Florida Suburbanites the Key to Victory in 2012

One intriguing question about President Obama’s reelection strategy has been whether he should target classic Midwestern “swing” states like Ohio and Michigan, or go after the new battlegrounds of the South and West like Florida, Colorado and Nevada. Many pundits recognize the fact that Ohio almost always votes for the national winner, missing only in 1944 and 1960 in the last 115 years. But Florida, nationally famous for close elections and political brawling in the 21st century, may be eclipsing Ohio as the nation’s premier battleground state due to its size, ethnic diversity, and suburban majority that is now representative of the nation.

William Galston, who served in Bill Clinton’s White House, wrote in early 2011 in The New Republic:

[T]he Obama’s 2012 campaign will focus more on the Democratic periphery—territory newly won in 2008—than on the heartland, where elections have been won and lost for the past half-century. This could turn out to be a mistake of epic proportions. Why? Because the United States looks a lot more like Ohio than like Colorado…. Barack Obama’s path to reelection runs through Ohio and the Midwest, not around them.

The next day, Jonathan Chait answered in The New Republic: “But there is a plausible electoral path without Ohio. Add one or two of Virginia, North Carolina, or Colorado to the base of states that Democrats have won in each of the last five presidential elections, and you have an electoral college majority.”

Two weeks later, Galston replied in an article with the direct title “Why Ohio Matters: Obama can’t win the election without it," writing that "my argument rests on the fact that Ohio is close to being a microcosm of the country -- closer than any other pivotal state.”

Mr. Galston’s point is well-taken: over the long term, Ohio has a better track record as a political barometer than Florida, Colorado, or Nevada, voting for the winner of every national election since 1945, except in 1960. (This fact makes one wonder why Mitt Romney didn't pick Ohio Senator Rob Portman.)

But Galston is not necessarily right. After all, he worked on the 1984 campaign of Walter Mondale, who managed to lose 49 states, and was on President Clinton’s staff in 1994 when the Democrats managed to lose their majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. So his track record as a political wizard is far from perfect.

There are a number of reasons why Ohio may not be the most important state in 2012. “Simple arithmetic,” to borrow a phrase from Bill Clinton, indicates that Florida should get just as much attention as Ohio. Even a fourth grade math student would realize that Florida’s 29 electoral votes are more than Ohio’s 18. Is Florida tougher for Democrats to win than Ohio is? The recent electoral history of both states is hardly conclusive.

President Obama won Ohio with 51.5% in 2008 and Florida with 51.0%, not a great difference. In the last five presidential elections, from 1992 to 2008, Democrats won Ohio three times and Florida twice, but the Sunshine State was so close in 2000 (537 votes out of nearly six million) that the Supreme Court had to famously settle the issue. Amazingly, Democratic nominees have averaged 46.8% of the total vote in both states in the past five elections. So both Ohio and Florida are closely divided swing states.

And does Ohio really look more like America than Colorado and Florida do? In the 2008 exit poll, Ohio voters were 83% white, 11% black, 4% Hispanic, and 2% Asian/Other compared to 74% white, 13% black, 9% Hispanic, and 5% Asian/Others for all Americans. By contrast, Florida voters were 71% white, 13% black, 14% Hispanic, and 2% Asian/Other, while Colorado voters were 81% white, 4% black, 13% Hispanic, and 2% Asian/Other. (By residence, suburbanites were 49% of all Americans, while both Ohio and Florida were 62% suburban and Colorado 51% suburban in the 2008 poll.) So, compared to the national averages, Ohio is actually light on Hispanics and Asian/Other voters, the fastest growing groups in the electorate. Both Florida and Colorado are closer than Ohio to the multi-ethnic America of the 21st century. Candidates in 2012 and beyond who carry both Florida and Colorado are likely to win nationally. So Galston’s argument that President Obama “can’t win without Ohio” is hardly a lead-pipe cinch.