Sayfie Review Featured Column
The 2012 Presidential Race in Florida: Looking Back and Projecting Ahead
by Dr. Susan MacManus
January 9, 2013
Susan A. MacManus, Distinguished University Professor
University of South Florida
David J. Bonanza, Research Associate, Palm Bay, FL
With the presidential inauguration just around the corner and the newly-elected Congress now in place, it is the perfect time to reflect back on the long, grueling presidential race and to look ahead to possible changes in campaigning that might be in place by the 2016 race as a consequence of lessons learned in 2012.
What we expected going into the election and why
- Florida would be close. There were a lot of reasons to project a close election in 2012. In 2008, Democrat Barack Obama defeated Republican John McCain by just 2.8% of the vote─the fifth closest vote in the nation. The state’s 2010 gubernatorial race was the closest in modern history. Republican Rick Scott defeated Democrat Alex Sink by just 1.2%. And the results of most horse race polls (partisan and nonpartisan) pitting Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney were within the margin of error for months. The race ended up that way—nearly a tie—with Obama winning Florida by less than 1 % (50 % v. 49.1% for Romney). Just 74,309 votes out of the over 8 million cast separated the two front runners.
- A contested election was not out of the question. With early prognostications of another “nail-biter” presidential election in 2012, each major political party focused on positioning itself for contesting or defending the election results should a repeat recount be in the cards. Such a possibility was anticipated. Early on, Bill Daley, Obama’s former White House Chief of Staff, and a key figure in the 2000 recount battle, warned the Obama campaign to prepare for a possible recount in Florida in 2012. Republican legal strategists issued similar warnings to their party and candidates. Following the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore 5-4 ruling and other close statewide races, election reform in the Sunshine State had increasingly taken on a much sharper partisan edge, particularly with regard to voter eligibility and access (as opposed to election technology).The battle lines were drawn following passage of the highly controversial 2011 Election Reform Bill, with Democrats focused on broadening their base constituencies and Republicans on protecting theirs. Each party proclaimed that its reforms were integral to improving the overall integrity of the election system.
- Economy would be dominant issue. There was never any doubt that the economy would be the top concern of Florida voters, regardless of party affiliation. After all, the state’s unemployment and home foreclosure rates were higher than the national average and the median family income of Floridians had dropped at a sharper rate than in many other states. Republicans assumed that “economic voters” would be highly critical of President Obama’s handling of the economy and lean heavily toward Romney, while Democrats bet that lower and middle-class voters would be drawn back to Obama by his proposals to tax the wealthy at higher rates.
- The I-4 Corridor would be the state’s premier battleground. Over 40% of all Florida registered voters lived in either the Tampa or Orlando media markets. I-4 corridor voters were more evenly divided from a partisan perspective than in any other media market. The I-4 corridor vote in presidential elections had mirrored the statewide vote beginning with the 2000 election. Predictably, both campaigns located their state headquarters in the I-4 corridor, specifically in Tampa—the state’s largest media market, housing one-fourth of all Florida’s registered voters. Candidate visits and TV ads flooded the Tampa and Orlando media markets, offering further proof that both parties saw the I-4 Corridor as critical to winning the state.
- The targeting of Hispanic voters was a central part of both parties’ outreach. The 2010 U.S. Census results and the redistricting that followed heavily publicized the growth rate of Hispanics in Florida vis-à-vis other racial/ethnic groups. Both parties focused considerable attention on the burgeoning Puerto Rican community in the Orange and Osceola county areas. Democrats counted on the anti-immigration stances of Republicans to help them win the Puerto Rican vote. Republicans were hopeful that they could make in-roads by emphasizing higher-than-average unemployment rates among minorities since polls showed that Hispanics, like other Floridians, consistently ranked the economy as their top issue of concern.
- The suburban areas surrounding key urban centers would be the key to a Romney victory. Voter turnout rates are historically higher in suburban areas than in urban core areas. In 2008, suburban voters leaned toward Obama but in 2010, they swung heavily Republican as the state’s economy worsened. It was the suburban, or bedroom, areas that had been most negatively impacted by high unemployment and home foreclosure rates. Republicans calculated that suburban turnout and vote patterns in 2012 would be more like 2010 than 2008 due to slower-than-average economic recovery rates in many of these areas, especially those with larger concentrations of middle-class residents.
