Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Florida battleground guide

Florida, a state where the sunsets make the postcards, but not the mosquitoes.

Florida, a state whose animal chain is threatened by the Burmese Python, a snake so prevalent and powerful that it will soon be able to vote (although not if Rick Scott has his way).

Florida, that state where Tim Tebow is almost as big as Mickey Mouse and where Mickey Mouse is almost as big as law firms promising million dollar rewards on city buses that waddle into and out of neighborhoods, drunk on pastels that will never fade.

Florida, THE PLACE TO BE, bar none, if you're a manatee (seriously, manatees are the third rail in Florida politics -- you do not ever ask if they're worth $12 billion, or so much as even whisper when they're swimming within three miles of you, because it can kill them).

The Panhandle, a place with no mountains, but only molehills that are thirty feet high, attended to by fire ants that are only exceeded in ugliness by the region’s affectionately-named “Palmetto bugs” – cockroaches who’ve committed gross sins against humanity by knowing how to use their wings to FLY.

Southeast Florida, that beachy region where everyone lives in places called “The Crossing at The Villages at Winderly Way” that wave flags to let you know they have condos available.

Southwest Florida, she of the Midwestern retirees and the slow beaches that don’t have the ambition of the Atlantic Ocean and don’t particularly care, although isn’t that the beauty of her?

Central Florida, the only place in Florida where you don’t get a beach (Incidentally, my tag line for the economic development department there: “Come live in Central Florida, the only place in Florida where you don’t get a beach”).

I’m really excited about the Florida battleground guide, because I actually lived there for about three years, and even more conveniently, I lived in both the most conservative area of the state (The Panhandle) and the most liberal area (I straddled the line between Palm Beach County and Broward County), and my brother lives in the battleground of battlegrounds – Tampa.

MIAMI-DADE COUNTY = Most populous county (Hispanic 65% Black 19% White 15%)

2008: Obama 58% McCain 42%
2004: Kerry 53% Bush 47%
2000: Gore 53% Bush 46%
1996: Clinton 57% Dole 38%

Voter registration:
Democrats: 529K (-15K since 2008)
Republicans: 368K (-14K since 2008)
Political control: Manatees

Miami-Dade is the monster in Florida – housing 1/9 of its diverse population.

Politically, Miami-Dade has one of the most unique vibes in the country, and the obligatory note is that, yes, thanks to its large, primarily Republican Cuban population, the Hispanic vote here does not mean the same as it does across the rest of the nation; so you can’t generalize political trends among Hispanics to the Cuban population here.

To wit: some 59% of Cubans in Miami-Dade called themselves “Republican”, while just 23% of the rest of the county’s population calls itself Republican.

That means that Romney needs the Cuban vote to cut into Obama’s margins with everyone else.

John McCain did well with Cubans, picking up 64% of their vote, but not nearly as well as George W. Bush, who picked up 78% and 75% in 2000 and 2004, respectively.

Thus, look at 70% of Cubans as a key mark for Romney. If he can hit that number, he’ll be in good shape, but that’s a big “if.”

That’s because Republican Cubans are aging, and aging people die and then (usually) can’t vote.

And here's your money stat on that:

McCain won 84% of senior Cubans, while Obama won 55% among the very youngest Cubans (those 29 or under).

The big question is whether that Cuban youth support for Obama was just a reflection of general liberalism with that age group or a genuine move to the Democratic party for that particular group of kids.

The 35% Barack Obama scored with ALL Cubans was the highest since Bill Clinton nabbed that number in 1996, and a 35% number would be good for the president again.

Once you get outside Cubans, though, the good news for Obama is that the Hispanic population turns decidedly Democratic and seems no likelier to vote Republican than Hispanics across the rest of the country (as with pretty much every demographic trend across the country, you can attach the phrase “good news for Obama.”).

One more note: While Miami-Dade is the biggest, it’s not the fastest growing county in Florida by any stretch. From 2000-2010, the county only grew by 10%; whereas, the rest of the state jumped by a 17% clip.

Thus, you’re looking at a pool of voters that remains relatively static and, thus, less exciting and more predictable – good news for analysts.

The final thing I’ll say about Miami is that I hate crime shows that are based there.

