Last Updated July 14, 2003
Florida: For 36 days it was the cynosure of all eyes, the state that would determine who would become president of the United States, the most evenly balanced political state in the nation. To many this seemed astonishing. Sixty years before, Florida was the smallest Southern state, with just 5 congressional districts and 7 electoral votes, overwhelmingly Democratic. In 2000 it was the fourth-largest state in the nation, with 23 congressional districts and 25 electoral votes--and about to get 2 more from the 2000 Census. Only 12 years earlier, Florida had voted 61% for then-Vice President George Bush; he carried 66 of its 67 counties. Military-minded Southerners in the northern part of the state, affluent retirees on the Gulf Coast, middle-class conservatives in Tampa Bay and Orlando and around Disney World, Cubans in Miami and Dade County--all voted Republican, easily outnumbering the state's scattered black communities and its Jewish voters concentrated in Broward and Palm Beach Counties on the Gold Coast. But by 2000 Florida had become a state with political divisions as deep and political preferences as starkly different as any in the nation. Broward and Palm Beach on the Gold Coast voted 65%-33% for Al Gore; Escambia, Santa Rosa and Okaloosa Counties, on the western end of the Panhandle around what is called, perhaps unkindly, the Redneck Riviera, voted 68%-30% for George W. Bush. How Florida came to be the pivot of American politics is a story of growth and change, and over the past 60 years Florida has grown more rapidly and changed more vividly than just about any other part of the United States.
Florida has an exotic past. 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 it was acquired from Spain in 1819. Starting off as a forgotten swamp and semitropical resort, 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. Pivotal has been the rise of air conditioning: in 1950 only 20% of Florida houses had it, in 2000, 95% did. For many years, Florida was the place which millions of retirees looked forward to: the sunny, year-round warmth after eternal gray skies over winter factories and dark offices. But in the 1980s and 1990s Florida's population of children grew rapidly as young couples, from the South, from various points north and from Latin America, chose to raise their families and make their livings in a booming economy, with jobs and opportunities in communities that did not exist a generation ago. For refugees from Cuba and Haiti and immigrants from all over 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--76 million of them in 2002--Florida is the place to visit, with lively attractions, year-round swimming, restaurants and rooms to suit every taste and pocketbook. Yet all is not sunny: crime is down, but still a threat; the economic future is, as always, uncertain; the melting pot seems to work slowly, and Florida's Hispanic population seems often to live in a world apart.
Florida is a creation not of America's elite--though a few millionaires like Henry Flagler and Marcus Plant pioneered tourism here--but a place for which ordinary people have voted with their feet. Before World War II it was the least populous state in the South, with 1.4 million people, isolated, disease-ridden, bigoted, with phosphate mines but no mineral resources, not much agriculture outside its citrus groves, and hardly any manufacturing at all. Today, Florida has 16 million people. It is a state one-fifth of whose economy is based on tourism in a country where tourism is one of the great growth industries; a state with an economy based on services in a country increasingly service-oriented; the state with the largest proportion of elderly and retired citizens in a country where an increasing percentage will live many years in retirement; a state also with a growing number of school children in a country which, replenished by immigration, is growing faster and more robustly than any other advanced nation. It is a state continually replenished with people from out of state, two-thirds of them from the United States, one-third from foreign countries: enough that Florida may replace New York as the third largest state some time in the next decade.
Florida in the 1990s had one of America's most buoyant economies, though its economic base may seem a mystery to outsiders. This is an economy based heavily on small business--98% of businesses have fewer than 100 employees and in the 1990s Florida ranked number one in small business starts--with a significant high-tech sector (fifth in the country) and retirees, who account for 52% of Florida's consumer spending and pay 47% of its property taxes. But some of this may be in jeopardy, as retirees head to other states: in 2001 more retirees moved to the Carolinas than to Florida and in 2002 Governor Jeb Bush appointed a commission to attract more retirees. Florida's economy is also based on international merchandise trade, which increased from $24 billion in 1987 to $70 billion in 2002; while foreign investment increased from $9.5 billion to $29.6 billion. Miami for two decades has been the economic and commercial capital of Latin America, as well as its mecca for political exiles. You can fly nonstop from Miami to just about any place in Latin America, both English and Spanish are commonly understood, and it has been the one place where Latins could be sure their money and their persons were safe from government takeover. Recent ructions in their countries have brought thousands of Argentinians, Venezuelans and Colombians, some very affluent and some struggling, to south Florida; Puerto Ricans and other Latinos have also been moving into Florida, and Cubans now account for less than half of Florida's Hispanics. And other immigrants have come in as well, especially to the Gold Coast: Russians, Arabs, Haitians, Jamaicans and others from the Caribbean.
