On Election Night 2008, my usual election night jitters ended immediately at 7:05 PM EST, when the early vote in Orange County had us up by some 60,000 votes. It was over. No Democrat had come close to that margin, and there was no way John McCain could make it up elsewhere.
In fact, one of my favorite moments of that night was exchanging emails with a certain Democratic cable TV pundit who has a fair amount of Florida history. Upon seeing the early Orlando number, given that Kerry had won Orange County by a mere 1,000 votes, that pundit sent me an email which read "wow, Orlando just ended the McCain presidential campaign." (It was actually more colorful, but this is a G-rated blog!)
In the end, Obama carried Orange County by 85,000, and two years later despite losing, Alex Sink carried Orange by 30,000 votes, compared to Jim Davis, who lost the county by 20,000. Somethinig was clearly happening.
I've spent a few months pondering that question because quite simply, if current population growth trends continue, the Orlando media market could overtake both Miami and Tampa in the next twenty years; and if the core of that market, metro-Orlando, continues to take a big turn towards the Democrats, the statewide and even national political implications are stunning.
The point of this piece is to look at what is happening in Central Florida, which in this instance, is specifically the counties of Orange, Osceola and Seminole. When I refer to Orlando below, I am referring to these three counties. While parts of other counties can be considered metro-Orlando, it is these three counties that make up the heart of the community -- and are undergoing the most radical changes.
Metro Orlando at a Glance
Let me start by laying out a few interesting facts. Like most of my blog posts, I look at data from the five Presidentials between 1992 and 2008. Why those five? Well, 1992 is essentially the birthdate of Florida as a truly battleground state.
First, since 1992, some 2.7 million voters have cast a ballot for President in these three counties, and a mere 6700 votes separate them. However, it is important to know that the Democrats only carried the region once, in 2008, by over 100,000 votes. The other four times, the GOP won.
Secondly, the metro Orlando area has grown from 7.5% of the statewide vote in 1992 to 9.1% of the statewide vote in 2008. Furthermore, its share of the statewide vote has grown by more than 1/2 a percentage point every election cycle, regardless of turnout changes or other statewide factors. If these factors continue, and given the growth in the community, they likely will continue, the metroplex alone will be more than 10% of the statewide vote by 2020, and in 2016, it could very well have more voters than Dade County.
Next, and here is where it is very important: the growth in the statewide vote share is driven almost entirely by the Democratic side of the equation. Here's why:
In 1992, the area made up 7.5% of the statewide vote. However, for Republicans, 8.5% of their vote came from the three county area in 1992, compared to just 6.4% for the Democrats.
Fast forward to 2008, the area made up 9.1% of the statewide vote. The Republican number remains pretty steady, with the region making up 8.2% of their vote, however, the Democratic number had skyrocketed, with 10.1% of their statewide vote coming from metro-Orlando.
In terms of real numbers, or vote margins, the Republicans won the metro-Orlando area by some 51,000 votes in 1992 (more than half of their statewide margin), while in 2008, Obama carried the same three counties by over 100,000, which was nearly half of his statewide margin.
And as the area grows, it becomes a bigger share of the pie for Democrats, but not for Republicans. While the statewide share of the Republican vote coming from the area remains constant over five cycles, it has grown by some 40% for Democrats.
So what is driving this? Conventional wisdom suggests Puerto Rican growth, which is what I expected the data to bare out. In this case, that answer is more than half right, but it isn't the entire story.
Time to pull some census data.
In 2000, the metro area had roughly 1.4 million residents. Over the decade, the three county area added another 436K residents, putting the total population at just under 1.85m. (Unfortunately, I don't have good 1990 data at the county level).
Of that 436,000 resident increase, 119K can be attributed to Puerto Rican growth. In other words, roughly 27% of the total growth in the Orlando area comes from Puerto Ricans. For the purpose of this piece, I focus specifically on Puerto Ricans to the exclusions of other Hispanics, since every new Puerto Rican over the age of 18 is eligible to vote the day they move to the Orlando area.
But Puerto Ricans are not the entire story. African-Americans are just as big of a story -- and in the case of the 2012 election, may be a bigger part. Here's why.