= 4th most populous (White 54% Hispanic 25% Black 17%)

2008: Obama 50.8% McCain 48.4%
2004: Bush 53% Kerry 46%
2000: Bush 50% Gore 47%
1996: Clinton 47% Dole 44%

Voter Registration:
Democrats: 284K (-16K since 2008)
Republicans: 232K (-1K since 2008)
Political Control: Manatees

This county is based on a lie, because there are no hills in Hillsborough County.

Thus, "LiesBorough", as I shall call it, sits on the Gulf Coast and houses much of the Tampa/St. Pete area, and is the swingiest county in all Florida.

Since 1960, this county has correctly predicted every single presidential election except one, and as swing counties are want to do, voted twice for George W. Bush; then swung to Barack Obama in 2008.

But just barely.

Beth Reinhard recently wrote a ridiculously good guide to Hillsborough, and I’d like to kindly point you in that direction.

Look around this county of 1.2 million and you’ll find a mash-up of past and future: a solidly Democratic city bracketed by Republican-leaning suburbs; strawberry fields, ranch-style homes, and gentrified urban neighborhoods; Puerto Ricans, Cuban-Americans, African-Americans, Midwestern retirees, college kids, active military, and young families; the brick and wrought iron of historic Ybor City, and the stucco and terra-cotta of the Sun City Center senior community.

.... “To me, it’s the linchpin,” said Peter Hart, a veteran Democratic pollster who has overseen dozens of focus groups in the county, including one last month that analyzed Republicans’ views of presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney. “If you want to understand the swings in the electorate, you are likely to find them in Hillsborough County. It tends to be a good mirror.”

It’s going to be incredibly close again.

The county GOP chair, Art Wood, was so embarrassed by 2008’s loss he told Reinhard that he viewed it as a “personal Masada”, and is determined to prevent a personal Masada from happening again (btw, that means he’s motivated).

The good news for Romney is that the county has lost 16,000 Democratic registrants since 2008, while Republicans have only lost 1,000 registrants (presumably, these residents fled after figuring out that Hillsborough county has no hills and that the county is based on a lie).

As far as demographics go, in 2000, the county was 18% Hispanic and now it’s 25% Hispanic. The black population has stayed the same in that time, so that means the share of non-Hispanic white voters is falling, and the share of Hispanic voters is increasing, which is always a salubrious dynamic for Dems.

Liesborough has fewer old people than elsewhere in Florida – just 12% of its population are seniors, while 17% are, state-wide. If this were 2008, that’d be bad news for Romney, since the only age group McCain won was seniors. But this election has proven slightly different, and there’s polling showing that, nation-wide, seniors are more open to voting for the president, while those in the 35-55 year old bracket are more open to supporting Romney.

Some good news for Romney is that Hillsborough is very sensitive to economic downturns and upturns and its voters seem to care more about that than party affiliation (as opposed to, say, Miami-Dade and Lee Counties, respectively, which are much more wed to voting for the party; not the person).

Not surprisingly then, Reinhard says Hillsborough pays special attention to fiscal issues.

In one obvious sign of the county’s penny-pinching mind-set, tea party activists help lead a successful battle in 2010 against a 1-cent increase in the sales tax to pay for light rail and other transportation projects in the county. The Democratic nominee for governor that year, Alex Sink, hailed from Hillsborough County but won here by only 10,000 votes.

.... “Fiscal conservatism tends to be the common ingredient over the last number of cycles. That definitely trumps the social issues,” Florida Republican strategist Adam Goodman said. “I think Romney will play very well here. People are going to like his business experience.”

With that being the case, Romney has a big opening and, perhaps, a very receptive audience.

One last note: From 2010-2011, the population grew at three times the rate of the rest of Florida. I don’t have the demographic breakdown on that, but as usual, ethnicity will matter a whole lot on that score.

It's very possible that you'll be able to say, once again, that as Liesborough goes, so goes Florida.

= 7th most populous (White 57% Black 30% Hispanic 8%)

2008: McCain 50.3% Obama 49.1%
2004: Bush 58% Kerry 42%
2000: Bush 58% Gore 41%
1996: Dole 50% Clinton 44%

Voter registration:
Democrats: 226K (-18K since 2008)
Republicans: 198K (+2K since 2008)
Political control: Manatees

Duval County is famous for being the home of Jacksonville, which is famous for being not someplace you go on vacation in Florida.

