Today let’s compare a county break down the 1996 Presidential Race where Bill Clinton as an incumbent won the state overwhelmingly (keep in mind Clinton lost Florida in 1992 by under two points) to Barack Obama’s three point win 2008. These were the two best results by Democrats in Florida since Harry Truman’s 1948 victory. Throughout the period of 1952 to 1988, Florida was more Republican than the Southern average but by 2000 it was the most Democratic southern state in Presidential elections. Florida was Dwight Eisenhower’s best southern state, Barry Goldwater’s best state in the country outside of his home state of Arizona and the hard-core racist deep south states, Richard Nixon’s 4th best state in 1972 (and Holmes County was his best county in the country, and Florida [performed 11 points above the national average for Nixon) and both Ronald Reagan and George Bush’s best southern states in 1980, 1984 and 1988. In fact, in 1980, Florida ran a full seven points ABOVE the southern average for Reagan. Then Bill Clinton turned the state irrevocably away from that long standing pattern with the close 1992 loss. What is most interesting about the 2008 and 2012 Obama victories is that his coalition was almost completely different than Clinton’s except for Broward County.
For President Obama, Florida was his second best southern state in both 2008 and 2012. It is also worth noting that turnout for the 1996 Presidential Election where Bill Clinton abandoned liberal principles resulted in the smallest turnout for any Presidential election as a percentage of the eligible electorate since before the Great Depression. This is inspite of the fact that Ross Perot attracted many voters to the polls who would not have otherwise turned out.
Note: This study is two-party vote ONLY, and does not include votes cast for third party candidates including H. Ross Perot in 1996.
Three biggest declines Clinton 1996 vs. Obama 2008
All nine counties where Obama suffered a more than twenty point decline from Clinton’s percentage were north of Ocala. These conservative north Florida Democrats have gradually been leaving the party. It is difficult to completely dismiss the issue of race when evaluating the numbers from the three counties listed above and the additional six counties where Obama’s percentage declined by over 20% from Clinton’s.
Interestingly, one county in northwest Florida where Obama improved on Clinton’s performance was Escambia. Bill Clinton’s record of dodging the draft and protesting the Vietnam War made him unpopular from the word go in military oriented western Florida. Unlike 1996 when the Democratic speaker designee was from the county and every legislative race was contested in the area, today the Democrats are leaving every legislative district west of the Apalachicola River unopposed. While that may make sense when looking at the decline in Democratic performance in the likes of Holmes, Washington and Walton counties, it makes no sense in Escambia. We trust that the Obama campaign will be working to get the vote out in Pensacola.
Three biggest gains Clinton 1996 vs. Obama 2008
The three counties where Obama improved the most were all metropolitan Orlando counties further demonstrating the rapid changes in demographics/attitudes in that area. The worst decline for Obama from Clinton’s numbers of 1996 in a non completely rural county was in Sumter, which mixes traditional southern Democrats with the growing voting power of the Villages. It is entirely possible many of the white Republicans that previously made Orange and Seminole counties GOP locks have moved to Sumter and Lake in the past sixteen years.
It is worth noting an eleven point increase plus increased turnout in Orange County (population over 1 million in 2008) probably more than makes up for the steep decline in performance throughout rural north Florida where each counties swing against Obama represented only a few thousand votes.
The full county by county numbers can be found below.
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