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Sayfie Review Featured Column

by Dr. Susan MacManus
November 13, 2015

Susan A. MacManus

Department of Government & International Affairs, USF

Florida has long been a major partisan battleground and a key swing state in national politics—a position it maintains in the 2016 election cycle. Its swing-state status is a product of its constantly changing demographics that have made it a microcosm of the United States at-large in many ways.  If one had to pick a single state in which to conduct polls and focus groups to yield results essential in the micro-targeting of America’s voters, it would be Florida for the following reasons. 

1.     Money. According to (November 9 2015) thus far in the 2015-16 election cycle, individual Floridians have already contributed $17.7 million to candidates for federal offices, $8.9 million to federal PACS, $6.1 million to political parties (national and state), and $32.6 million to outside spending groups (those placing ads and engaging in activity to influence elections and public policy but not affiliated with any candidate or party; includes SuperPACs). Significantly, Florida ranks third among the states in contributions to each major party, continuing a longstanding trend.

2.     Close victory margin. In the past three statewide elections (2010, 2012, 2014) the margin of victory was only 1 percent. In 2012, for example, Obama beat Romney by just 0.9 percent—the closest in the nation. Most pundits predict another close margin in 2016. Florida’s 29 Electoral College (EC) votes are far more up for grabs than those in other large states (California, Texas, New York) andthe EC vote total from Florida is higher than in other swing (“purple”) states like Ohio, Colorado, Nevada, and Virginia. 

3.     U. S. Senate control. Democrats need to pick up five U.S. Senate seats to recapture control of the Senate. But before the general election, many states will have highly contentious primaries featuring sharp ideological and geographical differences along with racial/ethnic diversity. In Florida’s Senate election, for example, the open seat created when Marco Rubio opted to run for the Republican presidential nomination has attracted such major Democratic contenders as Congressman Alan Grayson, former U.S. Navy Judge Advocate Pamela Keith (African American), and Congressman Patrick Murphy as well as Republican hopefuls Congressman Ron DeSantis, Congressman David Jolly, and Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera. The outcome will give each party a clearer picture of the current ideological alignments of its base and some idea of where and how to construct Get-Out-The Vote efforts for the general election. On the negative side, the Senate race will cost millions—much of it coming from outside the state, reflecting the national significance of the contest but diminishing funding for state legislative races. Yet holding legislative seats is key to a party’s building of its bench.

4.     More independents. An increasingly large number of Florida voters are registering as independents (No Party Affiliation; minor party)—a pattern found across the nation. The proportion registered as either a Democrat or a Republican has been slipping in Florida since 2008, although Democrats have outnumbered Republicans in Florida for decades. As of November 8, 2015, the party breakdown among Florida’s 11,977,030 registrants was Democrat 38 percent, Republican 35 percent, No Party Affiliation or NPAs 24 percent, and minor parties 3 percent. Higher-than-average proportions of independents are young voters. Among Florida’s minority voters, Hispanics are much more likely to register as an NPA than blacks.  The toxic nature of politics of late is also prompting some professionals, particularly those in the business community, to change their registration to NPA.

5.     Big Issues. The five biggest issues in Florida (economy/jobs, education, crime, immigration, and the environment—including water, oil drilling, and climate change) are some of the hottest issues nationally and in other key swing states. In Florida economic anxiety is high, with 71 percent saying their household is experiencing at least some economic stress, in spite of the state’s rebounding economy. On the economy, Floridians identify the five biggest threats as loss of jobs/unemployment, government waste and inefficiency, undocumented residents and workers, damage to the environment, and rules and regulations hampering business start-ups.  (See

The 2015 USF-Nielsen Sunshine State Survey (a policy-focused survey) finds Floridians most divided on  Common Core, offshore drilling for oil and gas, federal funding for Medicaid expansion, the Stand Your Ground law, gun laws, casino gambling, law enforcement use of drones, and racism among law enforcement and corrections officers. The highest levels of criticism are of wasteful spending by governments, lack of prisoner rehabilitation, the possibility of collecting sales taxes on internet purchases, and plans to allow students to carry concealed weapons on campus. The public’s ratings of K-12 education and health care for the state’s dependent populations (especially those with physical or mental disabilities), are slipping, while concerns about the protection of individual rights and privacy of citizens are escalating. (See

6.     Racial/ethnic diversity.  According to 2015 U.S. Census Bureau figures, Florida has the third highest proportion of Hispanics (23.6 percent) in the nation, the 11th highest blacks (16.7 percent), and the 10th highest Native Americans (0.5 percent). The state’s Asian population at 2.7 percent is the fastest growing minority group. (These proportions do not match voter registrants—15 percent are Hispanic, 14 percent black, and 2 percent Asian—because of a higher proportion of ineligible voters due to age and non-citizen status.) More significant is the growing diversity within these broad classifications that makes Florida the best state in which to study racial/ethnic identity politicsessential to the micro-targeting of these growing blocs of voters by candidates and parties. Non-Cuban Hispanics now outnumber Cubans among voters, for example, and significant numbers of non-Cuban Hispanics are Puerto Rican, Mexican, Colombian, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Honduran, and Venezuelan, among other Latin American origins. While African Americans are still dominant among black voters, large influxes of black Caribbean immigrants have come to Florida from Jamaica, Haiti, and Trinidad and Tobago. The bulk of Florida’s Asian population have ties to India, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, and Korea, followed by Pakistan, Japan, Thailand, and other Asian countries.