Jacksonville is one of those cities you come home to after a terrific vacation, and as your plane descends and you see your town once again, you turn to the person sitting next to you and ruefully chuckle, “Back to Jacksonville.” In other words: It’s the city version of Monday.

Duval was home to a huge bleed of Republican support in 2008. In 2004, George W. Bush bashed Kerry by 16% in the county; just four years later, McCain won by 1%.

So what happened?

Turnout happened.

In 2008, Obama picked up 44,000 more votes than John Kerry did in 2004; meanwhile, John McCain picked up nearly 10,000 fewer votes than Bush did in 2004.

But unlike many places, Duval hasn’t had huge demographic shifts. The black population has only jumped roughly 2% in the last 10 years and the Hispanic population a small 3%.

So what explains the turnaround?

Well, I posed that question to the The Miami Herald’s top reporter, Marc Caputo, and he wrote back thusly. The nutshell? 2008 was all about black turnout in Duval.

2008 was a change election and what changed in Duval County was that black voters swamped the polls and voted for Barack Obama in huge numbers. In the primary, which didn't count, Obama whipped Hillary Clinton by about 50 % to 33% -- the inverse of the statewide results.

That was the power of the black vote.

It was on display again in the general election. At a September 20 rally, Obama addressed an overflow crowd at Jacksonville's Metropolitan Park, where the capacity was 13,000 while thousands more stood outside to listen. The crowd was overwhelmingly African-American, many clad in T-shits bearing Obama's likeness on a $1,000 bill.

Days before, John McCain could barely muster 3,000. And he said the infamous "the fundamentals of the economy are still strong" comment. Put those ingredients together -- a major Republican gaffe and huge African American numbers and enthusiasm -- and it's almost a wonder McCain won at all. At the time, Sen. Bill Nelson (an astute observer of Florida politics) predicted Obama would win Duval by 2 points. Obviously, he was wrong. But he wasn't far off.

Statewide, African-Americans account for about 13 percent of the voter rolls. In Duval County in 2008, black voters comprised about a quarter of the rolls. So if a candidate can turn black voters on and turn them out to the polls, it can make a huge difference. Ask Alvin Brown. He's Jacksonville's first black mayor, who was elected last year. Democrats also outnumber Republicans in Duval, though many are more Dixiecrats than urban liberals.

So what's the current climate in Duval?

Well, counties rarely get polled exclusively, but North Florida released a survey in April showing that Mitt and Barack were tied at 43% each. To show how tenuous the GOP hold on the county is, Obama led Santorum, at that time, 48%-39%.

Now… Romney is no Santorum, but the spring Santorum vs. Obama poll showed that Duval isn’t solidly red anymore -- especially if you factor high black turnout into your model.

More good news for Obama – in April, his approval rating rebounded to 48% after falling to 41% earlier in the year. Obama might also benefit from the popularity of African-American mayor Alvin Brown, who’s sporting a 75% approval rating in the state.

So far, Obama has been targeting Duval heavily.

In fact, as of the end of June, Obama and his allies had spent over $200,000 more than Romney and his allies on TV ads in Duval. Realistically, Obama doesn’t think he can win the county, but his 2008 state director, Steve Schale, recently said that the president is pushing hard to keep the margins close.

In 2010, Marco Rubio picked up 53% of the vote against the mutually destructive tag team of Kendrick Meek and Charlie Crist, while Rick Scott edged Alex Sink by 6%. But of course, 2010 was a Republican cycle and turnout was way lower than in 2008.

To wit: Approximately 400,000 souls cast votes in the 2008 presidential election. Only 260,000 souls voted in the 2010 midterms. That’s a huge drop, and considering the fact that lower turnout tends to help Republicans, it’s even more doubtful that Romney could replicate Scott or Rubio’s success.

