GovernorCharlie Crist (R)
SenatorsBill Nelson (D)
George LeMieux (R)
- 10 D, 15 R
- 1 through 25
Florida, the nation’s fourth largest state (and closing in on No. 3, New York), is a kind of nation-state, historically Southern, demographically Northeastern and Midwestern, and culturally Latin American. It is economically vibrant but subject to sudden contractions, as in the mid-1920s, the mid-1970s and the late 2000s. It has the nation’s largest percentage of elderly citizens, but its exotic past reaches back to Ponce de Leon’s quest for the Fountain of Youth. It is the only Atlantic Coast state that was not part of the colonial United States. Through the exertions of John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, then political allies but later bitter political enemies, it was acquired from Spain in 1819. Starting off as a forgotten swamp, Florida has emerged as almost an empire of its own, a prototype in many ways of America’s future, with an international flavor and sometimes almost with its own foreign policy. Within the lifespan of the typical octogenarian, it went from 1.5 million people to 18 million. Pivotal was the advent of air conditioning. In 1950, only 20% of Florida houses had it; in 2000, 95% of them did. For many years, Florida was the place millions of retirees looked forward to: sunny, year-round warmth after years of gray skies over factories and office buildings.
Then in the 1980s and 1990s, the percentage of children and young couples as a share of Florida’s population grew rapidly as people migrated from the South, from various points north and from Latin America. They were lured by jobs and opportunities in communities that hadn’t existed a generation earlier. Some 17% of Florida’s population today is over age 65, more than the national average of 13%, but not extraordinarily more. The state’s percentage of children under age18 is 22%, not much below the national average of 25%. For refugees from Cuba and Haiti and for immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America, Florida has been a land of freedom and security from authoritarian regimes and totalitarian police states. For Americans and foreigners of all kinds—some 80 million of them—Florida is the place to visit, with lively attractions, year-round swimming, and accommodations to suit most pocketbooks. Yet all is not sunny. Crime is down, but still a threat. An economy that sizzled until 2007 was inordinately affected by the recession, which had been fueled by a crisis in the mortgage market and so hit areas of brisk building particularly hard.
Florida is a creation not of America’s elite—though a few millionaires, such as Henry Flagler and Marcus Plant, pioneered tourism there—but a place for which ordinary people have voted with their feet. It has been continually replenished with people from out of state, two-thirds of them from the United States, one-third from foreign countries. Miami has long been the economic and commercial capital of Latin America, as well as a mecca for its political exiles. You can fly nonstop from Miami to just about anyplace in Latin America, both English and Spanish are commonly understood, and it has been one place where many Latinos could be sure their money and their persons were safe from government takeover. Recent ructions in their countries have brought thousands of Venezuelans, Bolivians, and Ecuadorans, some affluent and some struggling, to south Florida. Large number of Puerto Ricans have been moving to central Florida’s Interstate 4 corridor, and Mexicans to the Tampa Bay area; as a result, Cubans now account for only about a third of Florida’s Hispanics.
For almost two decades, Florida had one of America’s most buoyant economies, though its economy often seems a mystery to outsiders. That economy is based heavily on small business—98% of businesses have fewer than 100 employees, and in the 1990s Florida ranked No. 1 in small-business starts. There is also a high-tech sector and a substantial amount of international merchandise, which increased from $24 billion in 1987 to $81 billion in 2004. For years, two of the leading sectors of the state’s economy were construction and real estate. They prosper and grow during booms but are subject to sudden busts, such as the Miami land boom that ended abruptly when a hurricane struck in 1926. Something like that seems to have happened in 2007. Speculators had been buying up condos in Miami and Cape Coral, Orlando and Port St. Lucie, and then suddenly prices started to fall, even as property taxes and insurance premiums rose. Housing values plummeted by half in some speculator-heavy precincts and by significant amounts just about everywhere. The state’s population continued to grow from 2007 to 2008, but at a much slower pace than it did mid-decade. A flood of foreclosures followed, and Florida became one of the “sand states”—the others are Nevada, Arizona and California—which have the nation’s highest foreclosure rates by far, accounting for half of all foreclosures in 2007 and 2008. Local tax receipts, heavily dependent on property values and the construction industry, sagged. Unemployment rose from 5.5% in May 2008 to 8.1% in January 2009. Retirees and workers started leaving for Georgia, the Carolinas and elsewhere; in 2007 and 2008 Florida had a net domestic outmigration of 9,000 people, although the state’s population still increased by 127,000.
