Bob Updegrave was almost giddy when he stood up to make an announcement to the audience assembled at Wednesday’s Flagler County Republican Club. He had reason to be: Republicans are once again in the lead, in registered voters in Florida, ending the 41-month streak when Democrats had taken the lead.
“We have a pile of enthusiastic volunteers,” Updegrave said, “we’re just having a great time and really stirring the pot in this county.”
Republicans had the lead for most of the last decade in Flagler until the Obama effect began to ripple locally, as 2008 yielded a surge in Democratic registrants nationwide. Democrats took the lead in Flagler in July 2008 and for two years were ahead by about 1,000 voters. By December last year, their lead was gone, down to just 50, and by the end of January this year, the lead had switched, with Republicans taking a 67-voter lead. In March, Republicans ended with a lead of 524, a quite extraordinary rapid pace of growth for just two months. (See the complete numbers in the chart below.)
Flagler Exception or Bellwether?
The lead is the more remarkable in Flagler County because it’s not reflected statewide, where Democrats still maintain most of the lead they built around the 2008 election. That lead grew to 700,000 voters that year. As of February, while it has narrowed some, the Democratic lead was still a solid 451,000. Republicans haven’t gained as Democratic numbers have declined. Rather, independents and minor parties have, their 2.6 million registrants increasing by 120,000 since 2008.
“There are multiple reasons,” Gail Wadsworth, the Flagler County clerk of court and the president of the Flagler County Republican Club, said today of the Republican growth spurt in Flagler. “I think the first reason was the presidential primary. I think some people were frustrated that Florida is not like the state they came from and that our primaries are closed, and they switched after the fact, from frustration, not being able to vote in the Republican presidential primary.” Wadsworth also cited the economy and local unemployment as a frustration driving more people to the GOP, presumably in hopes of a turn-around.
Dan Parham, president of the Flagler County Democratic Executive Committee, and Merrill Shapiro, who heads the Flagler County Democratic Club (for now), have their own analysis about the switch. (Merrill also chairs the FlaglerLive board of directors.)
“I got word that people were registering at the motor vehicle and were indicating they wanted to be democrat and then were getting calls from the national Republican Party,” Parham said, suggesting that they were being registered the wrong way, against their will—either by sheer error or by malice.
While errors occasionally happen, they can go either way. But it’s highly unlikely that a systematic attempt to deny Democrats their proper registration record is taking place, especially as Parham himself concedes that the party’s efforts have not been as sustained, and that other, more empirically visible trends, are tracking against Democrats. “One of the problem we have is we have a lot more people becoming independent, and it’s more likely for Democrats to become Independent,” Parham said. “Democrats are more independent, they may look at things from both sides, and a lot of them are just—‘well, I want to be independent, I don’t want to be either party, I think they’re both messed up.’”
He’s right: while Republicans and Democrats have traded the lead in registrations since 2008, only independents and minor-party registrants have seen their numbers steadily increase, year after year, going back to 2003, when they formed just 19.8 percent of the electorate. As of March, they were up to 27.5 percent. In 2008, they were at 24.7 percent.
Dividends of Voter Suppression
Parham also notes the new difficulties of registering people, tying into Shapiro’s analysis of the obstacle Democrats face: the GOP-dominated Florida Legislature did away with the old way of broad registration drives, imposing steep fines on those who conduct registrations but fail to abide by extremely strict rules. The result has been a form of voter suppression, Shapiro said. “When Democrats were in office, we pulled some of the same tricks, but now that the Republicans are in the Legislature, they are suppressing Democratic voters,” he said. “There are such onerous penalties that if you mess up a voter registration drive, nobody wants to do it.”
Republicans are facing the same obstacles, but Republican voters tend to be wealthier, older and more educated, as opposed to Democrats who tend to be younger, or minorities, or less educated—people “who need to be taken by the hand and taken through the process of registering to vote,” Shapiro said. The state’s reversal against restoring ex-felons’ rights (after Gov. Charlie Crist had made the process much easier), is also hurting Democratic registrations, since ex-felons are disproportionately black, and blacks vote disproportionately Democratic.
Nevertheless Parham and Shapiro see more registration drives ahead, with the drafting of more volunteers and the development of door-to-door strategies. “In 2008 we didn’t turn it around until July. So if we haven’t done something by June, I’ll definitely be concerned, especially if we can get the president to come to Flagler County,” Parham said.
It’s also helped Republicans that local Democrats’ candidates continue, for the most part, to be a lost cause: Democrats either field candidates with losing records (Doug Courtney is again running for a Florida House seat, virtually guaranteeing a Republican win; Jim Manfre, running for Sheriff, is 1 for 2, having lost his last two bids for the post after a successful first run) or with the sort of record opponents are attracted to like catnip: Incumbent Supervisor of Elections Kimberle Weeks’ contentious years with the county commission has drawn out four Republican challengers so far.
The school board is an exception: Bill Corkran, a Democrat with a sturdy resume, is running against Republican Sue Dickinson in what promises to be a contentious race echoing with the recent, unpleasant haggles between the board and the Flagler County Educators Association, the local teachers union—of which Corkran is a past president. Colleen Conklin, an incumbent Democrat on the school board, has yet to announce, though Debbie Laury, a Reagan Assembly Republican, already has. (School board races are ostensibly non-partisan, but only candidates pretend to play that game by omitting the R or D from their campaign literature. No one else, least of all donors, plays along.)
Other reasons clearly favor Republican growth, and can be seen merely through the energy and visibility of local Republican organizations, despite their infighting. Flagler not only has a Flagler County Republican Executive Committee and a Republican Club. It has an active tea party, and the nascent, increasingly active chapter of the Ronald Reagan Republican Assemblies—essentially, an ideological first cousin of the tea party, but with endorsing power independent of other organizations. Flagler County’s tea party doesn’t endorse, at least not overtly, nor does it distribute money to candidates. And the Republican Club doesn’t endorse until it has the executive committee’s approval. Ronald Reagan assemblies work independently of all those organizations, and make money available.
While tea party meetings have been slightly more lugubrious lately because of a dip in attendance and excitement—the Romney effect isn’t helping locally, as Mitt Romney’s presidential bid fails to ignite the sort of excitement George W. Bush once did—a meeting of the Ronald Reagan assembly last Monday drew every announced candidate for the newly formed congressional district covering Flagler. And it drew a sizeable crowd of about 70, at least for such a young group (young since its establishment, not young in its membership’s age, which remains almost exclusively the Medicare and Social Security set). Members paraded with their “goodbye Obama” and “Stop Obama here” shirts, providing a rallying point that Democrats have lost: the excitement and novelty of 2008 have dissipated, and have yet to be replaced by anything as compelling as the promise of that Election Day evening at Chicago’s Grant Park, particularly when many Democrats feel that evening’s promise was not kept.
In Flagler County, at any rate, the voter registration numbers reflect the reaction.
Flagler County Voter Registration, 2003-2016
|Florida, May 2012|
|Florida, January 2016|