Floridians began voting this morning, and by now we’ve read the polls, seen the ads and heard countless talking heads analyze what the results might mean to the various candidates. But, what does this election season mean for Florida?
Quite a lot actually. That’s one of the advantages of being a state that is both the nation’s third largest and, among the most populous states, the most evenly divided between the two parties. As a big, fat swing state, the candidates have to pay attention to you and curry your favor.
The result is that Florida’s voting patterns tend to be a harbinger of the nation’s. The state’s partisan divide and its impact on the national outcome is clear if you examine the state’s voting history across the last 40 years. It is significant, and it goes much deeper than the infamous 2000 election recount.
In the last 10 elections, dating to 1976, Florida has voted for the Republican nominee six times and the Democratic candidate four times. More tellingly, it has voted for the ultimate winner in nine of those 10 races, the lone exception being 1992, when Florida backed President George H.W. Bush in his loss to Bill Clinton.
The state’s track record in the primaries is equally impressive. During the last 40 years, when there has been a contested primary in one or both parties, Florida has backed the eventual nominee in all but two instances. In 1984, Gary Hart won the Florida primary but Walter Mondale went on to capture the Democratic nomination. In 2008, Hillary Clinton handily won the Sunshine State’s Democratic primary, but Barack Obama obviously went on to capture the nomination.
It would be easy to diminish that 16-for-18 mark in contested primaries by saying that the nomination was essentially decided by the time Floridians voted in the primaries. Certainly, there wasn’t a lot of suspense in some of those. (Example: by the 1992 primaries, the Pat Buchanan insurgency had passed and President Bush was a shoo-in to be renominated while Bill Clinton had emerged as prohibitive favorite on the Democratic side.)
But, many other races were in doubt and Florida helped tilt the scale. Prominent examples include 1976, when Gerald Ford was facing a stiff challenge from Ronald Reagan and 1980, when both parties (Reagan-Bush on the Republican side, Carter-Kennedy for the Democrats) had a tight battle.
Even when Florida backed the losing candidate, its votes helped ensure that Gary Hart and Hillary Clinton would fight on to the convention. And, it’s worth noting on the Republican side that Floridians narrowly supported John McCain, the eventual nominee, over Mitt Romney, ensuring that race kept going into the spring.
This history indicates that the clearest conclusion that can be drawn from tonight’s results – whatever they may be – is that the Florida winners will be a force for the remainder of the nominating process and likely will need to be considered front runners for the nomination. Their experience battling out in the state’s primaries also will leave them well-prepared to fight for the even bigger prize of Florida’s 29 electoral votes in the General Election.
One note of caution, though: Do not take today’s turnout as a sign of how enthused Floridians will be come November. In presidential election years, primary turnout swings wildly, from around 40 percent of the electorate to as little as 20 percent. Much hinges on whether the primaries are hotly contested and whether the nomination is still in doubt when Florida votes.
But, General Election turnout in presidential years has held steady since the 1950s at about 70 percent of voters.
In that, if in little else electorally, the Sunshine State is predictable.