What may be fragile in Florida is civil society; Florida can be disorderly and chaotic. Most people here 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 they may ever have imagined, it has also given them more disruption and crime than they surely anticipated. Many of Florida's great fortunes were made elsewhere, and brought here partly because the state has no income or inheritance taxes. Government is not a major presence: one Census study reported that Florida pays less per capita in taxes than any other states, and as much as one-third of sales tax revenues are paid by non-residents. Even in fighting crime Florida has let citizens take the lead. This was the first major state with a law allowing law-abiding citizens to routinely be licensed to carry guns.
This new Florida, like today's America, has no real center. Its largest urban focus, Miami, is geographically off to one corner and culturally uniquely Cuban, with its eyes increasingly on Latin America. Even before the 2000 imbroglio, Miami's politics held it up to ridicule, as in March 1998 when the Miami city elections were voided because of absentee ballot fraud; in the September 2002 primary only Miami-Dade County (the name was changed from Dade County in 1997) and Broward County just to the north had difficulties with their voting machines. But Miami holds only 362,000 of the 2.25 million people in the renamed Miami-Dade County, which has among other accomplishments developed one of the largest and best community college systems in the country. 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 (the largest migration between any two states is from New York to Florida) and other Northeastern metro areas, plus non-Latino migrants from Miami-Dade, with large numbers of Jews, and huge retiree condos lining the ocean front. Then there is Central Florida, the I-4 corridor from Tampa-St. Petersburg through citrus and tourist country and Orlando. This is mostly family, not retiree, country, living off high-tech industries as much as tourism. A year-round rather than seasonal civilization, this area has seen so much growth in the 1990s that it is becoming its own megalopolis--a "Tamplando" or "Orlampa," as the Orlando Sentinel called it. There is also the Gulf Coast, the affluent and burgeoning communities south of Tampa Bay and the more modest retirement counties to the north. Growing even more rapidly is the area along the hard-sand-beach Atlantic Coast around Jacksonville and Daytona Beach. Very Southern culturally is the western Panhandle, the Redneck Riviera around Pensacola and Panama City, which has Florida's most luxuriant white sand beaches.
Politically, this all adds up to a Florida that is uniquely balanced between the parties and politically volatile. As Democratic pollster Geoff Garin has pointed out, "There's an enormous amount of churning in the electorate. A lot of people on the voter rolls today weren't on the voter rolls five years ago. As a result, Florida politics are much more related to the tides of events and personalities." In the 1990s the Republicans slowly captured control of state offices, winning the state House in 1994, the state Senate in 1996, and the governorship in 1998, even as the Democratic Party increased its strength in presidential elections so that in 2000 Florida came achingly close to electing Al Gore (48.85%-48.84%) and elected its second Democratic U.S. senator. Republicans have won solid majorities in the legislature--26-14 in the Senate, 81-39 in the House--by organizing intensively and patiently capturing one marginal district after another; they have been helped by term limits, which keeps politically adept Democrats from holding onto Republican-leaning districts forever. Republicans have established a 18-7 margin in the U.S. House delegation in the same way, and by adapting shrewdly to local terrain. Redistricting, which Republicans influenced in 1992 and controlled in 2002, helped: heavily black and Jewish areas are concentrated in a few districts, to the point that two-thirds of Democrats holding legislative and House seats are black or Jewish.
