The Democrats last won a Governor’s race in 1994 which was before the current era of Democratic competitiveness of Presidential elections in the state began (The Democrats have basically won 4 of the last 6 Presidential elections in the state, the 2000 election being unquestionably won by Al Gore if you consider voter intent). Prior to Bill Clinton’s 1996 victory in the state, Florida was solidly Republican in Presidential elections. In fact in the 1980’s Florida was the most Republican state in the southeast. By 2000, it was the most Democratic state in the region. In 2008, 2012 and 2016, Florida was the second most Democratic state in the region behind Virginia.
With 2018 being an off-year election where Democrats are looking to win the Governorship for the first time in over two decades, looking back at 1994 might not be as irrelevant as many think. But it is important to contrast that to the 2014 results and realize outside of Broward County, the Democrats electoral coalition has shifted dramatically. But Democrats must be concerned about a potential failure to recreate the 2008/2012 turnout in urban counties again for 2014. Thus it might be wise to start thinking about other parts of state and at the very least cutting Republican margins of victory in several counties. How this impact who the Democrats nominate – someone like Gwen Graham who ran ahead of Crist in most of the former CD-2 in 2014 (most importantly in Bay County) seems a strong nominee based on this but it must be pointed out she’s run for office just once, and that could constitute a “one-off,” due to a largely unpopular incumbent, Steve Southerland.
In 1994, Lawton Chiles won reelection by just over 70,000 votes statewide. In 2012, President Obama carried Florida in his reelection by almost the same exact raw vote margin, and in 2014, Governor Crist lost by a similar small margin to Republican Rick Scott. However, the consistencies between the vote numbers stop there. Chiles won by combining the traditional Democratic counties of Leon, Alachua and Volusia, with close victories in a large number of rural north Florida counties and runaway wins in Broward and Palm Beach counties. This was the traditional Democratic road map to victory from 1970 until 1996.
Chiles was beaten along the I-4 corridor even in his home county of Polk, carrying just Pinellas (by an extremely narrow margin) and Volusia. The Governor was beaten throughout the traditional Republican “horseshoe” which at the time was anchored by the Orlando area. Chiles also in 1994 became the first person to win the Governorship without winning Hillsborough County in modern Florida history (Rick Scott would become the second in 2010 and repeated the feat in 2014 albeit having cut Crist’s expected margin in the county substantially).
In 2012, President Obama won reelection and carried the state because of his performance in urban areas. He was routed throughout the rural areas of north Florida, and in the traditionally Republican areas of southwest Florida. Two years later, Crist’s electoral map looked similar. In 2016, Hillary Clinton lost Florida with an even smaller base . As the below chart indicates, Crist’s gains in the Orlando Metropolitan Area were most significant when compared to the Chiles result in 1994, and reinforces the shifting demographics and growing urban/rural split in the state. It is also worth noting that even though Crist did not carry Duval County, he ran better there than Chiles did. Duval County/Jacksonville throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s was electorally polarized by race with very few white voters continuing to support Democrats at the top of the ticket, and virtually no black voters supporting the GOP.
Additionally, Broward County which accounted for three times Chiles margin of victory in 1994, has grown even more Democratic which is contrary to the conventional wisdom that was prevalent in the 1990’s. After the 1998 loss for Buddy MacKay, where he still won Broward and Palm Beach by large margins but was crushed just about everywhere else in the state, a theory began to be floated that when elderly Jewish condo leaders died off, Broward and Palm Beach would gradually shift towards the Republicans. As we’ve discussed on this site, Palm Beach in the 2012 and 2016 elections underperformed for Democrats but Broward has grown stronger even as those leaders passed on.
Miami-Dade is also rapidly moving towards Broward like levels in Democratic performance, as indicated by recent performances performance. As recently as 2002 when Jeb Bush was the GOP nominee running for re-election, the Republicans carried Miami-Dade County at the top-of-the-ticket.
While the Democratic percentage fell by double-digits in 18 counties, each of these counties with three exceptions are classified as “small” having a population under 100,000 as of 2014. In each Metropolitan Counties (over a 1,000,000) Crist performed better than Chiles had twenty years earlier with the exception of Palm Beach where the percentages were nearly identical.
In fact, several small counties in Big Bend and Panhandle backed the Democrats as late as 2010. Below is the map from the 2002 election, the biggest landslide for the GOP in Florida history. Bill McBride won a total of three counties outside the Big Bend and was beaten statewide by 13 points. McBride’s candidacy represents the low water mark for Democrats at the top-of-the-ticket in the era where Florida is a mega-state. Also significantly, this was the last top-of-the-ticket contest in Florida where the GOP candidate carried Miami-Dade County and the second-to-last where the Republican carried Orange County. Both counties have in recent years followed the urban core trend in this country and raced toward massive Democratic majorities.
The entire comparison chart of county percentages in 1994 and 2014 can be found below. Two party vote counted only.
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