Can Democrats make a reasonable play at cutting western panhandle margins?

By Michael Rivera – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54361960

Recently Florida Democratic Party (FDP) officials led by President Sally Boynton Brown and Chairman Stephen Bittel made a long overdue visit to the western Panhandle, a vote rich area especially when compared to the areas east of the Apalachicola River (excepting Leon County of course) that previous regimes in the FDP have seemingly been obsessive about winning. It was in these areas west of the Apalachicola River, that much like the medium-sized counties of central Florida and the interior of the state carried Donald Trump to victory in Florida last year.

The western panhandle has just under 5% of Florida’s population but as the chart below shows, it has provided (depending on your perspective) the critical margins for Republicans in the last two election cycles. If you consider the region as one block of votes, in 2016 the margin for Donald Trump (217, 834 votes) offset Democratic margins in any one county except Broward and Miami-Dade and was larger than Trump’s winning statewide margin. In 2014, Charlie Crist lost the area by a smaller margin than Hillary Clinton did two years later (probably a bi-product of lower turnout and the number of state workers in the eastern part of the region) but it was still twice the margin by which he lost statewide.  

The area is dominated by military ties and began turning on the Democrats much earlier than other traditionally “southern” parts of the state. The First Congressional District gave Richard Nixon one of his highest percentages nationally in 1972 (it had backed George Wallace by a wide margin in 1968) and under-performed for Jimmy Carter in 1976 and 1980 relative to other traditionally “southern” areas. Republican Gubernatorial candidates most notably Bob Martinez in 1986 and Jeb Bush in 1994 did very well west of the Apalachicola River even while the Democratic nominees were more successful in other traditionally “southern” areas. The area also started elected Republicans to the legislature as early as the late 1960’s, though they did not completely eviscerate the Democratic presence in local delegations until the 1998 and 2000 elections.

Among the most effective and influential Democrats of the later half of the twentieth century in this state hailed from Pensacola – Reubin Askew, but his politics were largely out of step even in his era with the region’s conservatism. Democrats have since become irrelevant in the area – Joe Scarborough’s 1994 Congressional in CD-1 flipped a district long held by conservative Democrats such as Earl Hutto and Bob Sikes and between 1992 and 2000 Democrats went from a majority in the legislative delegations of the region to having zero representation save one district that was anchored elsewhere but elected Will Kendrick (later a party switcher himself) who lived in Franklin County.

The below chart illustrates the types of margins the GOP has taken out of the region in raw numbers and why Boynton Brown and Bittell wisely visited the area.

 

County Population Trump 16′ margin Scott 14′ margin
Escambia 299,114 31256 27275
Okaloosa 183,482 48057 34012
Bay 169,856 40321 27944
Santa Rosa 154,104 49128 29062
Walton 55,793 18834 10797
Jackson 49,292 7848 3035
Washington 24,935 6369 3760
Holmes 19,873 6624 3245
Gulf 15,844 3605 2045
Calhoun 14,750 3411 1474
Franklin 11,596 2381 871
Total 998,639 217834 143520

 

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