Democrats in Florida face a major problem in Florida’s panhandle. While Democratic candidates improve upon past loses, they are faced with a dynamic that sees them gaining support in urban centers like Orange and Miami-Dade; but losing ground in the rural northern counties of the state. Democrats used to rely on Florida’s panhandle as a source of votes, even in their worst elections. Candidates like Bill McBride, who lost badly to Jeb Bush in 2002, still won the panhandle of Florida. Eight years later, Alex Sink narrowly lost to Rick Scott, but her panhandle showing far under-paced McBride. This case is similar for other statewide candidates for state and federal offices over the last twelve years. Democrat gains in the state are in spite of a general weakening of support in Florida’s north. This erosion of support is also beginning to effect down ballot races for state house and county commission offices. Local positions, which Democrats in some of these counties have held for decades, are now beginning to shift toward Republicans. If such trends continue, democrats risk losing the panhandle of Florida like the lost the American South.
It is either Glory or Decline for the Democrats in North Florida….
Various posts on this website have centered around the issue of what is commonly referred to as “Southern Realignment;” the phenominon were the American South began to trend Republican. This was covered in detail in my post Southern Realignment Nears Completion, which pointed out that down-ballot races that were still held by Democrats are beginning to shift Republican in the last few years. Florida’s northern region, notably its panhandle, are very similar to the American South. These counties are culturally conservative and while they were long Democratic, began to trend Republican back in the 90s. I examined Barack Obama’s problems in these counties in a previous posting before the 2012 election: Florida’s Panhandle. In that posting, I pointed out how Democrats for state officers still did much better than those for federal offices.
This entry, however, will focus on how the panhandle, regardless of the Democrat being a federal or state candidate, is trending further and further toward the Republican Party. These trends are also effecting local elections; as long-held Democratic county offices are being lost. If these trends continue, then this region of Florida could be lost to the Democrats for decades.
The Panhandle and the Second Congressional District
The panhandle of Florida generally refers to the northern counties of Florida that look like the handle of Florida. There is no exact county listing, but it generally makes up the 1st and 2nd congressional districts. Both of these districts are largely rural, minus urban centers like Pensacola and Tallahassee.
Tthe second district is much more Democratic leaning than the 1st. The second district is still largely Democratic registered, while the first district is Republican from the top down.
The registration map shows that the area making up the second district, minus Bay County, is still Democratic at a registration level. These voters are conservative but ancestrally Democratic.
The second district is made up of the following counties, shown in yellow below (with two being split).
Of these counties, most are considered rural. Bay county is more populated but very Republican. Leon, Gadsden, Jefferson, and Madison all hold heavy African-American populations that keep those counties from trending too far away from Democrats. Gadsden is majority African-American and safe Democratic, while Leon is home to Tallahassee and a urban democratic county. Jefferson leans Democratic and is 36% African-American, while Madison leans Republican but is 39% African-American. All these counties, thanks to their large African-American populations, have either trended Republican less than others, or trended Democratic. These counties also tend to show Democrats overperforming their statewide percentage as the years go on. This is due to Democrat’s continued gains with minority voters; which counters the continued gains Republicans have with rural whites. This fact will be reinforced as this article continues. The rest of the counties are rural and largely white.
Thanks to the Democratic registration advantage in the second district, while Democrats began to have problems in the panhandle at the federal level, they held their ground much better at the state candidate level. Democrats running for Governor or Cabinet officers would win the counties of the second congressional district, or at least make a strong showing. This began to change after 2002.
Florida Governor and Attorney General: 2002 to Present
I examined the Gubernatorial and Attorney General elections since 2002 to determine if/how state office Democratic candidates were facing the same panhandle troubles as the federal counterparts.
First, I looked at 2002 Governor’s race, which saw Democrat Bill McBride, a lawyer from Tampa, faced off against Incumbent Republican Jeb Bush. McBride lost, only getting 43% of the vote. However, the map below shows he dramatically overperformed his statewide margins in the panhandle; where he won many counties within congressional district 2.
The map above shows the percents that McBride got higher or lower than his statewide percent. It shows that McBride had strong overperformance along a large swath of northern counties.
That same day, the Attorney General Election took place. Democrat Buddy Dyer did better than McBride, but still came up short. However, similar to McBride, Dyer overperformed in many counties at the heart of CD2.
