Get free daily email updates
Search Story Archive

Sayfie Review Featured Column

by Dr. Susan MacManus
September 6, 2011

Some things never seem to change.Florida will again be a major battleground state in the 2012 presidential sweepstakes. But there is considerable danger in assuming that the playing field will be fairly similar to the one that saw Democrat Barack Obama defeat Republican John McCain in 2008.

Here are five differences between 2008 and 2012 that make early predictions risky in this perennially purple state:

1.      Redistricting. The configuration of the playing field and the players will be different. Florida will have two more U.S. House seats.  How these get drawn may very well generate deep schisms that will remain in-tact until Election Day 2012 and be used to mobilize voters.

The 2012 redistricting process is already shaping up to be more contentious and divisive than was the 2002 effort, perhaps closer to the extremely contentious 1992 redistricting.  An “us” (citizens) v. “them” (state legislators) divide is quite evident from the redistricting hearings held thus far.

Already differences of opinion about what is “fair” have surfaced, driven by the various elements of the Fair Districts Amendments that voters approved in 2010. To some, a “fair” redistricting plan will be one that protects minority voting rights and opportunities to elect candidates of their choice. To others, “fairness” will be judged by the degree to which partisan-competitive districts are drawn as opposed to safe seats that yield little competition and protect incumbents. Still others say they will measure “fairness” by the shape of the districts (preferring compact rather than odd-shaped districts) or by the degree to which the districts match existing city and/or county boundaries.

Each of these ideas of fairness have their roots in the language of the adopted amendments. While the amendment language states that no one (fairness) factor “counts” more than another, it will be quite difficult, if not impossible, to achieve each to the same degree, especially in the more diverse heavily populated metropolitan areas of the state.  And while the state constitution promises that no one factor will count more than another, the federal Voting Rights Act puts a very high priority on protecting minority voting rights.   

It is easy to see why redistricting has the potential to widen the fissures that already exist in this increasingly diverse state:  racial and ethnic (minorities v. minorities; minorities v. Anglos), geographical (urban v. suburban v. rural; north v. central v. south Florida), partisan, and, of course, insiders v. outsiders (incumbents v. challengers; major parties v. minor parties).

2.      Demographics: Age. There is an old saying among Florida’s political consultants that if you rely on the last election’s demographics to guide your campaign strategy, you might very well lose this election.  Age is always an important demographic to pay attention to in this state. A comparison of the age breakdown of registered voters in 2008 v. 2011 (August 1, 2011)[1] shows that the state is more evenly divided age-wise than in 2008:

                                                    REGISTERED VOTERS

     Age                   2008                                  2011

     18-49                 45%                                  49%

     50+                    55                                     51


Historically, the strong presence of Baby Boomers and seniors has generated considerably more concerns about, and receptivity to, generational-based appeals aimed at older voters. However, the changing age composition of the Florida electorate will make the entitlement debate (particularly as it impacts Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, military benefits, and disability benefits) more important in Florida in 2012 than it was in 2008….and much more difficult for candidates to address. The “us” v. “them” could turn into a full-fledged generational schism IF younger voters, especially those in the work force, turn their anger on politicians who oppose entitlement reform. (Nearly one-third of the current registrants are 30-49 year olds.)   

3.     Changing Media Habits & Technology: 2012 will be the “App Election.” The use of social media fueled candidates’ voter outreach in 2008 when Facebook and YouTube connected millions of voters with the candidates. But there is also a saying that last election’s “hot” technology will not be nearly as effective in this election year, especially among gadget-conscious younger voters.  (My college students strongly believe that social media blasts from candidates are “old news” and all about asking for money rather than any attention to issues.)

The rapid proliferation of tablets and smartphones is highly likely to make catchy, “cool”, and free mobile apps the “hot” technology linking candidates to supporters in 2012. The ever-changing nature of Americans’ media habits is heavily watched by campaign strategists who carefully study frequent research updates by the Pew Research Center For The People & The Press and its Project For Excellence in Journalism…and for good reason.  The cost of reaching voters in Florida’s 10 media markets makes it imperative for campaigns to discern the most effective and efficient way to communicate their messages to voters and devise Get-Out-The-Vote efforts.

4.      Fewer Restrictions on Campaign Finance and Independent Expenditures (IEs).  Florida was already a “cash cow” for presidential and congressional candidates, political parties, and independent advocacy groups before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling bolstered independent expenditures.  Florida’s status as a battleground and a big donor (contributor) state practically guarantees that the number of IEs will explode, the result being more television ads with a much more negative tone and a higher proportion of ad sponsors that are unchecked by any donor transparency requirement. In the latter situation, the real “us” v. “them” may be extremely difficult to identify, but far easier to vilify.   

5.      Greater animosity among working middle class Floridians toward government officials for making the middle class the “have nots.” A mere sampling of public opinion polls at all levels vividly reveals a strong “us” v. “them” sentiment, particularly among the working middle class. They see elected officials and government workers as “working less” but “getting more” (benefits; job security) out of government. In fact, many in the middle class now describe themselves as the “have-nots,” believing that during this severe economic downturn, the government has taken care of the poor and rewarded the rich (large corporations) but has turned its back on the middle-class when they have needed help the most (facing loss of their job and/or home).  This “us” v. “them” divide is shaping up to be the most powerful divide of all in 2012.   

There is certainly a much higher level of frustration, cynicism, anger, and impatience among the voters on both sides of the aisle now than in 2008. The director of CNN polling recently acknowledged the breadth of this pessimism: 

“The jump in economic pessimism is across the board—a majority of every major demographic and political subgroup thinks the economy is in a downturn and getting worse.”[2]


Translated into political terms, this means voters in 2012 will be considerably more skeptical of the same old generic “pie-in-the-sky” pledges from politicians, having seen firsthand that these promises have done little to improve the quality of life for the working middle class. Fear of losing one’s job and home—it doesn’t get more basic than that. This group will be a much harder group for candidates, especially incumbents, to reach in 2012 than in 2008. If unchecked, these feelings will yield another wave election.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the differences between the 2008 and 2012 election cycles. But one thing is certain: the “us” v. “them” divide is considerably deeper among Floridians and bridging the divide will be more of a challenge in 2012 than in 2008.

[1] Statistics provided by the Florida Division of Elections.

[2] Reid Epstein, “Poll: 60% Say Economy Getting Worse,” Politico, August 8, 2011.