At the beginning of the general election season, there seemed to be little evidence that Florida would end up competitive. Whereas the 2000 election had raised the Sunshine State’s stature to that of the ultimate battleground, Bush’s relatively easy win in 2004 and polling earlier this year suggested that Republicans would hold onto the state’s 27 electoral votes. That may be changing.
One of the main reasons that Florida is a state that can be so competitive is that it contains, demographically and economically, a little bit of everything. With a population now surpassing 18 million, it is a mixture of urban and rural; white, black, and Hispanic; young and old; north and south; natives and transplants.
The distribution of these groups has given Florida politics a decidedly regional flavor. In broad terms, the northern part of the state (panhandle, Jacksonville, Pensacola) has voted consistently Republican while south Florida, with the exception of the Cuban community’s Republican affiliation, has been the hub of the state’s Democratic support (Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Broward Counties).
The border between these two regions is Florida’s real battleground. The I-4 Corridor is viewed by many as the “Holy Grail” of Florida politics. Named for the interstate that runs from Tampa in the west to Daytona Beach in the east, the I-4 resembles a belt across the state’s midsection. Comprised of 12 counties, this region accounts for close to 30% of Florida’s population. It is also, politically, the most competitive. Much of the commentary on the state suggests that the largest concentration of Florida’s independents resides in this stretch. For a good recent article on the politics of the area, see here.
To flesh this out a bit more, let’s give some numbers. Here is the statewide vote, by county, for 2000 and 2004. Columns 1 and 2 give each county’s population and share of the statewide population, respectively. The final column gives the gain made by Bush in 2004 vs. 2000. Counties in the I-4 Corridor are highlighted. In 2000, as we know, the state was split (using the two-party vote) exactly 50/50. In 2004, Bush beat Kerry 52.5% to 47.5% for a net increase of 2.5%. Among the 12 counties of the I-4 corridor in 2000, Bush actually did better than he did statewide, garnering 51%. In 2004 he won 53.7% along the I-4, thus doing slightly better than he did statewide. His I-4 numbers in 2004 increased more than his statewide numbers compared to 2000 (+2.7% vs. +2.5%). Thus, we can attribute much of Bush’s success in repeating in Florida to his success in this part of the state.
More specifically, we can focus in on a few counties. Bush seems to have made his greatest strides is the more mid-sized counties in the region. For example, in Polk (Lakeland) and Brevard (Viera and Cape Canaveral) Counties, each home to roughly 500,000 Floridians, Bush’s numbers increased 4.4% and 3.9% respectively. In Volusia County (Daytona Beach), population 450,000, Bush’s margin increased by 3.4%. For this year’s contest, these counties would seem to be critical to Senator McCain’s efforts to hold the state.
For the Obama camp, the largest counties of the I-4 Corridor offer the greatest opportunities. The largest county in the I-4 Corridor is Hillsborough (population 1 million), which is dominated by the city of Tampa. In 2000, Bush won the County with 51.6%; in 2004 he received 53.4%. Thus, while still going for Bush, Hillsborough County’s Republican margin grew by less than the state average. Next door Pinellas (St. Petersburg) with a population of about 950,000 was won by Bush in 2004 by only 226 votes!!! Although Bush did better here than he did in 2000, this might be another opportunity for Obama to make gains. The final county in this region I would point to might be the ultimate bellwether. Orange County (Orlando) gave Kerry a slight majority in 2004 with 50.1% of the vote; it gave Gore 51% in 2000. This recent profile in National Geographic gives a fantastic overview of the diversity of the County as well as the degree to which it has exploded in growth over the past few decades.
With new polling bringing Florida back into toss-up status, both camps are spending time in the state and advertising dollars are flowing in. In the most recent report by the Wisconsin Advertising Project, the Tampa and Orlando media markets rank #5 and #7 nationally in terms of the number of ads aired. One can be sure that the recent economic downturn has contributed to the competitiveness of Florida. With a large population living off retirement savings and investments, the stock market collapse has been felt acutely. Also, the recently released unemployment figures show Florida’s unemployment rate now higher than the national average. Finally, Florida has one of the highest home foreclosure rates in the country. Thus, as we move into the final stretch of the campaign, we may be setting ourselves up for a repeat of 2000 in the Sunshine State.