In 2006, Democrat Jim Davis got over 45% of the vote. The map below shows David overperformed in the northern counties, but my lesser margins than McBride; and underperformed in others.
Davis did over 2% better than McBride had, yet the map below shows that he lost ground to McBride in many rural counties, even the Democratic areas of Leon and Gadsden.
For the 2006 Attorney General election, Democratic candidate Walter Campbell did better than Buddy Dyer, but still came up short. Like Jim Davis, he overperformed in several rural counties, but not as many, or by as strong of margins, as Dyer had four years earlier.
Just like Davis, Campbell performed worse in the panhandle than his 2002 fellow Democrat. Despite polling better than Dyer by 0.7%, he lost more than 5% compared to Dyer in multiple northern counties.
Finally, onto 2010. Alex Sink is often credited with having a strong showing in the panhandle. However, her overperformance was the weakest yet. She only overperformed in a few counties, much less than her previous Democratic nominees.
Sink split the gains and losses with Davis. In some rural counties, Sink made gains, while losing ground in others. He strongest gains were still in Leon and Gadsden.
Sink’s gains compared to her late husband, Bill McBride, though, still shows how much Democrats have fallen in that region.
Despite gains across the southern part of the state, the counties across the 2nd district, minus Leon, trended away from the Democrats. Sink’s 4.2% improvement compared to McBride still resulted in losses in the north.
The situation is very similar for Attorney General. 2010 nominee Dan Gelber only overperformed in the counties closest to the Democratic Party.
Dan Gelber got caught in a very bad Democratic year, and the parties problems hurt down-ballot candidates like himself. His 41% was a big drop compared to Campbell back in 2006. However, Gelber’s losses in the northern rural counties were much higher.
Comparing Campbell to the performance of Buddy Dyer back in 2002, Gelber lost ground in rural northern counties at rates higher than 20% despite a modest 6% statewide drop. Losses were exponentially higher in the panhandle compared to statewide.
These elections showed a clear trend in the panhandle counties that populate CD2. These counties used to be a source of Democratic overperformance. However, that overperformance has been weakening in the whiter counties.
For some further comparison, lets look at how federal Democrats have been holding up in recent years.
Presidential Elections: 2000 to 2012
I’m only going to quickly cover the Presidential elections since there is a degree of uniformity. Look at the four maps that show Gore, Kerry, Obama 08, and Obama 12, overperformance compared to their statewide numbers. The Presidential candidates as far back as 2000 already found themselves in the same position as current state-candidate Democrats find themselves now.
Overperformance in all four years was limited to Leon, Gadsden, Jefferson: and Madison for Gore and Kerry. The numbers started off bad and got narrowly worse as time went on. Gore had the best showing in the panhandle, followed by Kerry, then Obama.
Comparing just Obama 2012 to Gore in 2000, where Obama did 1.2% better; there were still significant losses in the panhandle. Losses were minimized in Jefferson and Madison thanks to the African-American populations.
The collapse in the panhandle for federal candidates is not limited to President. Bill Nelson, the three term Democratic Senator of Florida, has felt the trends as well. I compared Nelson’s 2000 victory to his 2012 re-election. Nelson won in 2000 with 51% of the vote, was re-elected in 2006 with over 60% against a very flawed candidate, and re-elected again with 55.2% in 2012. In 2012, Nelson benefited from incumbency, and underwhelming Republican challenger, and a unique appeal with rural Florida voters. However, Nelson still lost a tremendous amount of ground compared to his 2000 win in the panhandle.
Nelson’s losses show that the trends against Democrats in the region are rooted in party and not in candidate weaknesses. The state-office Democrats, whom until now were able to overperform their federal counterparts, are quickly seeing the gap between federal and state narrow as Republicans make larger gains down ballot.
Visualizing the Trends
I took the average of the over or under performance for each year’s respective Gubernatorial and Attorney General candidate (there was often little difference between the two’s county performance compared to statewide) and plotted them out on a line graph. This first graph shows all the counties CD2 counties except for Leon, Gadsden, Jefferson, and Leon. Again, the percentages below show the percent the candidates over or under performed their statewide percent.
As the graph shows, the performance trends are down. Some counties always underperformed and simply got worse, while others went from overperform to underperform.
