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Playing to our Strength

by Derek Newton

In order to win statewide in Florida a Democrat has to win the smaller, mostly rural counties in the central and northern part of the state. Okay, maybe not win but at least not lose too badly. You know, minimize the damage.

The problem is that it’s just not true.

Like it or not, Floridians don’t live in the smaller, rural, more conservative nooks and crannies. They are overwhelmingly in the cities and large suburban counties.

In fact, just Florida’s largest three counties deliver more than a quarter of all Florida’s votes. The top five counties together are almost 40% of the state total. And more than 80% of all of Florida’s votes were cast in the top 20 counties.

Put another way, Floridians in the smallest 47 counties (the more conservative and rural ones) cast just one of every five ballots.

I know some people are already saying, “But Democrats can’t ignore those 47 counties. We’ll get killed.”

Yes we can. And no we won’t.

Even if Republicans win those 47 counties by a lopsided 70% to 30% margin, Democrats only need to win 55% of the vote in the remaining 20 counties to carry Florida. If we lose those 47 by an astonishing 80% to 20% margin, Democrats only need to win the remaining 20 Counties with 58% to win the state.

Keep that ratio in mind. Democrats have to pick-up a full 4% of the vote in Florida’s smaller 47 counties to get the same number of votes we get from a 1% increase in the top 20.

The last four statewide Democratic candidates finished in the following order: Gore (48.8%), Kerry (47.1%), MacKay (44.7%) and McBride (43.2%). McBride was the lowest scorer and Kerry was second. But comparisons between McBride and Kerry are not far off. Both were unknown to Florida voters before they ran and both sought to dethrone incumbent Bushs.

So where did McBride fail to cash-in when compared to Kerry?

You guessed it: Florida’s largest counties. McBride’s top vote loss counties were Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach. And those losses weren’t nearly offset by McBride gains in smaller counties. All tolled, McBride didn’t get 270,000 votes in Florida’s largest three counties that Kerry did. To offset the losses in just those three counties, McBride would have had to win 27% more of the vote in the smallest 47 Counties. That’s probably impossible.

And where did Kerry stumble compared to Gore?

Different question. Same answer. As I wrote previously, in just six of the state’s 20 largest counties Kerry suffered a full two-thirds of his statewide loss total.

The case can be made that neither Kerry nor McBride lost their campaigns in Florida by failing to win the smaller, rural more counties. Even if the war hero and native lawyer had done better there, they’d have lost because they didn’t do enough in Florida’s large counties.

So if you’re a Democratic strategist or advising the Democratic candidates seeking statewide office, what would you suggest?

It makes sense to me that Florida Democrats should campaign where the votes are. Small things in large communities can make a big difference.

And since the top 20 Counties have more cultural diversity and more problems with their schools and health care systems, Democratic messages and candidates will work better there anyway. Perhaps it’s time for statewide Democrats to play to our strengths and make Republicans answer for their failures in our cities and suburbs.

Doing that may just give African-Americans and Hispanics and suburban soccer moms and retirees reasons to vote for Democrats. If we do that, I am sure we can win in Florida again.


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