- Debates would matter to Florida voters. While other pundits were projecting that candidate debates would have little impact on the presidential race, we in Florida knew better. After all, exit polls over the years had repeatedly shown that a high percentage of Florida voters judged debates to be helpful to them in making their vote decisions. Unlike 30-second TV ads or regular news coverage in highly-saturated media markets, debates allow voters a chance to see and hear candidates in their own words.
- A generational divide was evident in most horserace and issue polls. While many outside of Florida still assumed that the state’s senior voters were the dominant cohort, our pre-election analyses of registered voters showed that 52% of Florida’s voters were 50 years-of-age or older, but 48% were under age, with the largest cohort being 30-49 year olds. Democrats expected that the age divide that was quite evident in the 2008 presidential race would be repeated in 2012. In 2008, Obama won 61% of the 18-29 year old vote. Republicans believed they could erode Obama’s 2008 margin of victory by focusing on high unemployment rates and the rapidly growing national debt and arguing that each had disproportionately landed on the shoulders of young voters. Democrats knew full well that the younger cohort (18-to-29) was the most solidly Democratic (and liberal) in its vote patterns and more pro-government than their elders. They fully understood that Obama’s biggest challenge was getting younger voters to turn out, particularly young women and persons of color. Post-election revelations showed Democrats had a much better plan for targeting young voters, often described as “low propensity” voters.
- Get-out-the-vote efforts (GOTV) would be critical. The party that could best mobilize their base would likely win Florida. The organizational superiority of Democrats was touted from the get-go, with countless articles detailing the Obama campaign’s edge in the number of offices around the state (106 v. 47) and paid staffers. Republicans held out hope that an improved GOTV data base (compared to 2008) would put them on more equal footing with the Democrats, while Democrats were quite confident they had a far superior GOTV data base and the grassroots-level personnel in place to execute their GOTV plan.
- Turnout would be a record high. Many election officials projected record-setting turnout rates. These predictions were based on the inordinate attention given to Florida by the national media and the campaigns, the persistent closeness in the polls, and later, the high rate of early voting. (This was one piece of “conventional wisdom” that did not pan out, as turnout in the state fell.)
What We Were A Bit Unsure About and Why
- The enthusiasm-for-voting edge. There was some question as to which party would have the edge by Election Day. Historically, the party not holding the White House (the “out party”) is more motivated to vote (witness Democrats in 2008). But in 2012, polls showed a lot of fluctuation in enthusiasm depending on events. For example, Republican enthusiasm was generally higher up until the Democratic National Convention when Obama got the traditional convention bounce. But Republican enthusiasm surged ahead after the first presidential debate, then dipped after the second and third debates.
- Turnout among younger voters. Could the Obama campaign mobilize Florida’s younger voters as it had in 2008? Poll after poll showed lower levels of enthusiasm among younger voters. There was evidence that economic woes were taking their toll on college students (the high turnout portion of the youth vote). Many had seen their own parents suffer economically. Pressured to take more classes, they had less time to get engaged in campaign activities—a collective activity that spikes turnout. And some were disappointed with Obama’s first four years in office on a number of fronts, ranging from gay rights to Guantanamo.
- Turnout and cohesion of women voters, especially suburban women. More women were registered as Democrats (44%) than Republicans (34%) or independents/minor party (22 %). There was a lot more fluctuation in gender support patterns throughout the campaign in Florida than nationally. Several times, the divide among women voters was considerably narrower here, giving hope to the Romney campaign. (It is often said that if the women’s vote in Florida is split, Republicans will win the state.). Some analysts attributed the fluctuation to suburban women—who voted for Obama in 2008 but for Republicans in 2010, largely over economic issues. Democrats were optimistic that these women could be drawn back to Obama by reproductive rights issues and health care for themselves and their children. Democrats worried about turnout among younger minority women—a larger portion of Democratic-voting women, while Republicans were confident in their ability to turn out older and married women with historically higher turnout rates.
