Florida’s Second Circuit State Attorney Race: How Willie Meggs held on

This blog entry is a little different from those written in the past.  This entry profiles a race that I was personally involved in.  As a resident of Leon County the race for State Attorney was on my ballot.  In addition, as a member of the leadership of the Leon County Democratic Executive Committee, I had a direct involvement in the campaign for state attorney as the Leon DEC worked to ensure the re-election of the democratic incumbent.  This entry profiles the race and the Leon DEC’s involvement in it.  The account below offers a look deeper into how a campaign at the risk of losing is able to pull back to victory.  Many of the circumstances surrounding the race and the loyalties are matter of public record.  The details of the race are given to provide a backdrop for why the election was as close as it was.  The race was filled with big spending and extreme accusations.  This entry puts context on the race and tells the story of the Leon DEC and our efforts to ensure a Democratic win.

The Second Judicial Circuit

Since 1984 the second judicial circuit of Florida has had Willie Meggs as it’s State Attorney.  The circuit; comprised of Leon, Franklin, Wakulla, Liberty, Jefferson, and Gadsden counties, has been a reliable Democratic pocket in the Republican-dominated Florida panhandle.  The district boasts a 31% African-American population, largely concentrated in the north.  A map of the circuit is below.  Population is concentrated in Leon, while Democratic strength is strongest in Leon, Gadsden and Jefferson.

2nd circuit

Willie Meggs won his first election as state attorney in 1984 by winning a Democratic primary and facing no Republican opposition.  Meggs overall has had a challenge-free run as state attorney (baring a 1996 primary challenge and a 2004 Republican challenger in the general).  When Meggs faced a Republican opponent in 2004 he easily won with 68% of the vote.  Up until 2012 Meggs had only ever had one general election opponent.  However, in the course of a 24 year career as state attorney a man is bound to make some enemies and have cases that were PR debacles.  Such a long career can be a blessing and a curse.  By 2012 Meggs had encountered press questions on different cases and had been forced to get involved in high profile and highly controversial cases that where destined to create animosity.  Cases that involved other elected officials or their relatives led to hurt feelings and outright hatred.  By 2012 there was enough tension for a potential election showdown to occur.  By the morning of the last day of qualifying it seems Meggs was destined for another unopposed term as state attorney.  The deadline for qualifying was noon and no one had stepped forward.  However, behind the scenes a former prosecutor under former Governor Charlie Crist’s administration  Pete Williams, was filing his paperwork to run.  With less than 30 minutes till close of business, Williams filed to run against Willie Meggs:  the race was on.

 The Race

When Pete Williams entered the race for state attorney many interested parties saw the potential for a serious contest.  Meggs was a longtime official but there where plenty of controversial cases over the years.  Williams was considered hindered by the Republican Party label and many openly speculated he should have filed as an independent.  The Meggs and Williams campaigns began to raise money for the fall.  In the meantime, the summer was marked by local campaigning at events and proxy wars by different supporters of the candidates.  The blogs began to become littered with different cases tried or not tried during Meggs’ tenure, many actively painting a specific narrative about motives.   Leon County Commissioner Bill Proctor, who represented the majority African-American District 1, actively claimed Meggs was a racist due to the number of African American convictions for crimes in the 2nd Circuit.  Proctor attacked Meggs for being named a special prosecutor in the infamous Madison Seven case.  The case, based out of Madison County, involved the incumbent Supervisor of Elections working to rig the vote (through absentee ballot fraud) in favor of a school board candidate in 2010.  Seven people were arrested by state and federal officials and Meggs was named special prosecutor.  The case took on a racial tone due to all the officials arrested being African-American.