All this was happening in a state with a fragile civil society. Florida can be disorderly and chaotic in the best of times. Most people do not have deep roots in the state—most communities sprang into existence within living memory—and if Florida gives people more freedom and options than elsewhere, it also gives them more disruption and crime than they surely anticipated. Its largest urban focus, Miami, is geographically off to one corner and culturally uniquely Cuban. The rest of the Gold Coast, Broward and Palm Beach counties, with one-sixth of Florida’s population, is also atypical, with a population drawn heavily from New York and other Northeastern cities, plus non-Latino migrants from Miami-Dade and large numbers of Jews and retirees. Central Florida—the I-4 corridor from Tampa-St. Petersburg through citrus and tourist country and Orlando—is mostly family, not retiree, country. It thrives on high-tech industries as well as tourism, and is a year-round rather than seasonal megalopolis of 4.8 million people. Most newcomers are from the United States, not from abroad. There is also the Gulf Coast, the affluent and burgeoning communities south of Tampa Bay and the more modest retirement counties to the north. The western Panhandle, the so-called Redneck Riviera around Pensacola and Panama City, is culturally very Southern. State government is headquartered in Tallahassee, chosen because it was midway between the two population centers of Jacksonville and Pensacola at a time when almost no one lived in the Florida peninsula.
Politically, this all adds up to a state that is closely divided between the parties and politically volatile. The trend in Florida politics since the 1990s has been toward the Republicans, who captured the state House in 1994, the state Senate in 1996, and the governorship in 1998 and now hold all the statewide offices and have big majorities in the Legislature: 26-14 in the Senate, 76-44 in the House. They have been helped by term limits and redistricting, which Republicans influenced in 1992 and controlled in 2002: African-American and Jewish areas are concentrated in a few districts. But Democrats have held their own in federal races. Republican George H. W. Bush carried the state 61%-39% in 1988, but Democrat Bill Clinton lost the state by only 41%-39% in 1992 and carried it 48%-42% in 1996. Four years later, Democrat Al Gore lost the state by the excruciating margin of 48.85%-48.84%, determined after the epic 36-day multi-court contest that decided the 2000 presidential election. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama undertook a massive organizational effort in Florida and won with 51% to Republican John McCain’s 48%. In recent years, drops in the crime rates and welfare rolls deprived Republicans of issues in metropolitan areas in Central Florida and on the Gold Coast. Cultural issues like abortion rights and gun control favored Democrats, and the increasing Jewish population in Broward and Palm Beach counties moved the Gold Coast even more toward Democrats. In the I-4 corridor, what had been a big Republican margin for Bush in 1988 was transformed to a Clinton margin in 1996 and a standoff in 2000. The biggest drop in the Republican percentage in any county in Florida between 1988 and 2000 was in fast-growing Osceola County, which contains part of Disney World and the Disney-sponsored “new town” of Celebration. In the 1980s, Disney World was still an epitome of traditional conservative values; by 2000, Disney was hosting Gay Day.
In state politics, Republicans have been dominant, thanks in large part to the wide appeal of two quite different governors, Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist. After initially losing a bid for governor to Lawton Chiles, Bush came back in 1998 to win 55%-45% and proceeded to build a record that made him arguably one of the best governors of his time. Over the opposition of the teachers’ unions, he improved the rigor and accountability of the schools and provided alternatives for those in schools that were failing. He cut taxes, he overturned, to great protest, racial quotas and preferences, and he involved local governments and the private sector in helping accommodate the state’s rapid growth with new infrastructure. He prepared meticulously for the natural disasters that are part of Florida’s natural heritage. In 2002 Democrats targeted Bush for defeat, but he was re-elected 56%-43%. In 2006, the Republican nominee for governor was Attorney General Charlie Crist, known as tough on law enforcement but less conservative on other issues than Jeb Bush. He defeated Democratic Rep. Jim Davis, from the I-4 corridor, 52%-45%, losing the Gold Coast 59%-40% but winning the I-4 corridor 54%-43% and the rest of the state 59%-38%. Crist put into place an innovative insurance program, essentially making state government the insurer of last resort against hurricane damage. He also advanced the idea of buying out the U.S. Sugar Corporation in order to restore the Everglades.