- Turnout and cohesion of Hispanic voters. Florida’s Hispanics are more diverse and historically tend to split politically along country-of-origin lines. Nationally, polls consistently showed heavy support for Obama among Hispanics (in the two-thirds range) but a much narrower margin among Florida’s Hispanic voters. The narrower gap was attributed to the larger presence of Hispanic Republicans, namely Cubans, although their share of the Hispanic vote had been shrinking over the past few election cycles and trending a bit more Democratic. There was considerable uncertainty as to the turnout rate of Puerto Ricans, which tends to be somewhat unpredictable. It is highest when there is a high profile Puerto Rican candidate on the ballot, which there was not in 2012 in the Puerto Rican-intensive Orlando area.
- The role of religion in the election. There were uncertainties about the degree to which Romney’s Mormon faith would cause some evangelical Christians to stay home, although that community is not as large in Florida as in other southern states. There were also questions about how much Jewish support for the president would fall based on some polls had shown some slippage. The Catholic vote was also more unpredictable than usual because of the debate about whether the mandatory employer coverage of contraceptives was a violation of religious freedom. As it turned out, there were few changes in religious voting patterns from the 2008 election, the biggest one being a decline in Catholic share of the electorate (from 28% to 23%) and a switch in vote choice from Obama in 2008 (50%) to Romney (52%) in 2012. There was no slippage in the white evangelical Christian share of the electorate (24% in both 2008 and 2012), who gave more support to Mormon Romney (79%) than to McCain (77%). Protestants and Catholics leaned toward Romney, while Jewish, Other, and Non-Religious (secular) voters favored Obama. The highest level of support (72%) for the president came from the seculars who are younger, more liberal voters.
- The impact of TV ads (SuperPAC; candidate) on turnout. Floridians were subjected to more spending on TV ads than in any other state. The over-saturation of the airwaves, along with the highly negative tone of the ads which presented conflicting messages back-to-back, were of concern to both parties. The fear was that these ads would tamp down turnout. After all, we had seen some evidence of that in the August primary elections but did not know whether the same pattern would hold true in the general election.
- The effectiveness of Democrats’ class-based (class warfare) economic arguments. In a state with a large number of small businesses and a wealthier older constituency, some questioned whether Obama’s proposals to more heavily tax the rich (redistribute wealth) would gain support among Florida voters. As it turned out, it did. Those with incomes under $50,000 grew as a share of the electorate from 39% in 2008 to 45% in 2012; a majority voted for Obama, while voters with incomes $50,000+ supported Romney.
- How independents would vote. The growing tendency of Florida voters to register as independents (No Party Affliation) renewed the debate as to whether they would vote for Obama as they had in 2008 or for the Republican as they had done in the 2010 midterm election. Most of the slight shifts of the horse race polls in one direction or another throughout the campaign was attributable to this group of voters, who tend to be younger. In 2012, 25% of those registering as NPAs were 18 to 29 year-olds; another 36% were 30 to 49 year-olds.
- Whether an all-white male ticket could win in an increasingly diverse Florida. This question was prompted by demographic shifts showing that over one-fourth of the registered voters were racial/ethnic minorities and 53% of the state’s registered voters were female. The question gained in importance as the campaign progressed. Split-screen TV shots compared the diversity of delegates to the Republican and Democratic National Conventions, debates over suppression of youth and minority voters went viral, and several GOP males made insensitive comments regarding rape and reproductive rights raising the ire of Democrat and Republican women alike.
What We Didn’t Expect and Why
- Among those saying “Economy” was their chief concern (62%), Romney won (53% to 46%) but only gained a majority of those identifying taxes as their premier economic concern. Obama won among voters pointing to the housing market, unemployment, and rising prices as their chief concern—a real shocker to the Romney campaign.
- Some polls taken around July had shown for the first time that more voters were blaming President Obama for the country’s economic woes than George W. Bush. But exit polls showed that among Florida voters, over half (51%) still pointed to George W. Bush. Obama’s argument that progress was being made—“Trust me; I told you it would take time; we are seeing improvements”—gained traction as Florida’s unemployment rate continued to drop in the last few months leading up to the election and the economy in Democratic vote-rich south Florida noticeably began to improve as reflected in rising home prices. Obama won handily among those saying their family situation was either getting better or was the same as 4 years ago (63%). Obama’s economic policies had also gotten a ringing endorsement from former President Bill Clinton. In last minute visits to several of Florida’s metro areas, Clinton reiterated a claim he had made in a TV ad aired in swing states, namely that Romney’s economic policies were even further to the right and more extreme than even those of G.W. Bush.