Below is the same criteria for Jefferson, Madison, Gadsden, and Leon.
Both Leon and Gadsden saw decline in 2006 but then rebounded in 2012. Meanwhile, Jefferson and Madison are trending down as their white, rural voters continue to move to the Republicans. However, the large black populations are making the trend a slow one.
Next, I graphed the trends of over or under performance for the Presidential elections.
There were minimal shifts for Obama in the panhandle between 2008 and 2012 in most of the rural counties.
Leon, Gadsden, Jefferson, and Madison saw some performance improvement with Kerry (even though he got less % in those counties than Gore).
Obama held ground during his re-election after suffering a overperformance drop from Kerry. His overperformance improved in majority-black Gadsden.
Going back to the Gubernatorial and Attorney General averages, the graph below shows each county plotted and the performance averages for Governor and AG. The lines represent the years. Enlarge the graph to see the details.
These trends for the statewide candidates are beginning to have larger implications further down-ballot. One of the most prominent issues is what it means for the congressional races in CD2.
Trends for Congressional District 2
Congressional District 2 had a Democratic Congressman for over 100 years until Republican Steve Southerland won against Allen Boyd in 2010. Boyd’s loss was covered in my very first blog post, The Fall of Allen Boyd , so feel free to read that for more background. Boyd went from being re-elected with 61% in 2008, to only getting 41% in 2010. Boyd got caught in a massive red wave that nationalized his election. Al Lawson would be the Democratic nominee in 2012, and improved to 47%. However, the over or under performance maps highlight that the trends in 2012 were actually pretty bad.
Boyd was re-elected with 61% in 2008 and still managed to overperform in most rural white counties. Only Bay and Gulf gave him less of the vote than he got district-wide.
When Boyd lost re-election, his map quickly looked like the Presidential overpeformance map. Boyd only managed to perform better in the Democratic leaning counties.
While Lawson would improve on Boyd in 2012, he still only overperformed in the Democratic leaning counties (and Madison, which was added in redistricting). Lawson improved by a few percentage points in most counties except Taylor, Liberty and Wakulla; largely because Boyd’s 41% was a very low bar. Lawson only managed to get 1% better than Barack Obama did that same year.
The heart of Lawson’s gains were in Gadsden and Leon; his 6% improvement over Boyd district wide was higher than his gains in the rural counties.
Lawson only managed to get to a 1% improvement over the President. If the Congressional candidates cannot outpace the Presidential candidates in the panhandle, they will not be able to take CD2. Boyd managed to keep ahead of the Republican trends in his district until the disaster of the 2010 midterms. With a fresh face, Democrats could not replicate what Boyd had done for so long. Lawson was just a generic Democrat to the voters in 2012 and his performance was tied closely to the President.
Problems for Democrats do not stop at the congressional level, they are resonating even further down ballot.
State Legislative and Local Races: Problems ahead
The problems in the panhandle have already claimed one Democratic-held legislative seat, House District 7. Democrats held a district, HD10 before redistricting, that covered half of what is currently HD7. Leonard Bembry was elected as a Democrat in HD10 (which covered an eastern portion of CD2) in 2008, despite the district only giving Obama 37% of the vote at the time. In 2012, Democrats ran Robert Hill, the Democratic Clerk of Courts from Liberty, for the new (and open) seat and lost by 20 points. I never did a major post-election analysis, but I did a detailed pre-election look right before voting began. Read that here: HD7: Last Stand of the Dixiecrats. This district was the last stand for the southern Democrats, and they came up dramatically short. Hill could not overcome the trends in the district and lost every county except his home of Liberty.
There were four intact counties that were in HD10 when Bembry won in 2008 and in HD7 when Hill ran in 2012. Both ran as conservative Democrats in a Presidential election year for open seats. Compare their results.
Franklin: Bembry 47.68% — Hill 40.86%
Jefferson: Bembry 65.34% — Hill 45.64%
Madison: Bembry 67.17% — Hill 48.01%
Taylor: Bembry 48.01% — Hill 31.74%
Hill did not come close to replicating Bembry’s performance in 2008. Both were outspent by their Republican opponents (granted Hill by more). These numbers do not represent a good trend.
