The Tamiami Trail
by Derek Newton
For years, state and national pundits have blathered on about the so-called I-4 corridor between Tampa, Orlando and Daytona Beach being the key to unlocking Florida elections. The candidate who wins I-4, the old wisdom was, wins Florida. But the 2004 elections paint a different picture: namely that winning the Tamiami Trail may be more politically important than I-4.
Unlike I-4, the Tamiami Trail runs, as the name suggests, from Tampa to Miami. And Tampa Bay is, as John Kerry learned, Florida's unquestioned electoral king-maker.
Of George Bush's top six "most improved" counties from 2000 to 2004, four of them encircle Tampa Bay. Together Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Polk gave the Bush campaign a comfortable winning margin of 81,000 in 2000. But the 2004 Bush outfit nearly doubled that margin in whipping up on Kerry by 161,000 votes in those same four counties. Those four Tampa counties alone accounted for nearly 20% of Bush's entire winning margin statewide and instantly dashed Kerry's hopes of stealing Florida.
Farther south along the Tamiami Trail are four overlooked but important counties along the lower western coast. Bush carried Sarasota, Manatee, Collier and Lee Counties by a combined 81,000 votes in 2000. In 2004, he pushed that advantage to 127,000 - a 54% increase. The difference, 46,000 votes, accounted for another 12% of Bush's total Florida victory margin.
For those scoring at home, those eight large counties along Florida's west coast accounted for about one third of Bush's Florida winning margin.
But while the top of the Tamiami Trail was a walk in the park for Republicans, the last leg is more a bright spot for Democrats. It is Miami-Dade County, Florida's largest. With little fanfare, Miami-Dade County gave a 49,000 vote edge to John Kerry when it mustered a 39,000 vote margin for Al Gore four years earlier. Even though it's only an increase of 10,000 votes, Miami-Dade is one of just three large counties in Florida to actually increase its vote margin for Democrats.
This could be the best news of all for Democrats. With their continued dominance in Broward and Palm Beach Counties, an emerging stronghold in Miami-Dade could give Democrats a real trifecta in the southeast where Kerry collected nearly 1.2 million votes.
But to have any real chance of winning statewide, Democrats can't allow themselves to be bludgeoned in Tampa. They will have to offer candidates such as Betty Castor, whose Tampa political base made her a formidable statewide candidate, or impressive Tampa Congressman Jim Davis, who is already a candidate for Governor in 2006. Or Democrats may have to cultivate newcomers like State Representative Charlie Justice from St. Petersburg if they hope to make inroads around Tampa Bay.
Even more than competing in Tampa, Democrats can no longer afford to ignore Florida's lower western coast. The region is growing in population and Republican strength. Democrats must recognize the importance of campaigning there and will have to make real investments to be competitive.
Last, Florida Democrats must take advantage of the political climate in Miami and make changes that will exploit and accelerate the growth of their new emerging majority. That means grooming Hispanic candidates and developing messages that work in Spanish.
Republicans have a naturally easier time along this new political road. They can either move to maximize their advantages in Tampa by fielding candidates like Attorney General Charlie Crist from St. Petersburg who is a rumored 2006 candidate for Governor or override growing Democratic strengths in Miami-Dade like Cuban-American Mel Martinez did to win his seat in the Senate. But if Republicans allow Miami-Dade to become another Broward or Palm Beach County, their days of winning in Florida are over.
Candidates looking for election roadmaps in Florida in 2006 and beyond would do well to take a spin down the Tamiami Trail. The candidates who focus their campaigns on the voters who live there will be best positioned to win. And the political party that develops messages that work in Tampa, Naples and Miami at the same time can likewise look forward to a long and prosperous winning streak.