban Tampa, the Hispanic population here is much more “Latin” (particularly Mexican) than the eastern and central part of the state, which meant a larger delta between Hispanic residency and voting. However, that is changing. Since 2008, of 42% of the voter registration growth has been Hispanic, though Hispanics still only make up 10.2% of the registration (compared to 16.4% statewide). Overall, among registered voters, the electorate is 75% non-Hispanic white, compared to 64% statewide.

As you move south from Tampa towards Sarasota and beyond, it gets more Republican and you see more wealth. Sarasota is a funky political place, quite Republican in registration, but culturally more progressive. It is a county that of late tends to bounce around according to national trends.  Despite Trump winning it by a healthy margin, earlier this year, Democrats retook a State House seat in a special election, a seat they last won in 2008, and in 2018, Democrats are making a serious play for the Congressional seat held by Vern Buchanan.

But in all these counties, life out by the interstate is quite different than life close to the Gulf. Take Lee County, home to Fort Myers, and during the financial crisis, home to the largest foreclosure crisis in the country – with many communities still underwater. Travel further south into Collier County, and out east of the interstate, you will encounter massive Hispanic populations, including the neat community of Immokalee, a place that feels like almost no place else in the state.  The communities west of the interstate in Charlotte, Lee, and Collier (Naples) Counties make up the one of the key foundational cores of the Republican base.

Scott won these markets by a little over 5%, which was down from 2010, where he carried it 7.5%.  The narrower margin was driven by Crist’s drawing on his traditional strength in the core counties around his home in Pinellas.   Scott has always proven very strong in the Fort Myers market side of the region, winning these counties by nearly 100,000 votes.  Just to drive a finer point on Scott’s strength here:  while the Fort Myers market in 2014 accounted for 6.8% of all the statewide votes, the market accounted for nearly 8.5% of all his votes.  The only market where his disparity was higher was Jacksonville (8.7% of all votes, 11.0% of Scott votes).

Hillsborough (Tampa) used to be the bellwether, though in recent years, demographics have moved the county reliably into the Democratic county.  It is likely the new state barometer will be Pinellas, a county that went for Obama twice, and both Sink & Crist, only to go Trump in 2016.   Another county to keep an eye on is Pasco, a GOP county just to the north of Tampa that was very competitive for President Obama, as well as Sink and Crist, only to go overwhelmingly Trump in 2016.  For Gillum and Nelson, returning these two counties closer to their performance between 2008-2014 will significantly help their win prospects.    Two other places for Democrats:  Imperial Polk County, located just inland from Tampa, and home to a large African American population, and Sarasota, roughly 45 minutes to the south of Tampa, home to a very high percentage of college educated voters, which as mentioned before, tend to break from their GOP roots in years when Democrats do well.  These are places where Gillum and Nelson can make up ground.

For DeSantis, if you compare the region to Trump, there is a lot of room to grow.  Crist’s totals in the counties around HIllsorough were significantly better than Clinton earned 2 years later.  If you take the circle around Tampa – Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Hillsborough, Manatee, and Sarasota:  Crist actually won these counties by a fraction of a point – in a GOP wave year, whereas Clinton four years later lost these counties by nearly 6 points. For DeSantis, this should be a place to play offense – yet as mentioned earlier – this is also where the effects of a Democratic wave could be most strongly felt.

So for DeSantis the math is simple:  maintain the Scott margins in Fort Myers and try to replicate the Trump margins in the counties surrounding Hillsborough.  The trouble for him – in this environment, that will be much harder than it sounds.  But if he does, oh boy, it will be close.

Keep an eye on this on election night. Pasco County, a large bedroom community north of Tampa, typically first in the state to report its early and absentee returns right at 7:00PM EST on the Supervisor’s website. If Gillum and Nelson are ahead, or only behind by a few thousand votes, it will probably be a decent night for the Dems.  And overall, if Gillum can get in the vicinity of the Crist numbers around Tampa, given what could happen elsewhere, he’d be in pretty good shape.

