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Darryl Paulson: Florida’s Changing Partisan Coalitions: The Democrats

First of two parts.

Florida is the home of razor-thin election victories.  From George W. Bush’s controversial 537-vote victory over Al Gore to Barack Obama’s .9 percent margin over Mitt Romney, the whole nation watches Florida.

Florida’s close elections are an artifact of its partisan coalitions.  These coalitions are undergoing some profound changes that will likely affect election results in the future.

The 2012 election results provided both good and bad news for the Democrats.  The bad news is that Democrats continue to do poorly among most segments of white voters.  Obama lost married white women and men by the largest margin since 1984; lost white Catholics by 19 percent; and lost non-college white men, or blue-collar workers, by 31 percent.

The good news for Democrats and Obama is that they won the election comfortably.  Obama captured 51 percent of the national popular vote, 332 electoral votes or 62 more than was needed to capture the White House. He won the election by more than 5 million votes.  As a result, Democrats have now won the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.

Obama won 80 percent of the total minority vote and 60 percent of the votes of those under the age of 30.  Although most analysts did not believe that he would be able to depend on the same massive turnout from minorities and youth that he had received in 2008, they were wrong.  The turnout of both minorities and youth actually increased in 2012.

In 2012, Obama won 61 percent of the youth vote.  Many younger voters were attracted to his policy on college student loans and the ability to stay on their parents’ health care policy until age 26.  The Obama campaign’s superior ground game targeted younger voters, especially those on college campuses.

Suburbs are often considered to be Republican enclaves, but Obama won Florida suburbs in both 2008 and 2012 by 51 and 53 percent.  He also received 53 percent of the female vote.  This was critical since women comprised 55 percent of the Florida electorate.

The minority vote was critical to Obama’s win.  He won 80 percent of the minority vote, including 60 percent of the Hispanic vote in Florida and 95 percent of the black vote.  The high percentages that Obama received were essential.  Just as important for Democrats, the Hispanic share of the Florida electorate jumped to 17 percent, up 3 percent from 2008.

Even Cuban Hispanics, long considered part of the Republican bloc, split their vote evenly for Obama and Romney.  Younger Cubans do not have the same attachment to the Republican Party as their parents.  They have no desire to return to Cuba, a nation completely foreign to them as it is to most Americans.

Blacks continue to be the most loyal segment of the Democratic coalition.  Not only did 95 percent of Florida blacks vote for Obama, but they turned out at higher rates than their white counterparts.  “Election reforms” proposed by the Republican-controlled Legislature probably did more to stimulate black turnout than any tactic by the Obama campaign.

Obama won Florida by winning the votes of women, youth, minorities, the least and most educated Floridians (66 and 53 percent), those making less than $50,000 (59 percent), the suburbanites (51 percent), Jewish voters (66 percent) and secular voters (72 percent).

The really positive news for Democrats is that most of these groups are increasing as a percentage of the electorate.  The minority share of the Florida electorate is rapidly growing and, according to Florida Trend, will account for 40 percent of the Florida population by 2020. In 2012, 67 percent of Floridians who voted were white, 17 percent Hispanic, 13 percent black and 4 percent Asian or other.

One final positive for Democrats is that they will likely do better with white voters in future elections.  Race clearly tamped down the white vote for Obama, as did the poor economy.

What if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee in 2016?  She would, in all likelihood, do better than Obama with white voters.  She also would likely receive a higher percentage of the female vote than any other candidate in presidential history.

Democrats could screw it up.  They have done so many times in Florida’s political history.  But, for now, demography is on their side.

In the first decade of the 21st Century, the white population in Florida grew by 12 percent; the black population grew by 22 percent and the Hispanic population almost 37 percent.

Next:  The Republican Coalition

Written By

Darryl Paulson is Emeritus Professor of Government at USF St. Petersburg.

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