- The suburban areas tipped toward Obama as they had in 2008. Obama won 51% of the suburban vote, down slightly from 53% in 2008. There is some anectodal evidence suggesting that suburban women who initially had supported Romney, especially after the first debate, switched back to Obama, pushed toward the president by his strong stances on pay equity, health care, and reproductive rights. But there is also evidence that turnout among white suburbanites fell in 2012.
- Turnout was lower than expected in several key suburban counties along the I-4 corridor. Obama’s margin of victory was greatest in south Florida—where economic recovery was occurring at a faster pace than in the I-4 corridor area. Some have speculated that turnout of middle class suburbanites in highly TV-ad saturated areas (the I-4 Corridor) fell because neither candidate convinced these voters that they had a clear plan on how to fix the economy and fix it fast.
- The biggest surprise of all was the turnout and cohesion of younger voters. No one had projected that the youth vote as a proportion of the electorate would increase in 2012, but it did (from 15% in 2008 to 16% in 2012). As in 2008, younger voters, especially female and minority youth, propelled Obama to victory in Florida. The Obama campaign was very effective in GOTV efforts aimed at traditional late deciders—mostly young and female voters—primarily by relying on embedded staff and a superior data base that constantly informed the campaign as to who had not yet voted but had pledged to do so. (In Florida, exit polls showed that 3% of the voters made up their minds about voting on Election Day; another 5% did so just a few days ahead.) President Clinton’s visits to college campuses, along with those by Obama in south Florida, and Michelle Obama in Tallahassee, Orlando, Jacksonville, Gainesville, and Davie also helped mobilize younger voters in the closing days of the election. They stressed Obama’s college loan policies and his health care plan that allowed younger voters to remain on their parents’ health insurance policies. Younger women were also pushed to vote by contraception and reproductive rights issues.
- Turnout rates and cohesion among Hispanic voters were higher than anticipated. Hispanics increased their share of the electorate from 14% in 2008 to 17% in 2012; 60% voted for Obama—up 3% from 2008. The unexpectedly large vote for Obama was driven by a higher-than-expected vote for him among Cubans. Generational replacement has made the Cuban vote less solidly Republican. Younger Cubans born in the U.S. are more interested in domestic than foreign policy and lean more Democratic than their parents or grandparents. Spanish language media (Univision, Telemundo) also played a big part in promoting cohesiveness among Hispanics in order to increase the political clout of Hispanics overall. Spanish language TV and radio stations constantly pushed Hispanics to register and vote and down-played country-of-origin differences.
- The women’s vote expanded (from 53% in 2008 to 55% in 2012) and ended up more solidly behind Obama (53%) than polls taken earlier in the campaign had suggested. Post-election studies point to a surge in the younger women’s vote near the end of the campaign, moved by powerful Amendment 6 ads on TV (reproductive rights; abortion) and by active women’s groups on campus. Social issues like gay marriage and abortion ended up being more important than economic issues to younger single women voters. In fact, the gender gap between unmarried women and men was wider (6%) than between married women and men (4%). A majority of unmarrieds supported Obama, while marrieds preferred Romney. And, as noted earlier, some suburban women also moved back to Obama at the campaign’s end, pushed by concerns about pay equity and health care availability.
- There was no record turnout rate in Florida; the voter turnout rate actually fell by 4%. The drop was most acute in several metro areas (Orlando, Miami) where there was an over-saturation of negative ads that tended to alienate lower income working class whites. These voters felt that neither candidate offered much of a solution to the economic problems facing the average Floridian. In addition, the over-saturation of ads meant that last-minute GOTV tactics that used to work to mobilize late deciders did not: phone calls (in person or robo), TV ads, and mailers. Neither did the GOP’s GOTV plan which heavily relied on a dysfunctional data base. The superiority of the Democrats’ microtargeting efforts by “embedded” organizers was quite evident. And it was the Democrats’ edge in GOTV that pulled Obama across the finish line in Florida.
