Know Your Battleground States 9/9: Florida

Florida, the United States’ incredibly flat protrusion into the sub-tropics, is an enormous and rapidly changing state, perhaps about to overtake New York as the third most populous state in the Union, and by far the biggest of the battleground states with 29 Electoral Votes in play.

Florida entered political legend when the 2000 Presidential contest in the state came down to just a few hundred votes out of more than 5.8 million cast. Weeks of scrutinising disputed ballots and bitter court battles ended with George W Bush winning the state, and with it the Presidency, by just 537 votes after an acrimonious US Supreme Court decision. The world watched in horrified fascination as the nation that has always claimed to be planet’s foremost democracy descended into national crisis over malfunctioning voting machines, butterfly ballots and the notorious hanging chads.

Florida is familiar to many foreigners, of course, as a holiday destination and mainstay of popular culture from Miami Vice to Ricky Martin to CSI: Miami, and has even earned that ultimate indication of pop culture aristocracy, its own Grand Theft Auto game.

Florida's Supreme Court in Tallahassee, scene of much excitement in the post-2000 courtroom wrangles.

Florida is large and complex, and it’s an 11 hour drive from the conservative Gulf Coast military city of Pensacola, very much part of the Deep South, to the ethnic kaleidoscope of the Carribbean’s unquestioned metropolis, Miami, where the politics of Havana and Port au Prince command almost as much attention as those of Washington. With over 1,000 miles of coastline and year-round warmth in most of the state, Florida attracts thousands of immigrants every week, whether New York and Chicago retirees, even more retirees from Britain and Germany, or young working people across the United States and the nations of the Caribbean. At the start of World War 2, Florida was still a sleepy Deep South state, home to just 1.8 million people, with the first retirement condos and beach holiday hotels for New Yorkers having made their appearance in Miami during the interwar period. In the 70 years since, the population has increased tenfold, and Florida has become a parallel political and cultural universe, with an ethnic and social heterogeneity that produces close elections.

Like two other key swing states, Colordo and Nevada, Florida was one of the epicentres of the great American real estate bust, and negative equity and repossession are serious problems in the state. Ghost estates litter Brevard County as they do County Kildare. One of the ironies of the Obama presidency is that under his rule, it is the sunbelt states of his new Democratic coalition which have suffered the most, while old Democratic rustbelt has bounced back dramatically.

All of North Florida belongs to the Deep South, culturally, economically and politically, and this is the Sunshine State’s GOP heartland. Five counties in the region are ‘dry’, prohibiting all alcohol sales.

The Panhandle, which cast 490k votes last time, is the most conservative part of the state, sharing much in common with the Gulf Coast regions of Alabama and Mississippi which it borders. This region has swung heavily to Republicans over the past two decades, and with an African American population relatively low for the Deep South, now posts enormous GOP shares of the vote – even John McCain managed over 80% in Holmes County. Pensacola, the region’s largest city and unsurprisingly the least strongly Republican part of the panhandle, has not supported a Democrat for President since John F Kennedy. The region’s increasingly Republican lean is demonstrated by the fact that while it generated a 120k vote lead for George W Bush in the knife edge election of 2000, McCain netted an almost 180k advantage.


On the opposite coast, where the Atlantic crosses from Florida into Georgia, Jacksonville is another one of those Southern metropolises virtually unknown in Europe despite its large and ever expanding population and booming economy. High turnout among the large Black population in inner-city Jacksonville was not enough to stop John McCain taking a 110k vote lead out of the nearly 670k cast in the First Coast region.

North Central Florida, with its magnolia-lined roads, is slightly more competitive. Democrats win around Gainesville, home to the enormous University of Florida, and keep the Republican margins low in retiree-heavy Ocala, the region’s two largest cities. Some of the rural counties post enormous Republican margins, but others are more mixed, whether due to a large African American population or a heavy smattering of retirees. Overall, McCain took a lead of 47k out of a total vote of half a million in 2008.

Democrats’ one region of relative strength in Florida’s deep north is the Big Bend region, where the Panhandle Coast turns south to form Florida’s main peninsula. State capital Tallahassee is the big population centre in the region. With a large African American population, two big universities with their attendant academic elements, and a high population of public employees, this is the Democrats’ real North Florida stronghold. Some rural counties also vote Democrat here, especially where the Black Belt’s sweep nips briefly across the Georgia line. Overall, the incumbent took a 32k lead from 220k Big Bend votes last time.