Of the same 436K resident increase, 106K are African-American residents. In other words, the raw increase in residents among Puerto Ricans and African-Americans was almost equal. Now, when you add the non-Puerto Rican Hispanic, overall Hispanic population grew at a much larger rate, but again, this exercise is designed to look at what is happening at the ballot box, and for many, if not most new non-Puerto Rican Hispanic residents, there is a lag time between moving and voting.
And it these census trends that are driving registration and voting behaviors.
Unfortunately, Hispanics are not always reported as a separate ethnic category, and in the past have been classified as either white or black when aggregating state voter data.
While this limits the analysis, there are still some interesting data points:
First, since 1994, voter registration in the three counties has grown almost twice as fast as the state as a whole. Secondly, Democrats are gaining voters in Central Florida over that same period twice as fast as Republicans. In fact, in 1994, Republicans made up 50% of the region's voters, while today, the number is 33%. Democrats on the other hand have held steady, at 41% (independents have sky-rocketed, growing by nearly 600% over the last 18 years). More simply, in 1994, Republicans had an 8 point advantage in registration in 1994 and today, the Democrats have an 8 point advantage.
But what is driving that change? The Secretary of State only has available race by party by county data going back to 2006, but that data alone is very telling. Between 10/2006 and the GOP Presidential primary in January of 2012, the region gained roughly 84,000 new voters, with more than 75% of them either African American or Hispanic. Of these African American or Hispanic voters, over 84% registered as Democrats, split nearly evenly between African Americans and Hispanics. Only 6% of the same voters registered as Republicans.
At the same time, white voters only grew by 7% between 2006-2012, and only 12% of those registered Republican. In total, over that 5+ year period, which included the 2010 debacle for my party, Democrats added nearly 62,000 new voters, while the GOP lost 115.
All of the sudden, the reasons behind the jump from Kerry's narrow regional loss in 2004 and Obama's significant regional win in 2008 seems more obvious.
There is a lot that could be written, but here are a few macro level thoughts.
First, despite the conventional wisdom that Hispanic growth is alone fueling the political change in Orlando, at least in the 2008 election, there is some evidence that African-American voter growth played an equal --and maybe even bigger role in terms of the trends that led to Obama's stunning 2008 margin. Turnout was higher in Orange County, which has a higher percentage of African-Americans than Puerto Ricans on its voting roles, than it was in Osceola, where the numbers are essentially reversed. The turnout difference wasn't significant, but it is enough to argue that the electoral outcome changes in metro-Orlando are being driven both by Puerto Rican and African-American growth.
Secondly, the demographic trends in metro Orlando aren't changing anytime soon. Between 2000 and 2010, the non-Hispanic white population remained basically stagnant, meaning that as a percentage of the population, non-Hispanic whites drooped from over 55% of the three-county population to just over 40%. At the same time, Puerto Ricans grew from 9% to roughly 15%, and African Americans grew from 15 to 17% of area residents.
Looking just at the race in November, while I don't think the electorate will grow as much between 2008 and 2012 as it did in the preceding four years, even at a relatively modest 8.6 million turnout projection for 2012, given the current population and partisan trends, a close election would likely net the Democrats a margin of 125-150K votes in these three counties. In a 2000esque tight election, that probably flips the state to the Democrats.
Next, and maybe the biggest piece, is potential for real emergence of Puerto Rican political leadership over the next few years. The Puerto Rican community has been under-represented in elected office, but that is changing---and will specifically change at the state level in 2012, as the region goes from one to three state legislators, with the opportunity to elect a Puerto Rican member of Congress. Given the fact that over time, this population will continue to grow faster than African-Americans, and more political participation will hopefully lead to higher voter turnout, making this already critical voting bloc even more important.
And finally, third, as metro Orlando grows, it will become a bigger share of the state and more important for Democrats. While winning Florida still starts and ends with winning key swing counties and suburban swing voters, the changing Orlando area means that one fundamental component could be changing. For years, a push among swing voters usually went to the GOP, given their slight edge in base voters. However a changing Orlando area could tilt the I-4 corridor in such a way that a push among swing voters will now go to the Democrats.
The basic promise of a competitive Florida has generally lied in the calculus that Democrats down south and Republicans up north cancel each other out, and battle for the statewide prize in the Tampa and Orlando media markets. But if the three counties around Orlando continue to trend in the coming decade and beyond like they have in recent years, the fundamental balance of the I-4 will shift. I'll let you ponder what that means.