Palm Beach

State four – moving back east across the is the Palm Beach media market.  In previous years, I used to group Broward County in with Palm Beach, because it demographically tended to be closer aligned to its county to the north than its county to the south.  This is no longer the case.  Palm Beach is very much its own animal now, and while it is reliably Democratic, at times, has proven to be a little tricky for Democrats.

In terms of Palm Beach, the county is home to just about 2.1 million residents, and in terms of the rest of the state, is incredibly stable.  At the 2010 census, it was 10.2% of the state’s population.  Today, it makes up 10.2% of the state’s population.  And I project the market will make up roughly – wait for it – 10.2% of the statewide vote.

Diversity is changing this market rather rapidly.  Since the 2010 census, the non-Hispanic white population has dropped from 63.4% to 58.6% -- in just eight years.  Correspondingly, since 2008, the non-Hispanic white share of registered voters has dropped from 77.6% to 70.1%.  Palm Beach is no longer just the Del Boca Vista Phase II of years past.  For Democrats, if we get turnout right, this is a very good thing – as some of the smaller margins in recent cycles can be tied to lower white support.

The market, for all purposes, at least of I-95 is pretty dense. While there are some less dense areas in Martin County and Indian River, if you drive down US #1 from Melbourne to the Broward County line (and onward to South Dade), you probably aren’t going to go more than a mile or two without passing a gas station, and if you drive all the way to the Keys, it might take you three days with all the traffic lights.

That being said, west of I-95, things get pretty rural very quickly, and the region still has large areas dedicated to agriculture.  If someone dropped you from a plane into one of the communities around Lake Okeechobee, you’d never think that Trump’s Mar-a-Lago was in the same county.

Palm Beach County is a Democratic county, but the other market counties to the north tend to be more Republican.  In 2010, while Sink won Palm Beach County by nearly 70,000 votes, Rick Scott held Alex Sink’s total margin of victory in the market to 55,000 votes, and thanks to a stronger performance in both St. Lucie County and Palm Beach, Crist extended it to just over 73,000 votes.  However, nothing is certain here.  St. Lucie County, located two counties north of Palm Beach County, had been getting more Democratic over the last decade, only to see the county go to Trump in 2016.   

For Gillum, there are real opportunities here to increase African American and Caribbean turnout.  While the Black share (African American and Caribbean American) share of registered voters has remained stable over the last decade, at around 13%, the Black share in this market has grown from 11% to 13%.    And for Nelson, the region has been an area of strength for him, even as the market has bounced around a bit for other Democrats.  Crist won 53% of the vote in the market, though I would feel better if that number was up closer to 55%. 

For DeSantis and Scott, two main goals here:  maintain Trump’s margins in places like St. Lucie, and try to drive down Democratic white support in Palm Beach, and essentially turn the market into a muddle (keeping that Democratic share under 53%) where the Democratic nominees can’t run up the score.


Finally, the Miami media market.

The second largest market in Florida, just fractionally smaller than Tampa, the Miami market is home to nearly 4.8 million residents, or about 23% of the state’s population.  On its own, it would be in the top 25 most populated states, roughly akin to Alabama – though population is the only thing the two places have in common.   

Yet, despite the population, Miami is the third largest voting market, home to just north of 17% of likely 2018 voters.  This delta is a function of two things:  lower voter participation, and higher rates of non-citizens.

From north to south, Broward County is the old anchor of Florida Democratic politics.  Sink won the county by 131K votes, while Crist won it four years later by 180K votes by increasing Sink’s 31% win to a 38% win.    The county, like Palm Beach to the north, is rapidly changing.  Those Democratic margins, for years driven by African Americans and retired northeastern liberal whites, are now driven by an increasingly diverse population of Hispanic and Caribbean voters.   Among registered voters, the county has dropped from 57% non-Hispanic white to 45%, in just 10 years, and based on census trends, this will continue well into the foreseeable future.