Within the three broad racial/ethnic classifications, newcomers often display language, cultural, religious, and economic-status differences, which can mean different issue and party preferences. The result is interethnic conflict and competition, particularly when a candidate with ties to a particular country enters the political arena. In such instances, ties to the homeland can be stronger than to a particular party. This is happening more frequently in the state’s largest metropolitan areas—Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach in the Southeast and Tampa and Orlando in Central Florida.Interethnic conflict occasionally even occurs between members of Florida’s two federally recognized Tribes—the Seminoles (the larger group) and the Miccosukees, dating back to disagreements over compensation from the U.S. government for land and, more recently over gaming operations and economic development.

7.     Religious diversity.  The most recent survey of the religious landscape in Florida, conducted in 2014 by the Pew Research Center Religion and Public Life Center, reports that 70 percent are Christian(evangelical Protestants 24 percent; mainline Protestants 14 percent; historically black Protestants 8 percent; Catholic 21 percent); 6 percent are of non-Christian faiths (3 percent Jewish; Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and other each less than 1 percent); and 24 percent are unaffiliated (“no religion”; the seculars). These figures mirror the religious makeup of the United States at-large (70 percent Christian, including 21 percent Catholics; 6 percent non-Christian faiths, including 3 percent Jewish; and 24 percent unaffiliated). These parallels make Florida the best place to conduct religious-affiliation-based focus groups to craft messaging on issues of greater interest to them, including U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the government’s role in settling morality debates.

Religious diversity has elevated divisiveness among advocates of freedom of religion (the believers) and those advocating freedom from religion (the seculars). The debate has spilled over into discussions of freedom of speech. Religion is also intertwined with country of origin and age. For example, secularism is highest among the Millennials—and growing.

8.     Age diversity. The Millennial generation is now larger than the Baby Boomer generation. Florida is the best place to focus on the Millennial v. Baby Boomer generational battle and to fashion different messages and effective Get-Out-The-Vote strategies along generational lines. Although many observers perceive the state to be heavily “gray,” July 2015 registration figures show that 47 percent of Florida’s registered voters are younger than 50; and 53 percent are 50 or older. As aging (and politically divided) Baby Boomers are replacing the older more Democratic-voting Greatest and Silent generations, the state’s senior vote is leaning Republican. Today, the most solidly Democratic voting bloc in Florida is the Millennials (18- to 34-year-olds) even though they are the most likely to register as NPAs. Republicans have made some inroads of late, however. In 2016, we can expect both parties to court college students and conduct extensive registration drives on campuses because the Millennials are under-registered relative to their proportional makeup of Florida’s population—a pattern found across the nation. Millennials are 23 percent of Florida’s registered voters; the Baby Boomers 34 percent.

The USF-Nielsen Sunshine State Survey reveals significant generational differences on a number of issues. On business tax incentives, the young see them as job creators, older Floridians cast them more as corporate welfare, for example. Similarly, the young see debt as the greatest challenge faced by university graduates today, while older Floridians are more likely to identify it as either the lack of necessary job skills or an inferior work ethic. Generational differences are also sharp on a variety of hot-button policy issues that will likely play into the election, including the environment, casino gambling, Common Core educational standards, assistance to undocumented immigrants, legalization of medical marijuana, promoting school choice vouchers, and provision of health care.

9.     Geography. In Florida, the breakdown of voters by geography in the 2012 presidential election was 13 percent rural, 27 percent urban, and 60 percent suburban. For the nation, it was rural 21 percent, urban 32 percent, and suburban 47 percent. These three geographies have different voting and turnout patterns, primarily because the socioeconomic and ideological characteristics of their populations vary. Rural areas have the highest turnout; urban areas the lowest. Rural areas vote for more conservative candidates, urban voters for more liberal candidates. It is the suburban voters that fluctuate the most in both turnout and voting patterns. In Florida in 2012, suburban areas voted for Democrat Obama (51 percent) but in 2014 came out for Republican Gov. Rick Scott (52 percent). Suburban areas are where economic issues affecting the middle class grab the most attention, along with issues affecting children. Suburban women in Florida, like nationally, are often the key to victory. They tend to swing between parties and their turnout fluctuates considerably depending on the dominant issues and the candidates.

10.  Consistent pattern. Since 1964, Florida has voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election but one — in 1992 when Democrat Bill Clinton defeated incumbent Republican President George H. W. Bush. In that election, the state’s voters narrowly picked Bush (41 percent) over Clinton (39 percent). Will 2016 be a second break in the pattern? Democrats desperately want one of their own to succeed Obama. Republicans must prevail in Florida to win the White House because no Republican has been elected president without carrying Florida since Calvin Coolidge in 1924. As the saying goes: “As Florida votes, so votes the nation.”



Susan A. MacManus, Aubrey Jewett, David J. Bonanza, Thomas R. Dye, Politics in Florida, 4th ed. Published for the John Scott Dailey Florida Institute of Government at the University of South Florida by the Peppertree Press, 2015. 492pgs. Available in digital and hard-copy formats from online booksellers.

USF-Nielsen 2015 Sunshine State Survey. Statewide telephone survey of 1,251 adult Floridians, conducted July 30, 2015-August 16, 2015, margin of error +/-2.77 percent. The survey was initially created in 2007 by Leadership Florida before coming to USF in 2014. It is the state’s most in-depth and longitudinal look at Floridians’ opinions on a wide range of pressing issues, along with their assessments of leaders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Results and statistical analyses available at

Pew Research Center—“The 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study”; available at; “The Generations Defined,” May 8, 2015. Available at “Money Summary, 2015-2016: Florida,” party summary available at; donor summary available at

Florida Division of Elections—current registration statistics; available at