Fortunately, President Obama has another strategic option for re-election that involves targeting America’s new majority in suburbia, a strategy that will probably work in both Florida and Ohio, plus most other places.
In his classic study The Future of American Politics, Samuel Lubell studied the presidential vote in the 10 largest cities in the Northeast and Midwest regions from the 1930 census. (Those cities were New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Baltimore, Boston, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee.) In a chapter titled “The Revolt of the City,” Lubell showed how the Democratic coalition in the big cities was created by Al Smith in 1928 and greatly expanded by Franklin D. Roosevelt after that. FDR in the 1940s, Harry Truman in 1948, and John Kennedy in 1960 were all carried into the White House on the backs of urban voters. It became an article of political faith that Democrats needed to run up huge margins in the Northern big cities to win.
But by the end of the 1960s, suburban population was catching up rapidly to the central cities. In fact, Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey lost the 1968 election in no small part because suburban voters overmatched city voters in key states like Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Missouri. By the 1970s, the familiar divide between Democratic big cities and Republican rural areas had become a more complex three-way competition between cities, suburbs, and rural areas.
And here is where Florida comes in: since 1945, it has been the fastest-growing Southern state, gaining 21 electoral votes (compared to 15 in Texas). While some of this growth has come by immigration from Latin America, much of it has been from migration from the Frost Belt. By the 1980 census, fully 51% of white Floridians were born outside the South. As Merle and Earl Black wrote in Politics and Society in the South:
Florida, whose tropical climate attracted retirees and military installations in abundance, was unique in the scope of its northernization. In 1980 it possessed two-fifths of all the Yankees living in the South.
Since a majority of Floridians came from the Frost Belt, it stands to reason that its politics would eventually resemble that of middle class voters elsewhere. That pretty much happened. Beginning in 1980, the year Ronald Reagan defeated native Southerner Jimmy Carter in every Southern state except Georgia, the voting patterns in Florida have been very similar to those of Frost Belt suburbanites in the large metro areas.
Excepting the Boston metro area (Massachusetts was the only state in America to vote for George McGovern in 1972), the partisan split in the suburbs of the nine largest Frost Belt areas (New York, Chicago, Philly, Detroit, etc.) since November of 1980 has been within 5 percentage points of the Florida statewide result. For example, in 1980, Reagan beat Carter in Florida by 17 points (56-39%). He also carried the suburbs of our nine largest Frost Belt areas by 18 points (54-46%). In 1996, Bill Clinton carried Florida by 6 points and the largest Northern suburbs by 8 points. In 2000, Al Gore carried the Northern suburbs by three points while Florida was a 49-49 near-draw that had to be decided by the courts. Indeed, 2008 was a partial exception to this rule as President Obama was a little stronger in Northern suburbia due to his favorite-son status in Illinois. But John McCain’s performance in Florida (48%) was within 5 points of his showing in the big Northern suburbs (43%).
Why the convergence between the Florida results and those in the largest Northern suburbs? The reason is probably because both places are populated by the same kind of middle class voters. Since suburbia should cast at least half of the national vote in 2012 and Florida is majority-suburban (62% in the 2008 exit poll, same as Ohio), a candidate who carries suburbia is likely to win both Florida and nationally — including in Ohio.
It is true that no Republican in the last 100 years has won the White House without carrying Ohio. But when was the last time a Democrat won Florida and lost nationally? That was in 1924, when Florida was still part of the “Democratic solid South” and not really contested by Republicans. Since the rise of Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, victory in Florida has meant victory nationally for Democratic candidates every time. In the 21st century, Florida has emerged as the ultimate battleground state and guarantor of Democratic triumphs nationally. If Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 had won Florida, they would have been elected president. (In fairness to Mr. Galston, the same is true for Ohio.) As in Florida and nationally, suburbanites are the key constituency.
So candidates from both parties should by all means pay attention to Ohio — but also remember that Colorado and especially Florida hold the keys to the future. Sure, Ohio would likely deliver a national majority in the Electoral College for Mr. Obama, but so would Florida.