South of this area, Florida changes dramatically. The demographics, religious attitudes and politics of the Deep South give way to a state unlike any other in America. Central and South Florida are what the melting pot looks like with the heat turned up.

The Kennedy Space Center

The most politically competitive area, and one of the most intensely contested in this election, is the 85 mile long corridor following the I-4 freeway from Tampa to Orlando. Unlike both the north and the south of the state, where elections are often driven by how motivated rigid ethnic and cultural blocs are to vote, this area is packed with key swing groups. WASP retirees from the Northeast and Midwest are thick on the ground here, as are young and well-educated high-tech workers and socially liberal but fiscally conservative, high-income, women. How well a rapidly exploding Puerto Rican population in the corridor turns out to vote will be another major determinant of Florida’s political destiny. This is another area where voters are sort of used to living at political ground zero, but heartily sick of the election by this stage.

Orlando anchors Central Florida, perhaps best known for Disneyworld. This region has a high population of sun-seeking retirees, not just from other parts of the US, but from Europe as well. Although tourism and servicing retirees are key parts of the economy, Central Florida also has a big high-tech sector, with enormous defence-related electronics facilities and a significant computer game industry. Film-making is also a big local economic activity. Orlando itself is a Democratic stronghold, but the more conservative counties outside, packed with very high-income retirees, mean that W won this region, albeit very narrowly, twice. Barack Obama managed a lead just shy of 67k, in a region which cast almost 970k votes last time.

The seaside condo complexes and suburban sprawl of the Tampa Bay area follow a similar voting pattern to Central Florida, although Gore won this region before Bush swept all four counties of the metro area, narrowly, in 2004. Barack Obama took a lead of just 65k votes out of an enormous total of 1.28 million cast in Florida’s second metropolis.

South of Tampa Bay, the south west coast is another big retirement area, and one which was relatively lightly populated before exploding with new developments in the past 3 decades or so. The old rural Florida element remains a significant section of the electorate here, and this area has particular attraction from retirees from other parts of the South giving it a more conservative bent than similar South Florida regions. McCain managed a lead of just under 80k from a total vote of 860k in this region.

Inland South Florida, away from the hotels and cities of the coast, is the self-styled Florida Heartland, the southernmost exclave of the Deep South, which resembles regions 300 miles to the north more than its neighbours. Before the Democrats’ final collapse among White Southerners, this area tended to have a clear, but far from overwhelming, Republican lean. Although locals’ political preferences have shifted, an influx of outsiders, although less dramatic than in other parts of South Florida, has meant headline voting figures have not changed much in recent years. John McCain took a lead of 30k from 330k votes cast in the Heartland.

Pier at Daytona Beach Shores

Florida’s long Atlantic coast is another crucial swing area. Most counties in this region have areas of real strength for both parties, as well as high concentrations of swing voters. Tourism and retirement are part of the economic story here, but so is the Kennedy Space Centre. This part of the state has been hit particularly heavily by the real estate collapse and home repossessions and abandonments. This is a something of bellwether region, with Bush winning narrowly twice and Barack Obama eking out a margin of just 20k or so out of 850k votes cast.

Miami's Freedom Tower

The final part of Florida’s complex regional jigsaw is the Greater Miami area, whose four counties cast over 2.2 million votes in the last election, giving a margin of 530k to the incumbent, more than twice his total margin of victory in the Sunshine State. Voting here is driven by loyal ethnic blocs, with Republicans doing well among Cubans and high-income Whites, and Democrats netting large votes from the Jewish, African American, Haitian and non-Cuban Latino communities. While the Jewish school principal from New York retired to Palm Beach is a classic election stereotype, his Black colleague retired to Fort Lauderdale is less celebrated, but just as important to Democratic hopes of victory in the State. Democrats also cite evidence that younger, Florida-born, Cubans are much more balanced in their voting preferences than their parents and grandparents.

Obama’s huge 2008 vote in this region was driven by massive turnout among minority communities. How able he will be to repeat this is open to serious question. Early voting, key for Obama, was massively curtailed in Florida this year, and the total number of early votes cast seems to be not much different from 2008 (final figures aren’t yet available) despite significant population growth.