But Republicans have not been able to prevent Democrats from transforming Florida from a solidly Republican state in presidential politics--the elder George Bush carried the state 61%-39% in 1988--to one which has become exquisitely closely divided. Most of the change was due to movement toward Democrats on the Gold Coast and in the I-4 corridor from Tampa-St. Petersburg to Orlando. Drops in crime and welfare rolls deprived Republicans of issues in these metro areas as they did in the big metro areas of the Northeast, industrial Midwest and West Coast, and after 1995 the tax issue was taken off the table; cultural issues like abortion and gun control favored Democrats. Ross Perot detached many voters from the elder Bush in 1992, and most of them voted for Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 1996 and 2000. Also, the increasing Jewish population in Broward and Palm Beach counties moved the Gold Coast toward Democrats; Joe Lieberman campaigned there and drew enthusiastic crowds in 2000. 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 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. As compared with 1988, the Bush 2000 percentage fell significantly in counties with large in-migration from the North or from immigrants from abroad, and fell much less--in some cases rose a bit--in counties with a Southern cultural tone or large military installations. This mild change was similar to that in other Southern states, all of which Bush carried easily. But in Florida it was just enough to--barely--win.
After the U.S. Supreme Court made its decision in December 2000, Florida Democrats promised that voters' rage would redound against Jeb Bush in 2002, when he ran for reelection as governor, and in fall 2002 DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe said that the Florida governor's race was the national party's number one priority. Yet his job approval rating remained around 55% throughout the campaign and he won by a 56%-43% margin. At the same time, Republican Charlie Crist was elected attorney general, replacing the last Democrat holding a non-federal statewide office, and Republican margins in the U.S. House delegation and the state Senate and House were increased. The careers of the successful Florida Democrats of the past generation--Lawton Chiles, Reubin Askew, Bob Graham, Bill Nelson--have followed a similar patterns: they were all little-known legislators from conservative middle-sized counties (except Graham, who is from Miami-Dade County) with moderate records who ran for statewide office and managed to finish second in the first primary and then beat a more liberal candidate in the runoff (Nelson's career path was a little different). The problem for Democrats is that there are almost no Democratic officeholders left who fit this template. Florida looks increasingly like a safe Republican state, in state if not in national politics.
Two more things are worth noting about Florida politics. The first is that politics here is not driven by an elderly population terrified of losing government benefits. To be sure, the elderly are a larger percentage of the electorate here than in any other state, but the difference is not overwhelming; most new residents come here to work, not to retire. Republican congressmen with elderly districts who have supported changes in the Social Security system have been reelected in all but one case by wide margins. In 2000 George W. Bush called for individual investment accounts as a part of Social Security and according to VNS carried the over 65 vote in Florida by a 52%-46% margin. The elderly tend to vote in line with long-established partisan preferences, not in panicky response to the latest proposal on Social Security.
The second point is that the environment is an increasingly important issue in Florida, but one that may not cut in a partisan way. People come to Florida partly because of the kind of place it is; migrants from New York or Illinois may not have cared much about environmental issues when they lived there, but they came to Florida in large part because of the climate and setting, and don't want to see oil drilled on the Gulf coast or the Everglades paved over. This is a change from history. The Everglades were seen as a nuisance for years. In 1845, when Florida was admitted to the Union, the legislature called for "reclaiming" the Everglades, and in 1850 Congress passed the Swamp and Overflowed Lands Act. 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 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. In the 1990s Congress ordered the Corps to restore the original flow of the Kissimmee River and in 1996 voters approved an amendment for cleaning up the Everglades (though disapproving a one-cent sugar tax to pay for it). Then both parties came together to call for restoring the Everglades. The Clinton administration package was announced in October 1998 by Al Gore (White House strategists were targeting Florida even then): a $7.8 billion Central and Southern Florida Project to build huge reservoirs above and under ground, a vast plant to recycle Miami waste water and a system of 70 massive pumps in the Everglades and to make the Tamiami Trail a causeway, like Alligator Alley 25 miles to the north. It was promptly supported by Governor Jeb Bush, who persuaded the Republican legislature to set aside $2 billion over 10 years for the project. Both houses of Congress approved the Everglades project before the 2000 election. It is not clear that it will work and it may well turn out to be more expensive than predicted. But it does appear that the Florida of the mid-21st century will, for all its development, be closer in one important way to the natural Florida of the Seminoles than the Florida of today.
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