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Florida’s Panhandle: Does race or party sink it for Obama in the southern north


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Ever since I was a child, born and raised in the urban and Democratic heartland of Broward County, Florida; I have heard the old saying, “Florida is the only state where you need to go north in order to get to the south.”  This isn’t so much a reference to the fact that if you go north you will hit the Georgia border, but rather a reference to Florida’s panhandle, the rural and socially-southern area of the sunshine state.  Florida is a unique and diverse state, characterized by a urban and suburban centers along the coasts of the peninsula, open lands of Everglades, farms, and rural communities in the center, and booming cities that are growing in the center (Orlando, Winter Haven, Gainesville).  However, when we get into Florida’s northern stretch, we enter a more southern dynamic.  This is the area of Florida that used to be the only populated parts of the entire state, the area that was part of the confederacy during the civil war.  The traditions and roots of the panhandle, from Jacksonville to Pensacola, have a longer history than the area’s to the south, which used to be nothing but wetlands until the early 1900s, when Flagler’s railroad was built and allowed for smooth travel to Miami (followed by a slow process of draining the wetlands and urbanization). The panhandle tends not to be a reference for the counties that go all the way to Jacksonville, but rather they stop around Madison county.  The typical counties covered under ‘panhandle’ are colored red here.

ImageHowever, panhandle is an unofficial term, and for the purposed of discussing this, the region I refer to will include counties past Madison county, but not as far as Jacksonville on the east coast.

The panhandle region, as stated, has a unique history, which lends itself to unique voting habits and politics.  Like much of the south, the panhandle is still largely Democratic in registration.  Only counties to the very west are more Republican than Democrat from that region, which are largely rural, settled a bit later than the civil war, and Bay County, the big coastal county that is home to republican Panama City.  Otherwise, the counties of this region aren’t just Democratic, they are overwhelmingly Democratic registration.

The registration map shows a strong base for the Democratic Party in the north.  However, these counties do not vote the way their registration would dictate in most state-wide elections.  The region continues to move further and further away from the Democratic Party.   This phenomenon is one taking hold throughout the south.  Ever sense the 1964 Presidential Election, the Democrats have been losing ground in the south due to their support for civil rights laws.   The panhandle region, again being culturally similar to the south, shows the same trends as Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and other southern states.  Look to this map generated, that, using several past state-wide elections, calculated what the party-leaning for each individual county is.

Democratic strength in the state for recent years as relied on a few key area.  The populous southeast of Broward, Miami-Dade, and Palm Beach:  the Orlando/Tampa/Daytona Beach areas, Gainseville, and the Tallahassee Metro area in the north (Leon County, Gadsden County, and Jefferson County).  Democratic strength lies in the urban centers, and is terrible in rural zones, including the panhandle.  This again, is despite the the panhandle holding such a huge democratic registration advantage (much bigger than any of the rural counties in the southern portion of the state.


Electoral History

Now, the this blog entry is not about Democratic strength in the state of Florida overall, but rather, about Obama’s performance in the panhandle of the state.  The reason this issue is brought up is for a very specific reason:  Obama is one of the WORST performing Democrat in the panhandle for the last 8 years (only beating 2006 Agriculture Commissioner nominee).  The President, despite winning Florida in 2008, had the worst performance in the panhandle region over several other Democratic candidates sense 2004, many of whom performed much worse statewide.  The understand what I am saying, let me tell you some of the past elections I am looking at to judge party loyalty.

  1. 2004 Presidential Election (John Kerry gets 47% in a hard fought race to try and win Florida)
  2. 2006 Gubernatorial Election (Jim Davis gets 45% in a blue year, but with an underwhelming and underfunded campaign)
  3. 2008 Presidential Election (Barack Obama wins 51% in a high-profile contest, race wasn’t called till past midnight)
  4. 2010 Gubernatorial Election (Alex Sink gets 47% in a close loss that wasn’t called till the next day)
  5. 2010 Attorney General Election (Dan Gelber loses with 41% by getting caught up in a red year)