In the same area, State Senate District 3 lies. The district is more Democratic and has incumbent Democrat Bill Montford in the seat. Montford had a very weak challenger in 2012, John Shaw, a young activists who ran his campaign on one issue: legalizing hemp. Montford raised $300,000 while Shaw barely passed a few thousand. Montford, a well-respected moderate Democrat, got 72% of the vote. However, he barely got 51% in both Taylor and Gulf.
While I am not concerned about the senate seat going Republican soon, the fact that Montford could barely beat Shaw in Taylor and Gulf, considering Shaw’s campaign, shows that some of these counties are on a fast track to Republican favoritism, moderation or not.
The trends have been getting more noticeable at the local level as well. Most of the counties of CD2 had or still have largely Democratic county officers. However, these norms have begun to change recently.
Wakulla County is the canary in the coal mine as far as I am concerned. This longstanding Democratic County began to see Republicans elected to the county commission back in 2004. However, it managed to fend off further gains for a few more years. However, the Democrats lost all 3 county commission races in 2012, and following a party switch, found themselves with no Democrats on the five-person council. The most striking example was Commissioner Alan Brock’s 2012 loss. Brock was a young Democrat who represents a new generation of rural Democrats that could win in areas that the President would lose. Brock won in 2008, but the Republicans tied him to the President in 2012 and Brock lost by a large margin; one of the great losses for Florida Democrats that year. Wakulla Democrats managed to hold all the constitutional officers (tax collector, superintendent, ext), and backed the election of the NPA Sheriff. They also manged to ensure the passage of a school funding referendum earlier this year. However, the loss of the county commission in Wakulla must serve as a wake-up call to the other Democratic county commissioners in the rural counties. These seats are not safe.
Gulf saw Democrats lose many previously-held constitutional officers. The Superintendent, Sheriff, and Property Appraiser all went from Democrat to Republican. The Supervisor of Elections was held by an NPA, but then went to a Republican in 2012. Two of the five commission districts are held by Republicans.
Several other tidbits from other CD2 counties: many of which had all Democratic local officials until very recently. While one or two pickups may not seem like a big deal, it is when considering it has never happened before.
Democrats lost the Superintendent race, and had a very close call with their Tax Collector in 2012
Democrats lost the Supervisor of Elections office and their Clerk of Courts to NPA candidates.
The Democrats lost their sheriff’s race to an NPA.
After the Democratic Supervisor of Elections was removed from office for election fraud, a Republican appointee was placed in. Democrats failed to retake the seat with a fresh candidate.
Democrats still hold county commissions in most of the counties of CD2. Wakulla saw the first Republican takeover and Gulf saw the loss of constitutional officers. These losses largely occurred in 2012; when Obama won the state. Democrats should be worried that their incumbents could find themselves at risk or that open seats could yield similar results to those of Wakulla and Gulf. These results are all in line with growing Democratic problems at the upper ballot level. Everything is starting to be tied together.
The Democratic Party used to be the dominant party in the southern United States. The end of that norm began decades ago, but it continues to resonate further down the ballot in the new century. Florida’s panhandle is no different, and Democratic strengths in the region are starting to diminish. The more disturbing trend is in the local races. The nationalization of county commission, Clerk of Courts, and Sheriff’s races; are a cause for alarm among Democrats. The Democratic Party and its supports must fight back to reverse these trends. Holding, and taking back, local officers, is step number one. If a voter is unwilling to cast a Democratic ballot for county commission, why would they for President or Congress? Democrats cannot get complacent with their strong margins in Miami-Dade, Broward, and other Democratic counties. If the party continues to erode in the panhandle like it currently is, then Congressional District 2 will be lost forever and any hope for a Democratic revitalization in the south will be lost as well. The Republican Party of Florida knows this as well as anyone. That is why the RPOF is injecting money into the local chapters of these counties. Republicans hope to cement their dominance at the top of the ballot in these counties and to seize control of the local offices. Without local Democrats in the rural counties, we will have no bench to build up for higher-level races in the region; while Republicans will have a list of candidates to chose from. The statewide Democratic Party, and the local parties of Leon and Gadsden must get involved as well to help their neighbors. Democrats must reclaim control of the lost local offices and work to reverse the trends for the top of the ballot. For Democrats, it is either Glory or Decline. The Democrats of the panhandle must reclaim ground or face further erosion. Fighting back must begin now!