Early voting curtailment may put the state beyond the incumbent’s reach. pegs the Romney polling average lead at 1.8%, Huffington Post finds it to be much closer at 0.2%, but both agree the challenger has his nose in front in the Sunshine State. Barack Obama visited Florida yesterday, while Mitt Romney started out there this morning, a sign that both regard the state as still in play. Unlike 2000, Democrats can probably afford to lose Florida and still win the Electoral College. The GOP can’t.

Romney’s definite mini-surge in the final few weeks probably makes him just about safe here, and moved the front line to the rust belt, and those other swing-states changed dramatically by rapid population growth, Colorado and Virginia.

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  • Yep: we all knew it would end up here. Most of us haven’t recovered from the 2000 ‘stolen election’ — one way or the other (and how many died as a result?).

    Before we all pack it in for another cycle, allow me to point to one of the more illuminating clips I’ve seen (and recommended by Chris Cillizza). This is why, sooner or later, the Supreme Court will have to revisit Citizens United, if not to reverse, at least to enforce full disclosure on all that ‘dark money’:

  • Awesome link, thank you Malcolm. In my experience, Americans in the battleground states find the entire exercise like having a pneumatic drill thrust in one’s head, while 80% of the country is ignored. Citizens’ United is a disaster for America.

  • Dewi

    Thanks for these Sammy – really enjoyed – Obama to win just……

  • Framer

    Looks like I was wrong and Romney will take New Hampshire after all and each of the other swing states. After his performance in Sanford (lovely little town), Florida is certainly in the bag.
    Ever seen a more dispirited crowd than that for Barry in Madison?
    And Pennsylvania is now a strong possibility.
    Even the BBC is showing signs of nerves e.g. Andrew Marr.
    A lot of interview booking for Wednesday will have to be scrapped. There is no go-to pro-Republican commentator in the whole of the UK so how will they cope!

  • Greenflag

    ‘There is no go-to pro-Republican commentator in the whole of the UK so how will they cope!’

    They won’t have to -they’ve already collected their winnings from the bookies on Obama’s victory . So they’ll have plenty of dosh for to celebrate when the official results are made known .

    Back to the drawing board for the Ayn Rand ideologues and Tea Party gobshites who have together made it impossible for the GOP to win this Presidential election .

    If they can’t win under current circumstances when will they ever?

  • Mick Fealty

    Framer, how are you calling New Hampshire? A week ago our go to NH guy on the Late Night Panel Dante Scala was saying he could see all state seats – electoral collage and Congress – toppling completely one or the other. But he wouldn’t then say which:

  • pauluk

    Walk in the park for Romney. It’s all over in the Sunshine State.

  • Framer

    Dante will be maintaining his reputation anyway – for inscrutability.
    The Boston influence will not be strong enough in NH to overcome the conservative tendency in the state given the Obama vote failing to come out as before.

  • Mick Fealty

    He said a 2% pitch one way or the other and all pennies drop into place. That’s purely a description of how tight it is up there.

    As for reputations, well if big data can call a contest as tight as this one right maybe the next one will have less time for listening to the usual chorus of shills and more time testing the candidates?

  • The Boston influence will not be strong enough in NH to overcome the conservative tendency in the state

    A bizarre reading of that state. You should read my profile of the Granite State. The “Boston influence” is the backbone of the Republican vote in New Hampshire. Further upstate, old Swamp Yankee NH has been trending Democrat for years, just like Vermont and Maine.

    The bit of Southern New Hampshire in the Boston commuter belt, packed with emigrés from the Bay State, is the most strongly Republican region in New England.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I do hope pauluk and framer are going to be around to explain their optimism in a couple of days time.

    Reminds me of the UCUNF days, when multiple Westminster seat victories were predicted and there was even talk of running for election within the RoI.

  • Alias

    Gerry, despite your left wing bias, I am full of admiration for these 9 threads and the command of the detail in them.

    I’m hoping that Romney’s down to the wire last minute positivity will swing it for him, and America will be saved from its slow descent into a replica of Europe – another formerly great region destroyed by government.

  • Framer

    By Boston influence I did not mean spillover of people but of the east coast liberal ideology although there would also be retirees like teachers buying up farmhouses quite far north not to mention a seepage of statism from Canada.
    One never explains optimism CS, one lives it. Try some.

  • Kevsterino

    Hope and optimism are both essential to right living. However, I think Obama wins tomorrow with around 290 electoral college votes. Too many people would have to be mistaken in the same fashion for it to be otherwise.

