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Sayfie Review Featured Column

by Dr. Susan MacManus
November 5, 2012

Susan A. MacManus, University of South Florida

David J. Bonanza, Research Associate, Palm Bay, FL

            Once again, Florida has proven itself to be a key battleground state, with polls showing virtually a dead heat for months on end in the race between President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney. Florida’s 29 Electoral College votes (2 more than in 2008), its partisan competitiveness and hefty independent vote, its diverse racial/ethnic mix, its unique age composition, and its “imported politics” from the northeast, Midwest, and Latin and South America have made it a “must have” state for both presidential candidates. Each has visited here a record number of times and spent millions on TV ads, leaving fewer than usual undecided voters by the campaign’s end.  

Let’s face it; winning the Sunshine State is difficult, with all its complexities.  In trying to project who will win, several key questions remain unanswered. The most important ones are age-related, reflective of the state’s generational divide.

Generational Politics

1.     Is there a clear generational divide in the expected voting patterns?  Many polls leading up to the election have shown that older voters (50+) have consistently leaned toward Romney, while younger voters, especially the 18-29 year-olds, have strongly supported Obama. The key to victory is turnout. Romney is likely to win Florida if older voters make up a larger share of the electorate than in 2008. If the GOTV efforts of Democrats are successful in turning out younger voters, minorities (which tend to be younger), and late deciding women voters (often younger), Obama will win here. Either way, it will be close.

2.     Will younger voters comprise the same share of the electorate in 2012 as in 2008?Younger voters were the key to Obama winning Florida in 2008 with their heightened enthusiasm for voting for the nation’s first black president. Exit polls that year showed that 51% of Florida’s actual voters were under 50 years of age, while 49% of Florida’s voters were age 50 or older due to higher turnout rates among the young.  Polls have shown less enthusiasm for voting among college students this year.  A higher turnout rate among older voters in 2012 relative to that of younger voters would most likely give the edge to Romney. In 2012, 48% of Florida’s registered voters are under age 50, while 52% are older.

3.     Will younger voters give the same margin of support to Obama in 2012 as in 2008? In 2008, by far his most solid support came from 18-29 year-olds (61%). This age cohort has become the most heavily-Democratic-voting age bloc. In the past, it was the senior vote which is now almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. The younger cohort is increasingly being described as today’s entitlement generation, whereas in the past it was seniors. Then, the senior cohort was dominated by FDR-era voters who were more heavily dependent upon Social Security and Medicare than today’s older voters.  The real question now is the degree to which lower levels of enthusiasm for voting may reduce the margin of Democratic support among younger voters in 2012. Recent polls suggest the margin will be narrower, with Republican-leaning younger voters making up a slightly larger share of the youth vote, although certainly not the majority.

Get-Out-The-Vote Strategies

4.     Have the candidates and parties effectively reached younger voters and, if not, why? The bulk of GOTV efforts aimed at engaging and convincing younger voters has been social media-oriented.  There is growing evidence this has not worked as well as anticipated. Younger voters regard their social media as entertainment and as their “private” space.  It hasn’t helped that virtually all appeals to younger voters ask first and foremost for money—which most college students and recent graduates do not have—rather than informing them about issues and upcoming events.  There is also likely to be some post-election criticism of the college campus visit patterns, particularly of the Obama campaign, which skipped some mega-campuses like the University of South Florida in the state’s largest and most competitive media market.  Instead, smaller venues were selected, including multiple visits to the U. of Miami—a private university.

5.     Has the over-saturation of TV ads and their highly negative slant made it more difficult to reach late deciders, typically young and women voters, often including “independents”?  The answer to this question is a resounding “Yes.”  At the very time both parties, but especially Democrats, need to reach these key portions of their base, the highly negative tone of the campaign to date has made it difficult to get a message through via traditional GOTV mechanisms—TV ads, phone calls, and e-mail blasts. Last minute personal outreach via friends and neighbors and local visits by high profile Democrats like presidents Clinton and Obama are designed to cut through the negative clutter, but will they be effective enough fast enough?

6.     Is Medicare the best wedge issue to push senior Republicans to vote Democrat? Millions of dollars have been spent on the Medicare issue by SuperPACs, the candidates, and the political parties. The question is whether this has been an effective use of money. Seniors in Florida tend to be more informed about issues and were more likely to know that any plans to reform Medicare would not affect them.  In general, Florida’s seniors are somewhat younger, healthier, wealthier, and better educated than seniors in other regions of the country. They are also more divided from a partisan perspective.  Among Florida’s registered voters 65 & older, 42% are Republican, 41% Democrat. The rest are independents or affiliated with a minor party.  Should Romney win Florida, there will be lots of soul-searching among Democrats as to whether an over-emphasis on TV ads about Medicare might have cost Obama some much-needed support from younger voters. Anecdotally, a campus-wide straw poll at USF found that TV (broadcast and cable) was the most relied upon source of campaign information, yet students in my senior Florida Politics class acknowledged they paid little attention to Medicare-related ads.   

7.     With what age group of women are contraception and abortion ads most effective?  Democrats are betting that it is the much-needed college-age woman and the working mom. Republicans see the major issue for women age 18 to 49, especially suburban moms, as the economy.  Suburban moms tend to be more swing voters—they voted for Obama in 2008 but moved more Republican in the 2010 election cycle when the economy was bad. Interestingly, some of the strongest support for reproductive rights is among Boomer-age women. 

Several weeks ago, senior Obama adviser David Plouffe told the Tampa Bay Times that “We’re going to have to work harder for our turnout than Romney does. That’s always been the case.”  At the heart of the turnout differential is Florida’s generational divide. In 2008, Democrats won with higher turnout and wider vote margins from the younger side of the age divide. This year, the tables may be turned if Republicans maintain their stronger support from Boomers and seniors that is currently showing up in public opinion polls.

Age Breakdowns of Florida Registered Voters

Florida age

Source: Florida Division of Election, Book closing registration data, Fall 2012 election.

Age by Party

Source: Florida Division of Election, Book closing registration data, Fall 2012 election.



Media Market by Age

Source: Florida Division of Election, Book closing registration data, Fall 2012 election.