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1 The Importance of Florida in Presidential Elections Aubrey Jewett Over the past several decades, Florida has become the most important state in U.S. presidential elections. While Florida quite literally determined the winner of the 2000 presidential contest, its significance goes beyond one race. Florida’s political value to recent presidential campaigns is a result of several factors. Florida is a populous state with the third largest number of electoral votes. It has the most electoral votes of any battleground state. The Sunshine State is a swing state with a perfect record of voting for the winning president since 1996. It is the most consistently competitive state, with the lowest average margin of victory since 1992. And over the last few election cycles, preelection polls predicted and candidates correctly believed that Florida would be one of the most hotly contested battleground states. This chapter reviews the Sunshine State’s historical importance in presidential elections since statehood. It traces Florida’s evolution through four eras beginning as a small, usually inconsequential state, becoming consistently Democratic and then consistently Republican for long periods , and finally emerging as the most important battleground since 1996. Next it analyzes evidence of Florida’s importance in recent elections, including electoral votes, swing-state accuracy, consistency of competitiveness , expectations of polls, and candidate behavior. The chapter concludes by contextualizing the evidence of Florida’s importance in recent 6 · Aubrey Jewett presidential elections and projecting Florida’s future importance in presidential politics. Florida’s Historical Importance in Presidential Elections While the Sunshine State occasionally played a historic role, Florida’s status as the most important state in presidential elections emerged relatively recently. Table 1.1 divides Florida’s presidential election history into four eras based on number of elections, party voting, victory margin, voting for the national winner, and electoral votes at stake: Statehood through Reconstruction; Democratic Post-Reconstruction; Presidential Republican ; and Competitive Battleground. Initially, Florida usually voted for the winner and cast decisive electoral votes in 1876, but because of its small size was usually not very significant. During Post-Reconstruction, Florida almost always voted Democratic by wide margins and thus voted for the winner only about half the time. This track record, combined with a relatively small number of electoral votes, meant that Florida rarely played a central role in presidential selection. During the Presidential Republican era, Florida’s winning percentage improved, electoral votes increased, and status grew as candidates competed in the state during several close elections . The more recent Competitive Battleground period has seen a string of six close elections, with Florida’s large batch of electoral votes going to the victorious Republican president three times and Democratic president three times. The Era of Statehood through Reconstruction From 1848 to 1876 Florida’s presidential voting reflected the turmoil of attaining statehood, declaring secession, fighting the Civil War, and undergoing Reconstruction (see Table 1.1). During this time, Florida gave its small number of electoral votes (just 3.3 on average) to candidates from four different political parties: the Whigs in 1848 (joining the last winning coalition the Whigs put together in American politics); the Democrats in 1852 and 1856; the breakaway southern Democrats in 1860; and Republicans from 1868 to 1876. Florida cast no electoral votes in 1864 since it had seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy. Florida held no popular vote for president in 1868 due to its recent readmission to the Union, and instead Florida’s Reconstruction state legislature selected The Importance of Florida in Presidential Elections · 7 Republican electors pledged to Ulysses S. Grant; only one state, Colorado in 1876 just months after earning statehood, has used legislative selection since then (Moore 1985). In 1872, with federal troops enforcing a congressional mandate allowing black suffrage and Radical Republicans and the Freedmen’s Bureau mobilizing black voters, Florida Republicans won sweeping victories in the legislature, elected GOP members to the U.S. Senate and House, and backed President Grant by a 7 percent margin for reelection (Gannon 2003). Florida cast electoral votes for the national winner six out of seven times during the period of Statehood through Reconstruction (the lone loss in 1860 when the Democratic Party split in two), and Florida voters usually gave comfortable victories to the winning candidate, with an average margin of 14 percent. Florida’s small population coupled with relatively large Electoral College victories meant that Florida’s votes carried little weight in this era. However, the disputed election of 1876, when Republican Rutherford...


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