Crist’s efforts on the Everglades illustrate how important the environment is as an issue in Florida these days, but one that may not cut in a predictably partisan way. For years, the Everglades were seen as a nuisance, a bar to development. The Army Corps of Engineers started building a dike across Lake Okeechobee in 1930 and for nearly 50 years, worked to straighten the Kissimmee River and to build dikes and channels to reclaim land for farming. But with the 1947 publication of The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who died in 1998 at 108, Floridians began to appreciate the Everglades, which is essentially a flow of water south, from the Kissimmee River near Disney World, through Lake Okeechobee down to Florida Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Jeb Bush worked with national politicians of both parties on a giant, multiyear project to reverse the projects of the past and restore the Everglades. One problem was that two well-connected sugar companies—U.S. Sugar and Florida Crystals—produced cane sugar in critical lands south of the lake. In 2007, members of the South Florida Water Management District, all but one appointed by Gov. Crist, voted to bar U.S. Sugar from back-pumping polluted runoff into the lake, and the company sent two prominent lobbyists to Crist to protest. He responded by offering to buy the company out. In June 2008, he announced his plan to buy U.S. Sugar for $1.75 billion and eventually take its 187,000 acres out of production and let water from Lake Okeechobee flow through them, restoring the old flow pattern of the Everglades. The water management district approved the plan in December 2008, though negotiations continued over the purchase price, and some questioned whether the state could afford the purchase. In fact, the deal was significantly scaled back in April 2009, with the state slated to buy 72,500 acres for $533 million and getting a 10-year option to purchase the remaining land.
2008 Presidential Vote
2008 Democratic Presidential Primary
2008 Republican Presidential Primary
In the 2004 and 2008 elections, Florida was a target state for both parties. The key in both cases was not so much persuading undecided voters but turning out base supporters at the polls. In the process turnout rose from 6 million in 2000 to 7.6 million in 2004 to 8.4 million in 2008, a 40% increase during a time when population rose 15%. In 2004, President Bush’s campaign had out-organized the other side. Its volunteer-rich registration and turnout efforts increased the Bush percentage in almost every county, and Bush beat Democrat John Kerry 52%-47%. In 2008, Illinois Democrat Barack Obama’s campaign exceeded those efforts. Spending some $39 million on television ads and organization, and targeting potential supporters early, Obama raised turnout and the Democratic percentage sharply in Orlando and Osceola County, Tampa, Jacksonville and Miami. Over the period from 2000 to 2008, the Democratic percentage rose most in counties with many African-Americans and Hispanics and along the southern Gulf Coast, while the Republican percentage went up markedly in most of north Florida and the smaller counties of central Florida.
Of the 10 largest states, only Florida and Ohio gave their winning presidential candidates margins of less than 5% in each of the three elections from 2000 to 2008, and Florida is far larger, with 27 electoral votes to Ohio’s 20. Florida’s presidential primary, held from 1988 to 2004 on Super Tuesdays, also produces very large delegations to the two parties’ national conventions. But it has not been crucial in determining a nomination since 1976, when Democrat Jimmy Carter defeated George Wallace, ending his national political career.
Determined to give Florida more clout in the 2008 election, the Legislature decided to move the primary to an earlier date. In May 2007, it voted to schedule the primary for January 29, and Crist signed the bill. Democratic legislators protested, because their party’s rules forbade the state from voting before February 5, but to no avail. In August 2007, the Democratic National Committee under Chairman Howard Dean voted to strip Florida of its delegates, and in September, all the major Democratic candidates agreed not to campaign in the state. In October 2007, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Alcee Hastings sued the DNC, but the judge ruled against them in December. Meanwhile, in November, the Republican National Committee took the less onerous step of depriving Florida of half its delegates without a demand that candidates boycott the state. The national parties’ decisions had the result of making Florida decisive in the race for the Republican nomination and making it a bone of contention for Democrats until their nominee was decided in June.