While the Meggs campaign was attacked for alleged bias in cases, the Williams campaign was hit for the lackluster record of Williams as a prosecutor.  The Meggs campaign argued that it was best to keep an experienced hand at the helm of such an important office.  Williams was also attacked for his allegiance to the Republican Party.  While Williams professed an independent streak against his won party (which offered him no real financial backing in the race), the R label next to his name did not help in the 2nd circuit.  Williams’ attacks on Meggs’ record was itself lambasted as out of touch with reality.  The Meggs campaign pointed to the high conviction record for major crimes and the offers for light sentencing for first time offenders.  Williams was attacked for trying to criticize the State Attorney’s Office without much institutional knowledge on how difficult the job was.  Williams would be attacked as idealistic beyond reason and speaking on matters he could did not have the authority to talk on.

Money and Loyalty

As the initial campaign began, many considered Meggs vulnerable.  However, Williams was unable to raise the money needed to fend against such an entrenched incumbent.  Private polling showed Meggs with a large lead in the race.  However, things began to change as the fall campaign came into full swing.

First, Pete Williams invested a large sum of his own money into the race.  While not personally wealthy, Williams owned hundreds of thousands of dollars in stocks.  Suddenly Williams began to inject his won finances into the campaign.  All told Williams put in over $150,000 of his own money into the race.  When the campaigns were over Willie Meggs had spent $109,000 and Pete Williams had spent over $220,000.  The excessive amount of money allowed Williams to spend more on television and mail than Meggs.  Television was mixtures of bio spots on Williams and attacks on Meggs.  Mailers differed depending on who got them; with right-wing attacks coming in rural precincts (attacking a supposedly weak prosecution record) and attacks from the left (allegations of racial profiling) in other precincts.  The barrage of attacks with so much money behind them made it hard for the Meggs campaign to answer back considering it only had half the money.

Second, the Democratic Party activists and workers found themselves divided on the election.  Williams had positioned himself to Democratic workers as a independent who had no ties with the deeply unpopular Governor Rick Scott.  In addition, Meggs’ law and order positions upset liberal Democratic activists and attacks from the Williams campaign on race hurt Meggs with African-American activists and workers.  Local Democratic officials in rural counties who had an ax to grind with Meggs took this chance to get their payback.

Third, Williams  began an aggressive campaign into the African-American churches in Gadsden County and Southern Leon County.  With the Democratic Party holding such an overwhelming advantage in the African-American community (90 to 10), the haul was a heavy one for Williams to overcome.  Williams and his supports campaigned on the notion of unproved racial bias in the state attorney’s office.  Different church and African-American leaders were hired or worked for the Williams campaign to promote him in the community.  The tactic flew in the face of the fact that the Democratic congressional candidate and former state senator, Al Lawson, was African-American and was backing Meggs for re-election.  Anonymous attacks became a big highlight of the final stretch of the campaign as well. On the Friday before the election Bill Clinton spoke at a major rally at Florida State University while on the campaign trail for President Obama.  Cars in the parking lot next to the crowd had fliers put on the windshields that blatantly called Willie Meggs a racists. No disclaimer appeared on the fliers and no entity took responsibility.  The second circuit is around 31% African-American and a perceived eroding of support for Meggs in that constituency was viewed as a major problem. As the campaign came to a close and got nastier by the day, the race was perceived as a toss up.

Leon County

Meggs’ campaign troubles could be easily offset by a strong showing in Leon County, the most populous region in the circuit.  The vote in Leon County ended up accounting for 72% of the total votes cast in that election.  The vote cluster map below shows which precincts had the largest amount of votes cast in the state attorney race.  As the map shows, a vast majority of the large vote precincts where in Leon County.

2012 State Attorney vote clusters

The Leon Democratic Executive Committee made the re-election of Willie Meggs a top priority on its list of competitive races.  Leon Democratic volunteers canvassed precincts in the African-American southside to push back on the Williams efforts as well as in the midtown suburbs of Betton Hills/Woodgate/Waverlly Hills that Meggs had to win in order to prevent a Republican win.  Leon County rarely went Republican, but it had happened before.  The key race that I personally looked at was the 2006 General Election for Florida Agriculture Commissioner.  In that race, the Republican incumbent actually won Leon County with 55% of the vote.  The map below shows the Democratic nominee’s percentages in the Leon precincts during that year.

