In less than a decade, Republicans have added 1 million voters to their rolls in the state of Florida, while the Democrats have added just 300,000. In 1994, for the first time, more Florida voters took part in the GOP primary for governor than the Democratic.
Florida has voted Republican in nine of the past 11 presidential elections, but is fast becoming a GOP stronghold at all levels of government. The Florida Senate went Republican in 1994 for the first time since Reconstruction, and the GOP is just four seats shy of a majority in the state House. Florida Republicans have a 15-8 majority in the U.S. House.
Florida is not an easy state to campaign in. It is populous – 14 million residents and growing at a rate of nearly 250,000 per year. It is diverse, stretching from the “cracker country” in the northern Panhandle to the retirees on the west coast beaches of the Caribbean, from the Cuban population of Miami-Fort Lauderdale to urban Jacksonville. Florida spans two time zones and takes about 16 hours to drive from the tip of the Florida Keys to Pensacola. Therefore, it is expensive to campaign in. Campaigning must be done on television, and reaching the whole state requires buying myriad media markets.
Many of the issues that are on the front burner in California are also prominent at the other end of the Sun Belt. Crime, taxes and immigration policy are all big issues in Florida, although its large Cuban population (estimated to be about 10 percent of the GOP vote) requires a more nuanced approach to immigration than the anti-immigrant line that has played well in California. And Florida’s large retiree population ensures that the fate of Medicare and other issues of importance to the elderly are of prime concern.
Republican strength has been growing in all parts of Florida. But when GOP candidates go looking for votes they focus on a horseshoe-shaped area that extends up the Gulf Coast to the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, cuts through the central part of the state to Daytona Beach, then stretches south along the Atlantic Coast to the Miami area, where most of Florida’s Cuban population lives.
There, it helps to have a friend or family member who speaks Spanish. George Bush used Jeb, who was chairman of the Dade County GOP in the mid-1980s. Jeb helped his father carry the county in the 1988 GOP primary with three-quarters of the vote; Bush ran even better in Dade in 1992. Statewide, Bush won easily both times.
While the Republican Party is rapidly expanding these days, Democrats are trying to hold together a fraying coalition that extends from conservative, small-town whites in the panhandle to Jewish and minority voters in south Florida. It is an ethnic stew that has given Florida politics an anomaly. Northern Florida is Southern and southern Florida is Northern, the saying goes.
Southern Democrats have done best at the presidential level by bridging the two ends of the state. Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter have been the only Democrats since 1950 to win Florida, and Bill Clinton has been the narrowest loser, trailing Bush by less than 2 percentage points in 1992.
Southern Democrats have also done well in the party’s presidential primary. George C. Wallace of Alabama capitalized on anti-busing sentiment to overwhelm a large Democratic field in 1972. Georgia’s Carter won crucial Florida primaries in 1976 and 1980, beating Wallace and Edward M. Kennedy, respectively. And Arkansas’ Clinton readily won in 1992.
Florida at a Glance …
Population: 14 million
Percentage of U.S. population: 5.36%
Since 1980: 43.2%
Since 1990: 7.8%
GOP presidential wins since 1968:
6 out of 7
1992 presidential vote:
Bush: 41% Clinton: 39% Perot: 20%
Democrats: 3,525,344 (48%)
Republicans: 3,052,711 (42%)
Other: 753,209 (10%)