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Bush 00/04 vs Obama 08/12...Their Road Maps to Winning

Florida, Colorado, Virginia, Nevada and Ohio share a unique distinction:  these are the only five states who twice voted for President Bush and twice voted for President Obama.  

Here in Florida, while each of the four elections was very different, the topline on the wins for each side was pretty similar.  President Bush carried Florida twice by a combined margin of roughly 380,000 votes, while President Obama won Florida twice by a margin of roughly 310,000.  In total, some 30 million voters cast a ballot for the nominee of one of the two major parties, with only 0.2% of the vote separating the Bush wins from the Obama wins over those four elections.  Hard to get much closer.

I plan on diving deeper into the subject once the voter files have all been updated and we can get a better handle on who actually voted, but for the sake of this exercise, this piece will examine the differences -- and the similarities, in voting habits at a county and media market level between President Bush and President Obama in their two Florida wins.

Couple of caveats -- the data below is presented in terms of actual county and media market margins, in other words, real votes -- and the change between Presidents.  For example, President Bush carried Hillsborough County (Tampa) in 2000 and 2004 by a combined margin of 42,647, while President Obama carried the county in 2008 and 2012 by a combined margin of 72,889.  This change in vote nets out to a 115,536 change in the margin towards the Democratic nominee.

And since I am a Democrat and since we still control the table after the 2012 win, for the sake of ease, some of the data will be presented from the perspective of the Obama win margins vs the Bush win margins. 

First, a few macro level points:

Florida has grown a lot.  In 2000, just under 6 million people voted for either President Bush or Vice President Gore, while in 2012, over 8.4 million people voted for either President Obama or Governor Romney, or a 41% change in voter participation.  Interestingly, there was only a minor change in total voters from 2008 and 2012 -- a fact that when combined with the changes in the ethnic make-up of our total voter pool, I could argue really helped the President win Florida in 2012.

Also, a disproportionate share of the growth, compared to the media market population, has come from the Orlando and Jacksonville markets.  In other words, these two are growing faster as a proportion of the total statewide vote compared to other markets.  At the same time, both the Tampa and Miami markets are shrinking as proportion of the statewide vote.   For example, in the two Bush wins, the Tampa market made up 25% of the statewide vote, but in the two Obama wins, the market landed at 24% of the statewide market, while the Orlando market grew from 19.1% to 20.4%.  

As mentioned above, President Bush carried Florida by a combined 380,000 votes in 2000 and 2004 and President Obama win Florida by a combined 310,000 votes in 2008 and 2012.  This equates to a roughly 690,000 vote change between their margins of victory.  Yet interestingly enough, in 48 counties, the 2008 and 2012 GOP nominees actually increased their combined margin of victory over the two Bush wins.  The problem for the GOP:  Those counties only added up to 32% of the total statewide voter turnout in 2012. 

In fact, President Obama performed better than President Bush in terms of vote margin in the seven biggest counties, and in 11 of the top 14.  And in a spoiler alert -- 8 of those 11 occurred in just three media markets.

So with that, let's dive in at a bit more granular level and look at the similarities and differences:

The Similarities  

One of the first things that pops in the data is when you look at the state by media markets, in six of the ten Florida media markets, the party of the eventual nominee had virtually no impact on the margin of victory in that market.  Those six markets are: Jacksonville, Gainesville, Tallahassee, Fort Myers, Pensacola and West Palm Beach.

To illustrate just how stable these markets were across the four cycles, while these six markets make up 34% of the statewide vote, they only make up 3% of the change between the Bush and Obama wins.  

Take the West Palm Beach market, considered a base Democratic market, which made up just about 10.5% of the statewide vote in 2012, the Democratic nominees in 2000 and 2004 carried the market by 201,230 votes, while President Obama won the market by 201,707 votes.  In other words, President Obama in his two wins only won the West Palm Beach market by 477 more votes than Kerry and Gore combined.  

On the flipside, in the aforementioned fast growing Jacksonville market, considered a base Republican market, which made up 8.9% of the statewide vote in 2012, President Bush carried the market by roughly 291K votes, while the Republican nominees in 2008 and 2012 carried the market by 284K votes, again, virtually no change.  But Jacksonville also shows how the numbers can be deceptive:  while the market looked the same, the county level data shows a different story.  While President Bush won Duval County (Jacksonville) by a combined 105,000 votes, President Obama cut that margin to 22,000 votes -- yet the growing margins that Mitt Romney and John McCain carried out of the fast growing suburban counties like Clay and St. Johns nearly made up for the Duval margins.  Keeping Duval close in the future is key for Democrats who want to avoid getting totally swamped in the market.

