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As Swing States Go, Florida Is Still the Gate to the White House

| January 7, 2015

The final 2012 electoral map.

The final 2012 electoral map.

By Steven Schale

Four years ago, I wrote a piece looking at how Florida stacked up to the other battleground states. It was largely in response to a bunch of reporters’ calls questioning Florida’s swing state status. At least we are past that debate. This piece updates that one, looking at how the 2012 results have or have not shaken up Florida’s place in the pantheon of competitive presidential states.

I am going to write this in two parts. This one looks at how Florida stacks up compared to the rest of the country. The next one will take a look at how Florida itself performs, what has evolved, and what has not.

I am going to compare Florida to the rest of the country in two ways: From 1992 through 2012, choosing 1992 because that year signifies Florida’s entrance into the national ranks of battleground states, and then from 2000 to 2012, since the national map we operate under today has largely been frozen in place since 2000.

When doing this research, I looked up a bunch of old national election results to test a hunch – a hunch that if we go back to the Reagan days the country had pretty much split 50:50. Well, that hunch was pretty darn close.

I went back to 1976, adding up the election results from 1976 to 2012. Moving back to 1976 didn’t change the topline numbers much, but it did give it a very cool benchmark: just over 1 billion ballots cast in presidential elections over that span – ten elections that split five Democratic and five Republican.

Here’s how it looks

All votes counted for president, 1976-2012:

Republicans: 498,073,887 (47.8%)

Democrats: 493,452,066 (47.4%)

Total Ballots: 1,041,089,910 (GOP advantage: 4,621,821)

That’s just hard to get your head around.

Back to the point of this piece. In the six elections from 1992 to 2012, just under 689 million ballots were cast for president, with Democrats holding an advantage of about 26 million ballots over that time (roughly 49-46%).

Nationally, state outcomes broke down like this:

Republicans 6-0: 13 states

Republicans 5-1: 5 states

Republicans 4-2: 7 states (AR, KY, LA, MO, TN, VA, WV)

Even 3-3: 2 states (Colorado, Florida)

Democrats 4-2: 2 states (Ohio, Nevada)

Democrats 5-1: 3 states

Democrats 6-0: 19 states

For the sake of this exercise, looking at which state is most competitive over time, I’ll narrow this piece to those eleven states that either split 3-3 or were carried by each of the two political parties at least twice.

context floridaImmediately, we know that six of these states are not likely competitive at the presidential level at this point: Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri (more on this later), Tennessee and West Virginia, which leaves us with five states: Virginia, Colorado, Florida, Ohio and Nevada. The 2011 edition included Missouri, and I debated keeping it here. But given its performance in 2012 for Democrats, its status as a top tier presidential bellwether is in question, though in fairness – due to its strength for President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, had it been kept in, it would have finished third in this chart.

The 12 readers of my blog may well remember when I did this same analysis in 2011 that Colorado edged out Florida as the closest state between 1992 and 2008.

Does that still hold true?

  1. Nevada. Since 1992, just under 4.4 million votes were cast for president. Republicans carried the state twice (2000 and 2004), with Democrats winning the state four times (’92, ’96, ’08, ’12). Driven by President Barack Obama’s large 2008 margin, Democrats won 48.6 percent of all the votes cast, to 44.9 percent by the GOP, a 3.7 percent Democratic margin. It is the least competitive of these five, just as it was going into 2012.
  2. Ohio. Since 1992, more than 31 million votes were cast, with the Dems holding a 47.7 percent to 46.0 percent advantage. Just like Nevada, the GOP won it in 2000 and ’04, with the Democrats winning the other four.
  3. Virginia. Virginia is new to this list, with the Dems carrying the last two elections after losing the previous four (and many more than that). Just under 18.5 million ballots were cast over the last six presidentials, with Republicans holding a 48.6 percent to 47.2 percent advantage, placing it in the middle of these rankings.
  4. Colorado. The closest state going into 2012, it is the closest no longer. Each party has won the state three times in the last six (Dems ’92, ’08, ’12; GOP ’96, ’00, ’04), with the Democrats winning 154,000 more of the state’s just-under 12 million ballots over that time, giving them a 47.4 to 46.1 percent advantage.
  5. Florida. No state in the union has been closer over the last six presidentials, with Democrats winning the state in 1996, 2008 and 2012, and the GOP the other three (I will continue to dispute one of them!). Over those six elections, a total of just over 41 million ballots have been cast, with the Democrats holding a 130,664 vote advantage (47.8-47.5 percent). To put it another way, under state law, we’d be in a mandatory recount of 41 million votes.

Now in fairness, the country is different today than it was in 1992. Many southern states that were in play for President Clinton have over the last few cycles moved into a predictably Republican position.

So how does this realignment change the electoral map?

Nationwide, it breaks down like this. Out of a total of just under 489 million ballots, Democrats have won 50.3 percent of all votes cast, with the GOP carrying 47.9 percent, or a Dem margin of just over 12 million ballots. In terms of states, the scoreboard looks like this:

GOP 4-0: 22 states

GOP 3-1: 2 states (Indiana, North Carolina)

Split 2-2: 5 states (Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, Virginia)

Dem 3-1: 3 states (Iowa, New Hampshire, New Mexico)

Dem 4-0: 19 states

As a result, our five top battlegrounds remain unchanged. Not surprisingly, all five went with the national winner each cycle. And they rank like this, with the percentage margin for the leading party among all ballots cast in the 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 elections:

  1. Nevada (Dem +4.3)
  2. Colorado (Dem +1.2)
  3. Virginia (GOP +0.73)
  4. Ohio (Dem +0.67)
  5. Florida (GOP +0.23)

In the case of Florida, 30,458,980 ballots were cast (I mean “counted,” given the 2000 fiasco), with Republicans winning 15,086,978 votes to the Democrats 15,015,920, a difference of just 71,058 votes. At this margin, we would be in both a mandatory recount of all ballots, as well as a mandatory hand count of all over and under votes. I think most of us remember what that looked like.

So in the immortal words of Tim Russert, it remains, “Florida, Florida, Florida.”

Granted, there are other states which are competitive and becoming more so. There are “blue” states that potentially get more competitive over time (Michigan, Wisconsin, etc), just as there are “red” states, like Georgia and Arizona, that could enter the conversation. But speculating those isn’t the point of this work – the goal here is to look at the places we know are competitive, because at least in recent history, they have remained that way.

Later, I will publish a second piece that looks at what makes Florida as close as it is – and what has and hasn’t changed over time. And for the sake of making the work of our outside press friends a little easier, I’ll take a stab at the counties they should start getting familiar with as they look for clues to how the state might go in 2016.

And remember this one fact: No Republican has gone to the White House since Calvin Coolidge without carrying Florida. The state’s central position on the road to the White House remains the state’s great revenge for all of the fun the rest of the country gets from reading about Florida Man!

Steven Schale is a Florida-based political, communications and government relations strategist who blogs atObservations on Florida from a leading politico.

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