Steve Schale: Orlando revisited

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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 seem 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 Gov. Rick Scott and incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill 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 percent were either African-American or Hispanic, with another 5 percent 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 percent margin over Clinton in 2016 in the Orlando media market was basically the same as Bush’s 3.3 percent margin over Al 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 percent — a difference of about 2.5 percent. 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 percent larger margin than he won the urban counties, but still, 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; Hillary Clinton winning the urban counties by 18 percent, and Trump winning the surrounding counties by 21 percent. Two Americas, right in one nine-county region.

Let’s break this down a little further, starting in the urban core.

Of the 2.7 million voters in the nine-county media market, 48 percent 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 east. 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 percent of that growth coming from people of color. On the political significance side, these three counties went from giving Bush a roughly 9,000 and 34,000 vote margin respectively in 2000 and 2004, 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 cleanup 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, Clinton won these 5 counties by 500,000 more votes than Gore did in the tied election of 2000, with more than 40 percent of that change happening in Central Florida. If nothing else in Florida changed, she would have won the state by roughly five 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 Sen. Nelson served in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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 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 Barack Obama in 2008 and 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 way 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 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 Hurricane 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 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.

The Sunshine State is just work, never easy on either side of the path to 50 percent. And arguably, no place exemplifies this more than the Orlando media market. In Florida, the more things change, the more things stay the same.

Steve Schale


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