- Voter suppression arguments effectively mobilized minority voters, especially African Americans. Before voter suppression became a big issue, there was some concern among Obama supporters that enthusiasm for the president had fallen in the black community because of the president’s stance on gay marriage and that new registration procedures and a reduction in the number of early voting days would result in fewer black voters. But when voter suppression battles escalated, older African Americans quickly coalesced behind the president. These voters had fought long and hard for minority voting rights and were not about to see them taken away. Younger blacks were mobilized by Washington-based ministers brought into Florida to preach about the sacrifices of their elders on the Sunday of “souls to the polls” efforts, and by voter protection groups on college campuses. Exit polls showed that blacks as a share of all Florida voters was at the same level as in 2008 (13%) and solidly behind Obama (95%).
- Mother Nature was the October Surprise. Certainly no one expected a massive hurricane to prompt a Republican Governor in the Northeast to heap praise on President Obama for his pledge to help residents in New Jersey recover from the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. This public display of a prominent Republican’s “affection” for President Obama was disconcerting to Florida Republicans. It conjured up images of a time when then Republican Governor Charlie Crist’s gave a “man hug” to the president for his economic stimulus package funds. Together, Crist, who was given a speaking role at the Democratic National Convention and campaigned heavily for the president’s reelection, and Governor Chris Cristie (R-NJ), who applauded Obama’s handling of Hurricane Sandy, allowed the bipartisan message of the President to finally gain some traction at the last minute, just in time to sway some late deciders.
Projecting Ahead to 2016
Perhaps more than in any presidential campaign in recent history, Election 2012 elicited major debates about how future campaigns should be run in an era of constantly changing technology affecting candidates’ communication with voters and in a country (and state) experiencing major demographic shifts that are yielding a deepening generational political divide (young—Democratic; old—Republican). Post-election analyses of major events have raised some interesting questions about choices that must be made by candidates and parties in 2016. So, too, have analyses of the relative effectiveness of various voter mobilization efforts that occurred right up through Election Day, November 6, 2012.
- Fewer televised presidential primary debates. What was perhaps the most unexpected dimension of the GOP primaries was the record number of high-profile TV debates featuring GOP candidates, the first of which occurred on May 5, 2011! Proponents of a lot of TV debates at the primary stage argue that it helps the eventual nominee to hone his/her debating skills and positions the candidate to be better prepared for the general election debates. As proof positive, they point to Romney’s superior performance at the first debate against Obama, labeled a “game changer” by many analysts. But opponents of a seemingly endless number of intra-party debates strung out for months on end complain that they aid the opposition party’s nominee by supplying that candidate with all the ammunition he/she needs to craft effective negative ads against the debate survivor. Certainly Obama was given general election ammunition to use against Romney by the governor’s fellow Republicans on a wide range of issues, ranging from immigration, taxes, energy, and health care, to women’s issues such as pay equity and reproductive rights. In 2016, both parties may have contested primaries, probably reducing the likelihood of numerous cable TV debates.
- A push for abandoning a primary calendar that puts Iowa and New Hampshire first. In an election that proved population composition (demographics) matters, the parties, especially Republicans, are questioning the wisdom of leading off with these two unrepresentative states. Winning primaries in diverse, often larger, critical swing states is vital to determining whether a nominee can successfully appeal to younger, more racially/ethnically and ideologically diverse electorates. In 2012, Romney fared poorly in those types of states because of having to move further right on social issues in the smaller, more rural, Anglo-dominated states. Just a few short weeks after Obama was re-elected, the Republican governor of Iowa proposed eliminating the pre-caucus beauty contest known as the Ames Straw Poll because of its poor record of predicting the party’s eventual nominee and the high costs of holding it.
- Shorter national party conventions. Florida Republicans’ worst fears seemed likely to come true—an August hurricane headed toward the Tampa area. The storm never really hit the area, but rain and winds forced the party to cancel the first day of the convention, leaving the host city, the delegates, and hundreds of vendors holding their breath that the storm would veer away from the area by the next day. It did. But the cancellation of events and the successful readjustment of the schedule raised anew questions of whether four-day conventions are really necessary anymore or even desirable with networks offering fewer hours of prime time coverage.