For much of 2007, Florida didn’t look like much of a contest among Republicans, with New York’s Rudolph Giuliani leading in all the polls. But Giuliani’s standing began to slip at year’s end, and when he failed to win an appreciable number of votes in any state before Florida, his support in the state collapsed, even as he campaigned heavily there in January 2008. Meanwhile, Massachusetts’ Mitt Romney here, as elsewhere, outspent the other candidates and campaigned as a mainstream conservative. Arkansas’ Mike Huckabee, with little money but considerable charm, struggled to extend his appeal beyond evangelical Christians in a state with eight media markets and a Republican electorate drawn from many parts of the nation. On January 19, 10 days before the Florida primary, Arizona’s John McCain beat Huckabee in South Carolina 33%-30%. Tennessee’s Fred Thompson won 16% of the votes there, leading some to conclude that Huckabee would have beat McCain if Thompson had not been not in the race. Thompson promptly dropped out, and for 10 days the spotlight was on Florida. On Saturday, January 26, Crist endorsed McCain.
That may have tipped the balance, and presumably affected at least a few votes in a fluid race with a crowded field. Turnout was large: 1.9 million, nearly triple the 690,000 who had voted in the previous GOP presidential primary, in 2000. McCain won with 36% of the votes to 31% for Romney. Giuliani got 15%, and Huckabee 13%. McCain carried metro Tampa, Crist’s home area, but his highest percentages were in south Florida. Polls suggest that many original Giuliani supporters there voted for McCain, especially Cuban-Americans. McCain was also endorsed by Miami’s three Cuban-American House members and won his highest percentages in their three congressional districts. Romney carried metro Jacksonville and southwest Florida. Under the state Republicans’ winner-take-all rules, McCain won all of the state’s delegates at stake in the contest. While McCain’s Florida victory technically did not clinch the nomination, it put him in position to do so a week later on Super Tuesday, after Romney ended his campaign. Anticlimactically, the Republicans voted in August 2008 to restore all of Florida’s delegates.
Democratic candidates mostly kept their promises to not campaign in Florida. Turnout in the primary was 1.75 million, less than in the Republican contest despite impressive gains in Democratic party registration, though still far ahead of the 754,000 who turned out in 2004. New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton won 50% of the vote, Obama 33%, and North Carolina’s John Edwards 14%. Obama carried counties with large black populations (Jacksonville, Pensacola, rural north Florida counties) and those with universities or state employees (Gainesville, Tallahassee). He carried six of the 25 congressional districts. Edwards won 11 small counties in north Florida. Clinton won every county south of Gainesville. She carried Latino and Jewish voters 2-to-1. Young voters were evenly split. Clinton, barred from the state during the campaign by her September promise, made an election night appearance to celebrate her victory.
The desire of Florida Democrats to be counted in the nomination process guaranteed continued controversy. It was suggested that Florida could stage another primary, or have a mail-in rerun, but the cost—up to $18 million for a primary, $5 million for a mail-in—was prohibitive for the Florida Democratic party. Plaintive cries went up that Florida Democrats were being disenfranchised by a Republican legislature and a Republican governor, but to no avail. (No similar excuse was available to their confreres from Michigan, which had a Democratic governor and state House.) Democratic legislators filed a lawsuit in May, but it was quickly dismissed. Florida Democrats appealed to the DNC in May to have half the delegation seated, but the Obama campaign, short of clinching the nomination and aware that the proposal would give Clinton a delegate edge, resisted. On May 31, a few days before the last primary, a compromise was reached giving Clinton a 52.5-33.5 delegate edge over Obama (John Edwards got 6.5 delegates), not quite what her showing in the Florida and Michigan primaries would have justified and not enough to change the outcome of the nomination fight as superdelegates moved toward Obama. On August 2, when it no longer mattered, Obama asked that all the Florida delegates be seated, and so they were in Denver.
Obama started the general election campaign in Florida at a disadvantage. In other primary and caucus states, the campaign had been able to start early in assembling its impressive organizations. Nevertheless, trends in party registration were going his way. Many more new voters registered as Democrats than as Republicans, and the fact that more votes were cast in the Republican primary than in the Democratic primary proved to be a misleading indicator. Importantly, by May 2008 registered Democrats for the first time outnumbered registered Republicans among Hispanics. There also was a disparity in spending in the state between the two candidates. The Obama campaign planned to spend about $39 million in Florida and flooded the airwaves from summer on. The McCain campaign, aware that it was behind in other states that had voted more heavily for Bush in 2004, gambled and spent almost no money in Florida. It proved to be correct in assuming that the swing away from the Republican ticket would be far smaller in Florida than it was in states like Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana. But it proved to be incorrect in assuming that the swing would be too small to allow Obama to win the state’s 27 electoral votes.