2006 Agriculture Commissioner

The suburban precincts along midtown, inside the green circle in the map below, were the swingish precincts of the county that the were a must-win for Meggs.  If the map for Meggs was the same as it the 2006 map then Williams would have won.  The map below is the same one I showed to the State Attorney, and I stressed the importance of doing well inside that green circle.

2006 Agriculture Commissioner zoom

The Leon Democratic Party made sure to have volunteers in the needed precincts in the county and Meggs featured prominently in the local parties mailers and slate cards that where handed out at voting locations and major rallies leading up to election day.  The Meggs campaign maintained a close relationship with the Leon Democratic Party through the election cycle, even giving $1,500 to the party in the closing week of the campaign cycle to help it continue its efforts for other candidates as well.  A final flier was made by myself for the Leon Democratic Party in the last two days of the campaign to be handed out in student precincts to sure-up Willie Meggs, County Commissioner Jane Sauls, and City Commission candidate Scott Maddox.  The flier I designed is below.

The front of the flier showed the three candidates and highlighted their support from the Leon Democratic Party.  The back tied their opponents to Rick Scott, who boasted a very low approval statewide and only won a single precincts in Leon County in 2010.

Slate card front

slate card back

With Leon Democratic Party workers prepared for the possibility of several counties voting for Pete Williams, the goal was simple:  rack up as much of a margin in Leon County as possible.

The strategy worked.  Meggs won re-election by a 2% margin.  How the vote broke down can tell a lot about how effective different strategies were.

The Results

The results of the election showed one of the closest results in recent history for the office of State Attorney.  Willie Meggs maintained a narrow lead through the night but a winner could not be called until around 9:30; two and half hours after the polls closed.  Meggs won Gadsden, Liberty, and Leon Counties while Williams won Jefferson, Franklin, and Wakulla.  Meggs got 51% of the vote, below the 58% that President Obama, the 64% that Senator Nelson, and the 59% that congressional candidate Al Lawson got in the second circuit.  However, the final margin of 5,000 votes was enough to put Meggs at 51%.

The precinct vote breakdown for the race is below.

2012 State Attorney ALL COUNTIES

The map shows precincts percentages for Willie Meggs.  Precincts in a shade of blue indicate Meggs got over 50% of the vote in those areas.  Meggs’ results show strong wins in the northern portion of the circuit, specifically Leon and Gadsden Counties.  Meggs’ county breakdown was as follows

  • Leon 52%
  • Gadsden 55%
  • Liberty 52%
  • Jefferson 49%
  • Franklin 43%
  • Wakulla 38%

Meggs’ win in Leon provided him the cushion he needed to win district wide with an 8,000 vote margin in the county (more than his overall 5,000 vote win).  The win in Gadsden was much lower than other Democratic candidates received that year but still was a win.  Liberty leans fairly Republican but Meggs carried the county thanks to familiarity and the support of many key players in the area.  Jefferson county has been moving slowly to the right in elections and Meggs just missed out on winning the county by a handful of vote.  Franklin and Wakulla have been both trending much more Republican and fell to Pete Williams.  The chart below shows how Meggs fared in 2012 compared to his much easier 2004 win.  2004 saw weaker opposition, so the drop-off is obviously high.  In addition, the chart shows how Meggs did compared to 2006 Agriculture Commission Candidate Eric Copeland, one of the few Democrats to lose the 2nd district.  Meggs still over-performed Copeland in 5 of the 6 counties and his narrowest losses from 2004 where Liberty and Leon.

Chart

Back to the main map, zooming into Tallahassee (identified by the green boundary in the image below) shows that Meggs held off Pete Williams in most of the targeted suburbs.  Overall Meggs held the city well.