Miami is one of the most diverse areas in the world. It is becoming what London is to Europe, and what Singapore and Hong Kong are to Asia, that critical hub that serves as both an economic and political point of entry for Latin America, and about the only thing it shares with the rest of the state is the common border.

It is also exceptionally complicated. According to the 2010 census: nearly 85% of this “state” population is made up of people of color, a number that has risen to nearly 87%.  Also, the racial make-up of voters has evolved to more closely mirror the county. 

As recently as the mid-2000’s, the county was as much as 31% non-Hispanic white among registered voters, a number that is just under 18% today. Hispanic residents, who make up 65% of all residents, now make up nearly 58% of all registered voters – and keep in mind, because Hispanic is a self-identified marker on voter registration, actual Hispanic participation is typically higher than registration numbers.  Furthermore, within these subgroups exist tremendous diversity.  There is nothing monolithic about either the Hispanic, or the Black population.  

While it used to not be this way, today Dade County is solidly Democratic in statewide races– and trending even more Democratic. 

Keep this in mind:

Jeb Bush won Dade County, twice.

Jim Davis won by 8 points.

Alex Sink won by 14 points, or about 70,000 votes

Charlie Crist won by almost 20%, or about 100,000 votes.

And…Hillary Clinton won it by just a fraction under 30%. 

If Andrew Gillum were to win Clinton margins in Dade County, he’d win the county by 168,000 votes

What is driving that change?

Two things separate things are happening on a collision course: demographic inertia is pushing the area more Democratic, and the traditionally Republican Cuban constituencies are becoming less Republican. 

For Democrats, the goal is simple:  drive those trends to new record margins.  

For Republicans, the plan is more nuanced:  there are segments of the Hispanic population, as well as the Caribbean population where Republicans can scrape at the edges of the Democratic coalition.  In addition, while the younger Cuban populations are more persuadable, they aren’t Democratic, meaning there are votes to be won there. 

As for Monroe, it is a swing county – one of the few left in the state.  A winning plan would send an experienced field hack with significant statewide and swing district experience there to spend a lot of time door knocking (just DM me guys).

For Democrats, Crist won the market by 28 points (63-35), or just over 281k votes.  At likely Democratic turnout, with trends there, stretching that margin to 65-33, or 32 points is quite reasonable, would lead to a potential Democratic margin of just under 360,000 votes – or some 80,000 votes more than Crist 14.    Do more than this, and it would take some crazy scenarios to elect either DeSantis or Scott to get to a win.

So how does this plane land?

This piece is long, but Florida isn’t simple. I wanted to show how and why the main candidates are likely to approach the state to win.

But for all the different scenarios, the basic premise of Florida doesn’t really change.  The state and its regions are very stable – winning and losing happens in the margins, and candidates will work to influence where the scale tips in how they manage those margins – Dems keeping it closer in Duval versus Republicans over-performing in a place like Palm Beach, or just running up the score somewhere else.   And 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.

Though nothing is easy here. The state is absurdly expensive, and winning Florida means navigating different cultures, languages, and economic realities. It requires both turning out your base and persuading an ideologically and culturally diverse swing voters. When folks ask me, what is the key to winning Florida, the answer is everything, which can be a hard concept to understand.  There is no key to be found – just a puzzle with 2,000 pieces thrown all over the floor.  Find the pieces, and you win.

So here we go.  2.55 million ballots are landing in mailboxes as I write this (and for the first time in recent history, Democrats have a slight edge in the initial requests), and odds are likely that within 10 days, more than 10% of the likely turnout will have already voted – and by the time we all go to work on Monday, October 15th, that number will almost surely be north of a million votes, and by the time the polls open on November 6th, somewhere around 60% of the electorate will have already voted.

The election is on us, and every day that goes by, we will get some clues for how each side is doing on the metrics important to their win.  So, thanks for reading, and stay tuned.    

Oh and Myles Jack wasn't down.  #NeverForget


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.



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.



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. 








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. 



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.