These five races are key to me judging how the panhandle votes in recent years.  So why did I chose these races? First, I chose the two Presidential races to offer a contrast for how different federal candidates performed, and chose both Gubernatorial election to also show a contrast for state-wide Democrats who aren’t federally-linked.    The cabinet races (Attorney General, CFO, and Ag Commissioner) are too low profile and unpredictable in terms of regional strengths to be a reliable indicator of party strength.  The reason I use the AG race from 2010 is strickly to judge how well Gelber (who lost badly) performed in the panhandle compared to Obama, who won.  You will see what I mean shortly. Another item to point out, many reading this blog will likely understand the “federal verses state” issue I refer too.  Sometimes, a state or region may always vote a specific party for federal races, but vote different for state-based races (West Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina: are prime examples).  The panhandle in Florida is no different.  Like most of the south, it may still vote Democrat on a state race level, but gives less of the vote to federal candidates. I took these five races and garnered the average results for state candidates and federal candidates, and mapped which counties had federal democratic candidates do better, or which had state democratic candidates do better.  Results below..

As we can see, a large swath of these panhandle counties give Democrats more support for state-based races than federal.  The two green counties in the middle of the pink, Leon and Gadsden, are Democratic strongholds in the region.  Leon is home to liberal Tallahassee, while Gadsden is majority african-american.   Otherwise, the panhandle is less kind to federal democrats than state democrats.

Lets now take a look at how these five races I am studying actually voted.

First, lets see how President Obama did.  As the map below shows, his strength in the panhandle was limited to the Democratic loyal counties of Leon/Gadsden/Jefferson.

Next, lets look at the 2004 Presidential election, where John Kerry lost.  Kerry didn’t win any extra panhandle counties, but did get a higher percent of the vote in those counties than Obama.

Then, lets look at the 2006 Gubernatorial race, where Davis lost the state, but did pretty well in the panhandle.

Next we look at the 2010 Gubernatorial election, where Alex Sink, despite losing statewide, had the best panhandle performance

Finally, we look at the 2010 AG race, where Gelber, swept in a bad democratic year, did bad everywhere except the most Democratic of counties

Analyzing The Results

Ok, so we have these races, now lets do some analysis.  With all the data at my disposal, I had my ArcMap software calculate Democratic gains between different races.   So for example, between the 2004 and 2008 Presidential elections, which counties saw Democratic percentages increase, and which saw a decrease.   This was the first map I generate.  Look to the legend, the blue counties show where Obama improved on Kerry, while the red show where Obama did worse.

Obama gained in most counties, but lost ground, in other areas, especially the panhandle, where he lost anywhere from 5 to 10 points.

Ok, so this is one race, need more proof than that.   Well lets see how Obama performed compared to Davis, who only got 45% in 2006, compared to Obama’s 51%

Speaking truth to the testament the panhandle performs better for state-based Dems than federal, Obama lost even more ground from Davis than he did from Kerry  But again, these margins are high!  Up to 20% dropoff in some precincts, several of them in the panhandle.

Lets look at the 2010 Gubernatorial election.  Sink did worse than Obama, so her GAINS from Obama should be minimal in any counties (she lost ground in most).

Again, we see that Sink outperformed Obama in the panhandle, losing ground in much of the state, but gaining up to 20% in several counties.

Finally, lets see how Gelber compared to Obama.  Surely Gelber, who only got 41%, couldn’t outperform Obama in the panhandle, even with his advantage as a state-dem and not a federal one.

Nope, even Gelber gained ground in the panhandle, despite losing it badly elsewhere.  Gelber’s result compared to Obama offer perhaps the biggest contrast.  Obama underperformed state Dems in the panhandle, that can be expected because of the dynamic in that area, an afffinity to the federal democratic party.  But Obama also underperformed Kerry, who lost the state.   This gives a hint of a racial component to Obama’s bad showing in the Panhandle.

