When I worked my first complete election cycle in southeast Florida, stories about the fall of the “Condo Commandos” were already abundant in Broward County though they were reaching an apex of power in Palm Beach. This was the 1998 cycle and it was a wipe-out year for Florida Democrats. Three cabinet Democrats were reelected but the party was wiped out in legislative elections and Jeb Bush won the Governorship in a landslide. Democrat Buddy MacKay won only six counties. The next day as the post-mortems came in on the Florida Democratic debacle in what was a year the national party had exceeded expectations a theory began to float. Broward and Palm Beach counties had run up large margins for MacKay despite his weakness in other parts of the state. The state’s second and third largest counties had given over 60% of the vote to a candidate that won less than 45% statewide. This was due to the high turnout in Condos, largely Jewish in the two counties. But on that day after the election in 1998, discussion began in earnest that the condo vote was dying off in Broward and that the county which is full of suburban bedroom communities would soon vote more like other parts of the state. Palm Beach, on the other hand was seeing the zenith of Condo power in the late 1990’s, perhaps even in 1998 when MacKay’s dropoff in Palm Beach from Governor Chiles 1994 vote was the lowest of any urban county in the state.
In the 1970’s as condos began to dot the landscape of Broward and Palm Beach County while Cuban immigrants moved into Dade County and began the process of turning the most national Democratic county in the southeast US (it must be remembered in the 1970’s the vast majority of local elected officials and state legislators in the south were Democrats but very few were liberal national Democrats- Dade County was the most liberal county in the southeast USA) into a competitive partisan battlefield. Those who moved into condos were the daughters and sons of the New Deal and liberal Democratic politics. Their presence moved the state’s Democratic Party irrevocably to the left. Prior to the development of condos, the Florida Democratic Party was a conservative, establishment, Chamber of Commerce oriented party whose liberal wing was confined to Dade County. Miami and Miami Beach were more like liberal northern cities that could be safely marginalized as it often was by the Democratic establishment which was almost entirely southern in its approach and makeup. But by the mid 1970’s the state’s most electable Democrats were largely left-of-center Dade County politicians who were the first to tap into the condo vote, in northern Dade and southern Broward (The belt from Miami Beach to Hollywood was the original powerful condo area). By the 1980’s the condos running from northern Dade to central Palm Beach were beginning to dominate statewide Democratic politics moving the party forever to the center-left.
I first volunteered on a campaign in 1982, when I was eight years old. At the time I had little perspective but thinking back as Coral Springs and Broward County resident, the Condos were everything. Volunteers were always dispatched to condos. Single-family neighborhoods were largely a waste of time it seemed. In fact, some theories were floated that engaging these areas might wake up Republicans who were unlikely to vote. Keep in mind prior to the era of cable news, voter turnout was at its lowest ebb in American history. The 1990’s saw the lowest voter turnout of any era since full enfranchisement.
The trend of condo dominance continued throughout the 1980’s. Local elections were decided in the condos and when Lawton Chiles ran for Governor in 1990 against incumbent Republican Bob Martinez, the Broward and Palm Beach condos turned out in a massive way,. In 1994 Broward provided three times the victory margin for Chiles close-shave reelection against Jeb Bush. It was at this point that the condo influence was at its height and the talk of everyone statewide. Republicans who were on the cusp of taking over the state became obsessed with breaking the block of votes that came out of Broward and Palm Beach counties for Democrats. To do so would flip the state permanently. Jeb Bush in 1998 would spend much of his energy and effort trying to break this block of votes. He was largely unsuccessful in this effort even though he peeled off many “leaders” in the organizations and won an overwhelming statewide landslide.
Condo Commandos dominated the political conversation and GOTV efforts. They elected Judges, School Board members, County Commissioners and ultimately provided massive margins for any Democrat running statewide. The sheer power of condo voting was a sight to behold in those days- well organized buses of senior voters coming to polling places all completely educated on how to vote. Voter turnout in some of these areas was off the charts. They were a legacy of New Deal era northern politics exported by former FDR voters and the children of FDR voters to southeastern Florida.
As discussed above, by 1998 the fear was that the legions of condo leaders were dying off. Some of the most prominent leaders of the movement, Tillie Rothstein in Broward and Jack Babich in Palm Beach had just passed away. Demographics were beginning to change within condo communities and the fear was that Palm Beach and Broward would revert to the way they voted prior to the late 1970’s when wealthy coastal communities dominated the landscape and voted Republican.
The era of Condo dominance in Palm Beach began more or less in the late 1980’s at a time when the political structure in the county was polarized between north and south. In Broward, the entire county west of I-95 had more or less shared a strong Democratic structure and a sense of unity and purpose. In both counties the condos turned out in such large numbers that they completely dominated county offices that were elected at-large rather then in districts. Non-condo activists began pressing for single-member districts, which eventually came. While this diminished the county-wide importance of some condos in certain elections, it also served to magnify the importance of other condo communities which now would dominate elections in smaller single-member districts.
While concerns about the condos diminishing importance were being aired Al Gore ran up a big margin in Condo areas and in both Palm Beach and Broward Counties in 2000. But by the 2002 Governor’s race and the 2004 Presidential campaign it would be obvious some leakage was occurring in these reliable Democratic areas. Another strategy was needed. Condos were still important but not the vote-generating machines they had long been.
What has happened since 2008 (with the exception of 2010) in Broward and Palm Beach Counties is that the Democrats have taken advantage of some of the ddemographicshifts in single-family neighborhoods to mobilize voters on the ground. This is more complicated than organizing Condo areas but the Obama campaigns and now the Crist campaign have made a science of it. The Palm Beach Democratic Party has also taken an excellent program originally implemented in Boynton Beach Condo areas and made it a countywide precinct organizing principle. This different way to reach voters has ensured that both counties remain firmly in the Democratic column albeit in a different manner. Today, issue-oriented activists are the most powerful people locally- the new Condo Commandos are environmentalists, women’s leaders, LGBT leaders and labor unions.
The demise of the Condo Commandos seems to have impacted primary turnout more than anything. Back in the day, Condos provided the bulk of primary votes and since most elected officials locally were more or less selected in Democratic Primaries. The lower turnout recently in southeast Florida during Democratic Primaries can probably be directly traced to the demise of condo organizations and the declining power of the condo vote.