Rural Florida…electoral legend or DLC-created myth?

V.O. Key Jr., long gone but still right.

In Florida politics, urban voting has become quite important. Florida has the largest percentage of urban voters compared to any other southern state. Much of this influx comes from the immigration of people from other states into Florida. More people in Florida were actually born in other states and not in Florida. Because of this, there hasn’t been a strong connection to politics in the State of Florida. Also, because of the spread of population centers, localism in Florida politics has become quite extensive.

The above statement might sound like me rambling on about electoral strategy in Florida. You might say “Dave, you have already said this before, and we know that you aren’t big on targeting north Florida.” You might also add “didn’t you do an article about north Florida last week already?” Alright, you are right. I have talked about this issue quite extensively and continue to do so.

But the opening paragraph didn’t come from me.

Instead, it is a paraphrase of V.O. Key Jr’s classic political “must read” book Southern Politics: In State and Nation, written back in 1949. Even 63 years ago, Key realized that the urban vote was becoming increasingly important. In addition, he realized that there was a loose connection between voters and politicians. In his conclusion, Key did state that he thought Florida would remain Democratic. Of course, he didn’t see the Voting Rights Act and the 1968 Constitution coming when he came to his conclusion (both which passed after his death).

Overall, Key was right. He said that the vote was shifting from the rural areas to the urban areas. He stated that most of the state’s population was located in the five largest cities (Miami, Jacksonville, Tampa, Pensacola and St. Petersburg). And while the cities have changed, the strategy is still the same.

So here is the question…V.O. Key Jr. realized back in 1949 that the way to electoral success was through the big cities, but how come we have gone back to talking about rural Florida? Obviously if it was clear 63 years ago that the rural strategy no longer applied, how could it apply today when the urban areas are even larger?

This is where the good ole Democratic Leadership Council, the moderate-to-conservative Democratic think tank comes in. After the subsequent defeats of Walter Mondale in 1984 and Michael Dukakis in 1988, the new DLC decided to come up with their own strategy to win elections. They argued that the way to electoral success was winning with conservative messages in rural areas. And with the election of Bill Clinton, who captured a few rural counties in 1992 and a few more in 1996, the DLC claimed that reaching out to these rural voters is the reason why the Clinton campaign won Florida in 1996.

But is that really the case?

First of all, with the exception of the very liberal and highly-populated minority counties in north Florida, Bill Clinton never gained a majority in any of those “rural” counties. He mostly hovered around the 39% to 44% range, something that was not too impressive. So even though he was winning those counties, he wasn’t winning them by big margins. To put it in comparison, in most of the northern counties, Clinton only gained a few hundred votes more than Michael Dukakis. That is how insignificant winning north Florida was.

Now let’s shift our sights to south Florida. Most people don’t realize this, but in 1980, 1984 and 1988, the Republicans swept the “Big Three”. Yes, Reagan never lost in Broward, Dade or Palm Beach Counties. In 1988, the same can be said for Bush. But in 1992, there was a huge shift the south Florida vote, as Bill Clinton built up impressive leads in those counties. And since 1992, not a single Republican candidate for president has won Broward, Dade or Palm Beach Counties.

So, on the one hand, you have V.O. Key Jr., who said that urban voters are the most important. And in every single election since 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was enacted, the Key theory has proven correct. On the other hand, there is the DLC who, in 2008, had their theory absolutely shattered with John McCain winning rural Florida counties by record-setting Republican margins, but Obama still wins the state.

Looking in hindsight, it is easy to say that the north Florida thesis is an absolute myth started by the DLC in order to spread their kind of Republican-lite politics. And every candidate that has been sucked into their philosophy, especially since 1998, have usually suffered and always lose. But V.O. Key Jr., in a time where the first computer was invented only three years prior, understood the lay of the land.

To simply put it, Southern Politics is still considered a classical political must read, much like The American Voter by Angus Campbell, Philip Converse, Warren Miller and Donald Stokes. The DLC no longer exists. The facts speak for themselves.

4 thoughts on “Rural Florida…electoral legend or DLC-created myth?”

  1. Key also did not see the huge influx of retired Democrats to the big 3 South Florida counties in the very late 70s. Future trends must be watched here as these people who came here in that wave are now and for the past few years dieing off in large numbers. These folks were the backbone of the local Democratic Clubs. I know, I was president of one such club for 10 years. Their kids and grand kids are either Republicans, not so committed Democrats, or have stayed up north. Unless there is a pocket book issue it is hard to get the 35-55 year old folks to come out and get involved. Just as Kartik, he and I often covered the same turf.

  2. Concerned Palm Beach Democrat

    Good analysis. I believe Dukakis almost carried Broward in 1988 but Bush win by big margins in Dade and Palm Beach. Getting past that year, the D’s have generally won Broward by 30 points and Palm Beach by 25 or more. That’s where the margins have come in addition to good performance in the I4 corridor counties.

    The Clinton’s were responsible for the DLC becoming a big deal. But this is a group that was led by Joe Lieberman. Many former DLCers did nit back Hillary in 2008. Sam Nunn and David Boren to name two who openly backed Obama in the primaries. Yet, they accepted a liberal nominee running against a DLC type. I think even Nunn & Boren would concede the DLC failed.

  3. Actually, Key does talk about retirees moving to Florida. But, of course, this was only to Pinellas County at the time and they were Republican. But, you are right, he did not see the south Florida influx coming. There was a migration to Dade County right after his book, but it was mostly WWII vets.

    As far as dying off, I totally agree. I did a paper about the 2004 election and I looked at Century Village and realized that a certain amount of people, per year, were dying off and not being replaced. I think that is why going to Boca is less important that it was in 2000. Yes, it is still important in the primary and to raise money, but not as much the general anymore.

  4. Very true. The shift was already occurring in the 1988 Presidential race when Michael Dukakis carried the 1990s version of the 19th Congressional district. By 2000 when Al Gore was robbed of the state, Democrats could expect to leave Broward and Palm Beach counties at least 325k votes to the good.