2012 State Attorney ALL COUNTIES zoom

 

A key note is the lone red precinct on the bottom center of the city limits, next to several dark blue ones.  That precinct, like its surroundings, is heavily African-American.  This election marked the first time in memory that such a precinct voted Republican.  It is a reflection of the heavy efforts of the Williams campaign into the African-American community.  However, all that effort only led to that one precinct officially flipping.  In fact, the next image shows precincts that where targeted by the Leon Democrats and Meggs campaign with canvassing.  As seen in that map, the precinct next door was hit with canvassing, thus ensuring it stayed Democratic.  With only so much time in a day it is not possible to hit every area.  But when areas where hit, they stayed blue.

2012 State Attorney ALL COUNTIES Canvas

 

Meggs’ victory map looks somewhat different from President Obama’s.   The President’s results in the second circuit are below.

2nd Circuit President

 

President Obama’s wins where concentrated more in the north.  However, Obama got higher margins in the Gadsden and parts of Leon, allowing him to win a larger percent of the vote in the entire district.

Senator Bill Nelson, who dominated Connie Mack in his bid for a third term, won the biggest margin the district, winning all but Wakulla County.  He actually won Franklin by ONE vote.

2nd Circuit Senate

The map below shows how precincts voted for President and State Attorney.  The dark blue precincts are ones that voted for Meggs and Obama while dark red voted for Williams and Romney.  The light blue actually saw Meggs win Mitt Romney precincts, and light red were Williams getting Obama precincts.

2012 State Attorney Pres Compar

The map above shows a good amount of give and take.  Meggs pickup up several southern rural precincts while Williams pickup up several along I-10 as it goes through Leon and Jefferson.  The reason Williams over-performed Romney wasn’t because he pickup up more Obama precincts, it came from the narrower margins Meggs got in several areas than Obama.

The map below shows the drop-off in the vote that Meggs had compared to Obama.  The map shows the percent drop.  Drop-off in red (getting darker the bigger the gap) indicates Meggs did that specified percentage-range worse than Obama; while the blue shows a negative drop-off (meaning Meggs over-performed Obama).  In essence, the more red a precinct, the worst Meggs did compared to Obama.

2012 State Attorney ALL COUNTIES Compare

The map shows Meggs actually dramatically over-performed President Obama in most of the rural precincts.  However, Meggs’ drop-off existed in Gadsden and Leon; areas that Williams heavily targeted and had the largest populations.  This is how the race got so close.  Williams did much better than Romney in downtown Tallahassee but actually did worse in the upper county and his gains were weak in the targeted suburbs.  The hole Republicans are in in the African-American community proved to much to overcome even with aggressive campaigning and aggressive attacks.

Deeper Analysis

Willie Meggs survived being outspent 2-1 and a flurry of negative attacks against him.  Overall he under-performed President Obama, Senator Bill Nelson, and Congressional candidate Al Lawson.  However, his under-performance doesn’t mean Williams and his backers were able to completely pull Meggs away from the Democratic Party label with attacks from the left.

Much of the negative hits on Meggs where too the African-American community, claiming that Meggs was at best playing favorites and at worst racist.  How well did those attacks work?   Without exit polling there is only one clear way to check.  Using all the electoral data and racial data for the 208 populated precincts of the second circuit it is possible to see overall trend lines in voting loyalty.  First, looking at how Meggs fared with African-Americans showed that Meggs STILL had a positive relationship with the community despite all the attacks.  The scatter-plot below shows that as a precinct became more African-American, the voter for Willie Meggs increased.

Meggs-Black

There is a clear positive correlation in the graph above.  It is worth noting though that the correlation between African-Americans and President Obama was much more striking.  That graph is below.

Obama-Black

Obama’s percentages and African-American percentages had a much more positive relationship.

How about a look at how Meggs did compared to Obama?   The graph below shows that again, Meggs’ support increased as Obama’s did as well.