The Obama campaign did an excellent job of increasing African-American turnout in Miami, Tampa, and Jacksonville. But it also concentrated on increasing Hispanic turnout, especially in the Orlando area, where the many new Puerto Rican voters had little in common with Miami Cubans. Obama’s weakness among Jewish voters, evident in the primary results, was transfigured by the nomination of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate. Despite her pro-Israel views, she seemed to tip them heavily against the Republican ticket. Broward and Palm Beach counties delivered huge majorities to Obama, as they had to the Gore-Lieberman ticket in 2000. The Obama campaign neglected no critical angle, running early-voter efforts in black barbershops, getting Creole speakers to call voters in Haitian neighborhoods, and taping comedian Sarah Silverman urging young Jews to tell their grandparents in Florida to vote for Obama. The Republicans held big rallies for their ticket, with 60,000 appearing at The Villages, northwest of Orlando, in sizzling heat to hear Palin speak.
The final results revealed the Florida electorate to be more polarized than ever, with hugely Democratic areas (Broward and Palm Beach Counties) balanced against hugely Republican areas (the Panhandle). White evangelical Protestants voted more than 3-to-1 for McCain; Jews about 3-to-1 for Obama. Cuban-Americans voted 65% for McCain—less than in the past—but young Hispanics voted more than 3-1 for Obama. Here, perhaps, was the biggest difference from the previous election: In 2004, Hispanics voted 56% for Bush; in 2008, despite McCain’s support of immigration legislation offering a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, they voted 57% for Obama. This was one state without much of a gender gap, perhaps because elderly voters, most of them women, voted 53%-45% for McCain (the Social Security issue once again failing to give Democrats a majority). In Florida, as nationally, voters with incomes over $200,000 voted for Obama. Did organization matter? An amazing 29% of voters said they’d been contacted by the Obama campaign, and 20% by the McCain campaign; 14% said they’d been contacted by both, and a majority of them voted for McCain.
|111th Congress: 10 D, 15 R|
Florida has gained congressional districts after every census since 1930, when it was still the smallest state in the South and elected just four House members. In the 2000 census, it gained two seats, for a total of 25. Then, the redistricting process was controlled by Republicans, who passed a plan in March 2002. Disagreement between the state House and Senate was resolved when senators agreed to create a district tailor-made for Republican House Speaker Tom Feeney; the other new district was tailor-made for Republican Mario Diaz-Balart, chairman of the House Congressional Districting Committee. Democrats filed lawsuits against the plan in state and federal courts, but lost those challenges. The plan was solidly in place by the July 9 filing deadline for 2002 contests.
This was, at least for a time, one of the most successful partisan redistrictings of the 2002 cycle. Feeney and Diaz-Balart were both elected to the House by wide margins. Democratic Rep. Karen Thurman was defeated by Republican state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite. Two senior Republicans, Bill Young of St. Petersburg and Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale, were strengthened. Democrat Allen Boyd, of the 2nd District, was weakened. The seats of the three black Democrats and two Latino Republicans were protected. The 2002 plan produced a delegation of 18 Republicans and 7 Democrats, a lopsided GOP majority in a state that had been evenly divided in the 2000 presidential election.
But, as often happens with partisan redistricting plans, the effects wore off after a while. In 2006, Republican Clay Shaw, in line to become chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, was defeated, and Democrats picked up the 16th District, represented by disgraced Republican incumbent Mark Foley. In 2008, Republicans regained the Foley seat after the Democratic incumbent was caught up in his own scandal, but they lost two seats anchored in Orlando, the part of the state where Obama made his biggest gains over the Democratic showing four years before. The 18-7 Republican edge was reduced over the course of two elections to 15-10.
In early 2009, it seemed likely, though by no means assured, that Republicans would control redistricting in Florida after the 2010 census. Republican margins in the Legislature remained large enough that they seemed unlikely to be reversed. Ballot propositions planned for November 2010 would require legislators to draw compact districts that conformed to political or geographic boundaries. However, those conditions were in tension with the prevailing judicial interpretations of the Voting Rights Act, which required that the number of black- or Hispanic-majority districts be maximized. That result can be obtained in a state with demographics like Florida’s only by creating districts that are anything but compact and that cut across many political and geographical boundaries.