We can’t just chalk it up to racial issues, because again, federal democrats underperform state Democrats in the panhandle.  Lets look at see if Davis gained votes from Kerry between 2004 and 2006.  Remember, Kerry got 2% more statewide than Davis

Here we see, Davis also gained ground in the panhandle from Kerry, sometimes has high as 10 to 15 percent.   HOWEVER, remember from the earlier map, Davis overperformed Obama by as high as 20%.  So there is an extra 5% or so to be accounted for.  Which is seen in the 2004 to 2008 map.  Why did Kerry outperform Obama in the panhandle?  Sure the slip away from federal democrats in the southern states (and north florida) continues, but Obama was a strong performer in 2008.   The racial prospect continues to seem like a possible explanation.

One other comparison map to look at, we saw that even Gelber gained on Obama in the panhandle.  Part of this can be attributed to Gelber not being a federal candidate.  So wait, how did Gelber gain on Kerry?

Nope, Gelber unperformed Kerry in the panhandle.  Such a result makes sense, as Gelber had such a low  percent.  Gelber only gained in a few rural counties, and Miami-Dade (his home base).   But again, this gives further credence to the argument that Obama had an especially bad performance in the panhandle; as Gelber did gain ground on him in the panhandle, while Gelber failed to gain off Kerry.

Obama had a signficant problem in the panhandle.  For these five races, Obama came in last in several counties, ALL located in the panhandle

This is a major question.  Why is it like this for the President?  Is it growing animosity toward federal democrats alone, or did Obama get punished for his race?  More analysis is needed to determine that answer.

Was Race a factor?

So, it seem clear Obama unperformed in the panhandle.  But how significant is the under-performance?  A slight under-performance could be chalked up to a changing electorate.  We need a significant difference in vote to give credence to a racial component.

To find this out, I first isolated key panhandle counties that showed a significant swerve from Obama to Alex Sink, who was our best performing democrat in the panhandle.

Then, I narrowed are margin further.  We know state dems over-perform the federal ones.  So I took out precincts where John Kerry didn’t do at least ONE PERCENT better than Obama.  So if Obama and Kerry tied, or Kerry just barely did better, I removed those counties.  Such counties could have seen the anti-Obama shift because of changing demographics.  That left me with the following

These counties, 15 total, all saw Obama under-perform Kerry and most state Dems (except Gelber in a few).  If there is a racial component to the voting, then it exists in these counties.   I then graphed the results for all 5 Democrats.  I used a specific color scheme for the different candidates.  Shades of blue are for the state democrats, while orange and yellow are for our federal presidential candidates.

First, I looked at counties that had a Kerry advantage of 1% to 5%

Yellow is Obama, and he under-performs in most counties, except a few times edging out our tying Gelber.  We can see our gubernatorial candidates slightly over-perform our presidential candidates and Gelber.   Overall,  this chart doesn’t tell us much.  It reflects the general uncertainty of the situation.  Does Kerry outperforming Obama by a few points really mean there is a racial reason for the voting?

To answer that, lets look at the remaining counties, six specifically, that saw a stronger gap between Obama and other candidates.

This chart, gives a starker visual, it shows Obama’s line under-performing all candidates (except with Gelber in Calhoun).  Obama lost percents from Kerry in every one of those counties by 5% or more, a significant amount.  While our gubernatorial candidates performed much higher than the rest, Obama’s lag at the bottom is most telling.  In these counties the state v fed divide is very significant, but Obama loses extra points that Kerry did not.  Look  at the county statistics below, see how Kerry over-performed Obama.  The biggest gap was in Liberty, where the margin was 8%.

Liberty 35.40% 27.20%
Calhoun 35.50% 29.10%
Lafayette 25.40% 19.00%
Taylor 35.50% 29.90%
Franklin 40.50% 35.30%
Holmes 21.80% 16.80%

It is my belief that these extra percents Obama lost over Kerry have to have  a racial component to them.  Obama, despite being the only winning candidate in these 5 races, lost badly in the panhandle, but especially in these counties.  He could even only manage a tie with Gelber in Calhoun, despite Gelber getting 10 points less statewide.  While local surveys and studies would be beneficial to conclude these findings, the numbers definitely indicate a racial component to Obama’s poor performance in these 6  counties.


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