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.

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.

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