Obama-Meggs

Again, a narrow but clear positive correlation.   However, the reason Meggs came so close to defeat was that he was not able to keep up with the President like other candidates where.  Nelson actually over-performed the President significantly while Al Lawson and the President had almost the exact same results.  Below shows the graph of the President’s vote to Al Lawson’s

Obama-Lawson

Almost a perfect 45 degree line.  If Meggs had held such a line, his winning margin would have been much larger.

We can look at these graphs in even more detail.  There is a term in statistics called the Coefficient of Determination (r2).  This statistical technique aims to see what the statistical correlation between two items of data are.  For example, how tied to Obama’s percent of the vote is Willie Meggs’?   The coefficient is rated on a scale of 0 to 1, with a 1 being a perfect statistical correlation.   So, how tied to Obama’s performance where Lawson and Meggs?

First lets look at Meggs again.

Obama-Meggs Coefficient

 

Meggs shows a 0.35 coefficient of determination.  This means there is a relationship between items, but its a weak one.  Now lets look to Lawson’s vote.

Obama-Lawson Coefficient

The coefficient of determination for the Lawson-Obama vote is staggeringly close to 1.0.   Lawson tended to over-perform Obama by around 1% overall but overall their vote percentages were closely tied together.

Bill Nelson and Obama also had a close correlation, however it was lessened by the fact that Nelson over-performed Obama by a more significant margin.

Obama-Nelson Coefficient

 

Nelson’s coefficient with Obama was around 0.7, still a very strong relationship but less than Lawson’s.  Nelson’s over-performance compared to Obama weakened the statistical relationship, however in a good way for Nelson.  Nelson is shown in the graph to have a higher basement of support than Obama did.  The graph shows that some precincts where Obama only got 20% saw Nelson getting 30% or 40%.

The next graph below shows the correlation that Meggs/Nelson/and Lawson all had to Obama.

Obama-three compare

The graph shows Meggs had the weakest correlation with Obama compared to Nelson and Lawson.  Meggs couldn’t peak as high as Obama was in some precincts.  However, it is worth noting that Meggs didn’t crater as far as Lawson or Obama did.  Meggs’ basement seemed to be around 30% while Lawson and Obama had basements closer to 20% or lower.

A key reason for Meggs’ win can actually be attributed to his high basement (low point) of support.  While he under-performed other Democratic candidates by not getting the high vote totals in heavily Democratic precincts, he also did not have the cratering of support that Lawson and Obama saw in the rural precincts.  This can be partly attributed to Meggs’s performance with white voters.  Meggs in fact did NOT likely win the white vote.  As precincts grew whiter, he did worse, as seen below.

Meggs-white

If Meggs’ won white voters overall it was by a vary narrow margin.  However, he did much better among white voters than President Obama.

Obama-white

Obama’s graph shows a nose-dive dropoff between white voters in the second circuit and his base of support.  This drop-off is much stronger than Meggs’.   Nelson also did much better with white’s than Obama, however Meggs overall had the narrowest drop-off with white voters.

Overall, Meggs saw a drop-off in support in many Democratic precincts across the circuit, but his win came from the fact he was able to stem the bleeding in less friendly precincts. Megg’s also saw weaker drop-offs in areas heavily campaigning in by either his campaign or Leon Democratic Party, proving the value of door to door canvassing and phone banking.   Meggs’ results are very unique, with a low ceiling of votes but also a high basement.  In general Megg’s vote percentages came in between 35% and 65% in an overwhelming number of the precincts.  With wins in a majority of the precincts and stronger wins in the populous areas, it was enough for Meggs to win another term.

Conclusion

The state attorney’s election was one of the most unique and dynamic elections in the Leon/panhandle area.  With attacks coming from the left and right, Meggs could have easily failed to achieve another term.  Money was without a doubt the most important factor in the race.  Without injecting his own funds into the equation Williams would have likely lost the race by a healthy margin.  Excessive spending and dissent within the Democratic base made the race very close.  The margin of the vote in Leon provided Meggs with what he needed to ensure victory.  Without the work in Leon County, I believe its safe to say the election would have turned out very different.

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