ORANGE COUNTY = 5th most populous (White 46% Hispanic 27% Black 21% Asian 5%)

2008: Obama 59% McCain 40%
2004: Kerry 49.8% Bush 49.6%
2000: Gore 50.1% Bush 48%
1996: Dole 45.9% Clinton 45.7%

Voter Registration:
Democrat: 268K (even since 2008)
Republican: 194K (-5K since 2008)
Political control: Manatees

Orange County is all about Orlando, and Orlando is all about Disney and diversity (relatedly, what party would the Disney characters belong to? Mickey Mouse would probably be a centrist who leans Republican; Minnie would be a soccer mom and key swing voter, Donald Duck is a white, male duck who shoots chipmunks, so he’s probably a Republican, Goofy probably never updated his voter registration, and Pluto is a dog and so it’s ridiculous to even talk about who he’d vote for).

Historically, this has been a battleground county, but that was before Barack Obama rode a wave of demographic change and his general Obama-ness in 2008 to crush John McCain here.

Peter Hamby penned a terrific profile of Orlando and Orange County in June, in which he noted a trend that will likely turn Orange County into a permanent, deep, blue hue.

Among Florida's largest counties, Orange County's Hispanic population grew by 83% between 2000 and 2010, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

He [Steve Schale] also notes that Orange County’s Hispanic population grew faster in the last 10 years than the Hispanic population in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach County.

A big percentage of those new voters are Puerto Rican, and they’re a reliable Democratic constituency.

Obama will win big here. Republicans have made registration gains in many key Florida counties, but not in Orange County, which is slightly more Democratic than it was in 2008, and you can expect an intense registration drive from Team Obama.

Growth continues to be higher in Orange, relative to the rest of the state, which means it will be increasingly important.

= 8th most populous (White 71% Hispanic 18% Black 8%)

2008: McCain 55% Obama 44%
2004: Bush 60% Kerry 39%
2000: Bush 58% Gore 40%
1996: Dole 49% Clinton 40%

This county is shaped, geographically, like Ohio if you look at a map upside down and imagine Ohio’s border nibbled by the Gulf Coast. That’s about as good as I can do.

Lee is in Florida's southwest, and as such, is prime territory for retired Republicans and white sand beaches.

There’s no question Lee will go for Romney, the only question is by how much. In 2008, Obama lopped off about 10% of the GOP advantage in 2004 – a significant paring.

In 2010, Marco Rubio picked up 57% of the vote, while the mutually destructive tag team of Kendrick Meek and Charlie Crist pulled in a combined 42% against Marco.

Meanwhile, Rick Scott drowned Alex Sink by 21% in Lee in 2010, and Republican Pam Bondi won Attorney General by 35% in an open race.

There were some 260K votes in the presidential election, but only about 180K in the 2010 election. That makes comparison with 2010 dangerous. Not only was turnout way lower, but it was also an especially good year for Republicans.

Nevertheless, Romney must do better than McCain’s 11% win in 2008, and it’s probably doable.

Dangerous as comparisons are, Scott and Bondi beat their Democrat foes by an average of 26%, and since 2008, Republicans have picked up 15,000 new registered voters, while Democrats have lost 10,000.

So who are these new registrees? Probably retirees. Seniors make up 24% of the county’s population, which is 7% more than the rest of Florida.

The bad news for Romney is that he’s been underperforming with retirees compared to McCain. The good news for Romney is that seniors are probably much more likely to switch than other more traditionally Democratic groups like the youth and single women.

Romney has a golden opportunity to make a push for big margins with the Buick Buggy set (defined as golf buggies that are made by Buick that don’t exist but should).

Since 2008, Republicans have picked up 15,000 new registrants in Lee, while Dems have lost 10,000. That’s a massive 25,000 gap that works in Romney’s favor.

Further, Lee grew by 40% between 2000 and 2010, while the rest of Florida grew by 17%. Again, all those conservative and upper middle-class transplants from the Midwest are good news for Romney.

My overall take on Florida? Romney should win. Florida still leans conservative, and states that lean conservative (e.g. Missouri and North Carolina) probably aren’t going to vote for Obama this time.

There are too many counties in Florida where Obama clearly overperformed in 2008-- both on turnout and among swing voters.

So far, I’ve written three battleground guides – Missouri (here), Virginia (here), and Florida.

My conclusions? Romney is a lock in Missouri, Obama will probably win Virginia, and Florida will probably go Romney.