- Scheduling national party conventions in mid-summer. Under federal campaign finance rules, a candidate cannot receive federal funds to be used in the general election phase of a presidential campaign until he/she is officially nominated by the party. Romney really felt the pinch of the campaign finance rule holding back federal funds until official nomination because it deprived him of resources to counter the massive number of attack ads the Obama campaign launched against him in the summer before the GOP convention. In virtually every post-election analysis, the barrage of unanswered Obama ads against the governor was mentioned as a major factor contributing to the president’s victory.
- There will be more ideological balance in the selection of the presidential/vice presidential debate moderators to avoid charges of media bias. This question took on added meaning as media bias concerns escalated significantly in 2012. A widely-cited Gallup Poll conducted in September 2012 found that a record-high 60 percent of those surveyed had little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly. Such sentiments are bound to keep pressure on the Commission on Presidential Debates to pay more attention to ideological balance of the moderators in 2016.
- Both parties will revisit campaign spending priorities: TV ads v. major data bases. They will be asking whether spending on TV ads is still more effective than spending on online ads or on comprehensive data bases that are critical to GOTV efforts. They will be debating when the bulk of TV ad money should be spent, and whether over-saturation of TV ads tamps down turnout among key demographic bases and/or makes it more difficult to reach late deciders who may hold the key to victory.
Now, it is onward to 2016. But first, we have a sure-to-be exciting gubernatorial race ahead of us in 2014.
Interesting Graphics: Election 2012
(Ads, Candidate Visits, Vote Patterns, Exit Polls 2008 v. 2012, Turnout)
Fig. 1. Florida Viewers Were The Most Subjected to Spending on TV Ads
Note: All data since April 11, 2012, the day after Rick Santorum dropped out of the Republican primaries.
Source: “Mad Money: TV ads in the 2012 presidential campaign,” The Washington Post, November 14, 2012. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/politics/track-presidential-campaign-ads-2012/.
Fig. 2. Viewers in I-4 Corridor Media Markets Saw the Most TV Ads in 2012
Note: All data since April 11, 2012, the day after Rick Santorum dropped out of the Republican primaries.
Source: “Mad Money: TV ads in the 2012 presidential campaign,” The Washington Post, November 14, 2012. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/politics/track-presidential-campaign-ads-2012/.
Fig. 3. Candidates Visited Florida Often
Note: This chart shows the number of campaign events since the end of the Democratic National Convention.
Source: “Presidential Tracker,” The Center for Voting and Democracy, November 16, 2012. http://www.fairvote.org/presidential-tracker#.ULNroYbe-Sp.
Fig. 4. The I-4 Corridor Media Markets (Tampa, Orlando) Were the Most Competitive
Note: Blue: Obama; Red: Romney. Source: Calculated from election return data reported by the Florida Division of Elections.
Fig. 5. Counties with Highest Unemployment Rates Voted for Romney
Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics Unemployment rates by county, not seasonally adjusted, Florida September 2012; Election return data reported by the Florida Division of Elections.
Fig. 6. Foreclosure Rates Not as Closely Tied to Vote Patterns as Unemployment in Large Urban Counties
Sources: RealtyTrac September 2012 Foreclosure Rate http://www.realtytrac.com/trendcenter/fl-trend.html; Election return data reported by the Florida Division of Elections.
Fig. 7. Turnout Rates Fell in Every Media Market
Sources: Calculated from registration (October book closing) and election return data reported by the Florida Division of Elections.
Figure 8. A Comparison of Florida Voters: 2008 v. 2012
Sources: National exit polls.
Susan A. MacManus, “The Battle Over Election Reform In The Swing State Of Florida,” New England Journal of Political Science, November, 2012.
Susan A. MacManus, “From 2012 to 2016: Concluding Thoughts on the Permanent Campaign,” in Larry Sabato, ed. Barack Obama and the New America, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming, 2013.
Susan A. MacManus, “From 2012 to 2016: Concluding Thoughts on the Permanent Campaign,”
in Larry Sabato, ed. Barack Obama and the New America, Lanham, MD: Rowman &
Littlefield, forthcoming, 2013.
- Susan A. MacManus, “Voter Participation and Turnout: The Political Generational Divide Among Women Voters,” in Susan J. Carroll and Richard L. Fox and, Gender and Elections, 3rd ed.. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming, 2013.