    Not saying Romney can’t win tomorrow. I still remember the newspaper front page of “Dewey Beats Truman”. It is just not very likely.

  • Thanks Gerry for your comprehensive analysis of the 9 swing states..
    Although I tried I could not find any reason to disagree with your conclusions.
    On the basis of the most recent pollsI believe that Obama will win by303-235 or with a high turnout he could win Florida and obtain 332.However given the recent problems with eary voting I agree with your analysis that this is unlikely.
    However having spent the last month examining the internals of more than 200 polls I still have doubts as to the assumptions and methods adopted by the polling organisations. Sometimes I have nightmares and wake up thinking that Gallup and Rasmussen are right and Romney will win.The low response rate normally below 10% and the assumptions about enthusiasm and turn out among various age and ethnic groups used in the weightings may create a bias within the sample used.
    Under normal circumstances this would not matter but given that Obamas lead is so small (2-4%) in many of the swing states a lack of enthusiasm,bad weather queues at polling station ,questions of voter identification etc could erode Obamas lead.
    If this happens in one Obama leaning state it is likely to happen in a number of others particularly in mid west and give Romney victory.
    I am not predicting this I believe Obama will win but I believe we should count chickens until the final vote is counted

  • Gerry,

    That was an awesome task you undertook and you did it well. I enjoyed every post – a lot.
    One question – At the end of the day, will the American people win, or are all of us, around the world, well and truly f**ked by the Masters of the Universe?

  • Mister_Joe @ 7:25 am:


  • Greenflag

    I see Nate Silver has Obama with a 50.3 % chance of taking Florida in which case if it so happens it’ll be an early night for those who just want to know who wins the Presidency .

    Now heres a question for anybody out there in Mid West USA or anywhere indeed who knows the answer .

    Why is Illinois a dark blue certainty and Ohio a probable Blue but the state twixt both these i.e Indiana a roaring red 99% Romney probable win

    It seems somehow an outlier given geography . Is it that Southern Indiana is more populous than the more northerly part of the State ?

    Any answers gratefully read ?

  • Kevsterino

    @Greenflag, it’s the hoosiers. Whenever I’ve been to Indianapolis, it felt like Salt Lake City. I don’t know if that helps but I always felt like I was in a very conservative place whenever I visited. The business environment there is still suit and tie.

    all the best

  • Greenflag

    Hoosier ?

    Where does the term come from ?

    One theory

    “Who’s ear?” asked while toeing a torn-off ear lying on the bar room floor the morning after a brawl.

    Or the abbreviated hoosier from the

    “Who’s yer father?’

    The best evidence, however, suggests that “Hoosier” was a term of contempt and opprobrium common in the upland South and used to denote a rustic, a bumpkin, a countryman, a roughneck, a hick or an awkward, uncouth or unskilled fellow. Although the word’s derogatory meaning has faded, it can still be heard in its original sense, albeit less frequently than its cousins “Cracker” and “Redneck.”

    In Ireland we call them Culchies /Bogtrotters / but from a safe distance 😉

    The folks above described don’t sound much like they are suited and tied 😉 ?

  • Turns out I may have been too pessimistic on the President’s hopes in Florida…

  • Greenflag

    Just about Gerry -I’m off to bed and still don’t know if Obama has carried Florida -If he has it’ll be the icing on the cake ‘

    Thanks again for a great series on this election . I think I predicted 303 EC votes –

    Well done Ohio ! and well done the USA 🙂

  • He has a nose in front and the vast bulk of what’s yet to be counted in FL is solid Dem territory.

  • Congratulations on your prediction.Thanks for your profiles of the swing states.
    Thank god its over no more nighmares of the bigots and nutters taking over.I can get to a normal life without worrying about opinion polls.

  • Tomas Gorman


    How did you get it so wrong?

  • Mick Fealty

    Oh yes, and Framer too?

  • Kevsterino

    @Greenflag, hoosier, like a lot of such terms, means different things in different regions of the country. Outside Indiana, it means the country bumpkin. In Indiana itself, it means upstanding, honest straight-shooter. The state nickname they bestow upon themselves is the “Hoosier State”. If you have ever watched old American TV, think Ward Kleaver from “Leave it to Beaver”. It is outside of one urban area, a reliable Republican heartland. btw, a bumpkin can put on a suit and tie. I’ve seen them and they are pretty scary ;o)