Sunshine Sweepstakes: Which Florida Will Show Up in 2004?
A prediction: One of the great political parlor games of the next two years will involve prognostications about the fate of Florida in 2004.
A question: Can President Bush count on carrying the Sunshine State next year, or will the Democratic nominee (whether or not it turns out to be Florida Sen. Bob Graham) be poised to win it, forcing Bush to carry states that he lost in 2000 to have any chance of winning a second term? [IMGCAP(1)]
To some, the idea that Florida will be competitive again next year is self- evident, and their argument begins with the 2000 presidential results in the state.
Given all of the controversy about military absentees, hanging chads, butterfly ballots and felons who voted, it’s arguable whether more Floridians went to the polls in November 2000 intent on voting for Republican Bush or Democrat Al Gore. But in looking toward 2004, it doesn’t really matter who “won” Florida or would have won it had certain votes been counted.
The one thing on which everyone seems to agree is that Florida voters were virtually evenly divided between Bush and Gore.
For many political observers, the tightness of the 2000 presidential race is conclusive evidence that the 2004 presidential contest in Florida will be a dogfight, with neither party having an initial advantage.
Demographic trends also seem to guarantee a close race in the state. Hispanic growth in Florida primarily is among non-Cubans, which should benefit the Democratic presidential nominee. In addition, Cuban-Americans may not be so reliably Republican in 2004, since the Elian Gonzales case, which mobilized Cuban-Americans to get behind Bush, will be years removed.
And Democrats have run well in other statewide federal races. President Bill Clinton carried the state by more than 300,000 votes (better than 5 points) in 1996, and he lost it four years earlier by just 100,000 votes (40.9 percent to 39 percent).
In addition to the Democrats’ recent competitiveness in presidential races, the party now holds both of the state’s Senate seats, with Bill Nelson (D) scoring with a margin of just under 5 points in a 2000 open-seat contest.
Finally, the state’s most recent party registration figures continue to show just under 4 million Democrats and almost 3.6 million Republicans — an advantage of 400,000 for the Democrats in the state.
But if there are numbers proving that Florida is very much in play in 2004, there are other numbers that make the case that, in spite of the tight race in 2000, Bush has a real partisan advantage in the state when he runs for re-election.
First, the state’s party registration numbers actually show growing Republican strength over the past decade, not good news for Democrats. In 1990, there were 3.1 million Democrats and 2.4 million Republicans — a Democratic advantage of 700,000 registered voters, much larger than today’s margin. The registration figures, therefore, don’t add to the case for Florida’s competitiveness. [IMGCAP(2)]
Second, and possibly more important, recent Florida elections don’t paint a picture of an increasingly competitive state.
After November’s elections, Republicans hold an overwhelming 81-39 advantage in the state House and a 26-14 edge in the state Senate. They also represent 18 of the state’s 25 U.S. House districts. While legislative and Congressional districts can be drawn to exaggerate one party’s strength in a state, and incumbency can be a powerful factor in both kinds of races, the GOP’s majorities are so overwhelming that they suggest a clear Republican advantage in the state.
In addition, Democrats in Florida and nationally made the defeat of Gov. Jeb Bush (R) a top priority last year. They failed miserably, and the governor won re-election by 13 percent and a margin of more than 650,000 votes.
Democrats hoped to send a message to the president by upsetting his brother, who was seeking to become the first two-term Republican governor in the state’s history. But Bill McBride, who was often characterized as an ideal opponent (since he was a Vietnam veteran, came from Central Florida and did not have an extensive legislative record), turned out to be a relatively ineffective candidate.
If voters in the Sunshine State found the name “Bush” as polarizing as some Democrats had hoped, they wouldn’t have been able to vote for Jeb Bush. And if they voted for Jeb, it suggests that they are open to voting for his brother next fall.
Republicans also won in two other statewide races last year. Charlie Crist (who was the sitting Education commissioner) was elected Florida attorney general by a margin of better than 300,000 votes, and Charles Bronson was elected commissioner of Agriculture by more than 700,000 votes. Their margins are further evidence of Republican strength in the state.
Given all of these numbers, it’s difficult not to wonder which was the aberration — the 2000 presidential dead heat or the 2002 Republican blowout. The answer may not be as obvious as you initially assumed.