The Differences -- and Where Obama Won

Of the four other markets, only Panama City saw an appreciable positive GOP change from the Bush coalitions to the Obama coalitions.  The two Republican  nominees increased the GOP margin of victory in this market by over 45%, from 92,000 to 135,000 votes.  However, the challenge going forward for the GOP is it is hard to imagine how this grows further.  At just 1.9% of the statewide vote, there isn't much room for growth.

Before moving on, just to show how Republican the Panhandle is, despite the Pensacola and Panama City markets making up less than 6% of the statewide vote, Senator McCain and Governor Romney carried the region by a combined 360,000 votes.  This is a bigger margin than four of the five markets that President Obama carried:  Tallahassee, Gainesville, West Palm Beach and Orlando, combined, despite those four markets adding up to 34% of the statewide vote.

Back to where Obama made up  his ground:  Tampa, Orlando, and Miami.  In fact, President Obama improved the Democratic margins in these markets by 711,000 votes over Gore and Kerry.  Remember, the total Democratic margin improvement from the Bush wins to the Obama wins was 690,000 votes.  

In 2000 and 2004, the Democratic nominee for President won these two markets by a combined 138,000 votes, with all of the winning margin coming from the Miami media market.  In 2008 and 2012 elections, President Obama won the three markets by a whopping 849,000 votes.  A table below will illustrate this, but essentially, just roughly half of that margin change came from the Miami media market, while the remaining half came from the two I-4 markets.  

Here is how the three markets looked across each of the four elections in terms of the Democratic margin of victory:






















In other words, in the Obama wins, the base margin in the Miami market (Dade and Broward for the most part) simply swamped the GOP margins in their markets, and President Obama sealed the deal by either winning the I-4 corridor (2008) or keeping it razor close (2012).  


There are several interesting takeaways, from my perspective.  

Since Florida truly became a swing state in 1992, you could generally argue that the GOP base vote was equal to or maybe a bit bigger than the Dem base vote in Presidential elections, particularly since the I-4 corridor tended to lean a little to the right.  

But this changed in the Obama coalitions.  Here is how:

In the two Bush wins, the Bush margin of victory in his four base markets:  Fort Myers, Jacksonville, Pensacola and Panama City was about 50% larger than the Democratic margin of victory in the the Miami media market in 2000 and 2004.  In the Obama elections, his Miami media market margin alone was bigger than the the entire GOP margin in their four base markets.  Add all the Democratic base markets (Miami, West Palm, Gainesville and Tallahassee), and we see that unlike the Bush wins, where the base markets were pretty much at parity, meaning that the I-4 markets decided the election, in the Obama wins, the Democratic base markets significantly outperformed the GOP base markets.

The table below, which shows the Democratic margins, illustrates this:


Bush (00/04)

Obama (08/12)


Base R




Base D




Miami Only





Simply, in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama started the election with a bigger base than the GOP, meaning to win, he just needed to keep it all in check along the critical I-4 corridor.

Secondly, Florida is changing.  If there is one word to sum up the difference in the coalitions:  Demographics.  In 2000, the state’s white (non-Hispanic) population made up 61.2% of residents.  As of the 2010 census, that number was 52.6%, with Hispanics making up 22.5% of the state and the Black (Black is the census reported term, and for Florida, this means both African American and Caribbean American populations) population making up 16%.  Census data shows that non-Cubans are becoming a bigger piece of the pie in Miami-Dade, and polling data shows that the younger Cuban voters are less aligned to the traditional exile politics of their parents and grandparents.  

Next, as I explored in an earlier piece, the Hispanic population trends have arguably had the most acute impact on the Orlando market, where the growth has been driven by Puerto Rican residents, who unlike immigrant Hispanic populations, can vote the first day they land in Florida.  And while not as dramatic, some of these same trends can be seen in Tampa, though as former Floridian Beth Reinhard wrote in the authoritative piece on Hillsborough County, Tampa still remains the cornerstone swing area.

Take the difference between 2008 and 2012 in just voter registration, where minority voter registration was twice as high as white voter registration.  When the books closed on 2012, there were some 300,000 more Hispanic voters than 2008, roughly 150,000 more black (African American and Caribbean American) voters, with roughly a similar 150,000 white voters.  Among the Hispanics, right 90% of the growth accrued to either Democrats or Independents/NPA voters.  Specifically, only 32,000 of the 300,000 were Republicans.  

But when it all boils down, the last four elections have roughly looked something like this:  Tie, Bush +5, Obama +3, Obama +1.  More specifically, the average Bush two-party vote margin of win was 2.8 points, while the average Obama win was 1.8 points, both within the margin of error of most polling.  And as mentioned above, add up all the votes over the last four elections, and the 70,000 votes separating the two parties equates to a 0.2% GOP advantage.  

In other words, Florida is Florida, and at 29 electoral votes for 2016 and 2020, expect it to be fully in play for the next few cycles.

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