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Florida House District 7: Last Stand of the Dixiecrats


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For anyone who has been following my blog, I have commented on the phenomenon of the ‘southern realignment,’  a trend that began in 1964 at the federal level were Republicans began to make huge gains in the southern states as the Democrats improved in the North.  The shift was drastic at the Presidential level at first, and began to slowly but surely continue at the congressional level over the next 40 years.  At the same time, state-level and state-legislative elections told a different story, with Democrats retain control of southern governorship’s and legislative bodies.  Gubernatorial elections began to shift back and forth between the parties, but legislatures in Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi  Alabama, Louisiana  Tennessee, and Arkansas remained overwhelmingly Democratic.  However, the Republican trend eventually took hold, especially after the 2008 elections at the local southern level.  The history of this shift can be found here in a past blog entry of mine, https://mattsmaps.wordpress.com/2011/07/14/southern-realignment-nears-completion/.

The realignment toward the Republican Party has now completed itself in all Southern States except for Arkansas, with Alabama and Louisiana shifting in 2010, and Mississippi shifting in 2011.  Now in 2012, Democratic hopes to reclaim these southern state-houses is low, with the party in shambles in Alabama/Louisiana/and Tennessee.   Democrats appear doomed to lose the North Carolina Governorship, and several Democratic congressman are fighting to hold onto their southern districts.  I will be also watching to see if Democrats lose more seats in Arkansas, which will not come close to voting for Obama this year.  In fact many independent analysis’s anticipate Arkansas to fall to the Republican Party, while Tennessee  Democratic just a few years ago, is likely to move to super-majority Republican.  In keeping with this watchful eye on Republican gains in the south, I am taking a look at another southern seat right here in Florida.

In the panhandle of Florida lies Tallahassee and Gadsden county… two reliable blue counties, but surrounding them is a vast sea of old-school southern tradition.  The Florida Panhandle holds many similar traits to the American South, both in culture and politics.  The counties around Leon and Gadsden are heavily Democratic in registration, but vote Republican on the top of the ballot.  Many of these counties still have local Democrats in office, but even those trends are fading.  With redistricting, a new State House Seat was formed, HD7, which combined HD10 (a dixiecrat style seat held by Democrat Leonard Bembry) and the old HD7 (held by Republican Marti Coley).  The new HD7 is heavily Democratic registration wise, and is an open race between a new-to-politics Republican and a long-time dixiecrat from Liberty County.   This race is the ideal seat for Dixiecrats to hold, or for Republican to finally snatch away from the Democratic Party.  There are no southern Democrats left in the Florida legislature once Bembry leaves at the end of the year.  If Hill doesn’t win, then there will be no southern Democrat replacement for Florida.  That is why HD7 is is the last stand for the Florida Dixiecrats.  Will the fundamentals allow the Democrats to hold on, or is that southern realignment going to continue to talk hold in the South?

Florida House District 7:  The Basics

Florida HD7 is a well-drawn section of the panhandle that loops under Leon/Gadsden Counties and encompass rural counties on the east and west sides.   It is truly a rural district, with no major metro location or population concentrations.  The district encompasses 9 total counties and some of the rural precincts in southern Leon.  The map below shows the districts precincts.  Note that the light-grey precincts are those that used to be the hold HD10, held by southern Democrat Leonard Bembry.  We will get back to the old HD10 later.

This district is large regarding land size, but again most population is split up.  Much of the land in these counties is open forests or farmland.  Liberty county to the west is actually the least populated county per square mile in the entire state.

House District 7:  Partisan Breakdown

HD7 does not vote Democratic at the top of the ballot, it just does not happen.  It takes a huge Democratic sweep (such as Bill Nelson in 2006) to actually carry HD7.   President Obama was crushed in the district, while Alex Sink, the 2010 Gubernatorial nominee, who had one of the best panhandle performances for any Democrat in some time, still couldn’t win the district.  For analysis I focused on three recent elections (going back too far will pollute the study because of the constant southern shifts in voting attitudes):  2008 President, 2010 Governor, and 2010 Attorney General.   The 2010 AG race was chose because it was a lower-ballot cabinet seat where party loyalty easily comes into play, and neither candidate had ties to the region.

Lets look at the results for these three races

As you can see, Obama lost overwhelmingly across the precincts, only polling in wins in parts of Madison, Jefferson, and a few other sporadic areas.  Precincts he won in Gulf, Calhoun, and Liberty were ones with significant African-American populations (but we will get back to race later).

Next lets look at 2010 Governor

Here we see Democrat Alex Sink doing much better than President Obama.  As discussed in my article on the Florida panhandle linked above, state-based Democrats over-perform federal candidates in this rural region of the state, so that no doubt plays in.  The question of racial motivations were also looked at in my Florida panhandle blog, so we won’t get into that here.  Nevertheless, the proof is clear that Sink had much stronger appeal, only losing the district by 3.  She kept Scott’s percentages lower in many precincts; won strongly in  Jefferson and Madison, and took many precincts in Wakulla.  Sink came the closest to winning HD7, but still came up short.

Finally, we look at the 2010 AG race, where Dan Gelber lost to Republican  Pam Bondi

Gelber did not do as well as Sink, suggesting Sink had more going for her (certainly a flawed Republican in Rick Scott) than Gelber did.  Gelber still did better than Obama in terms of margin, and won many more precincts.

With these three races, lets look at which precincts always voted Democrat versus Republican

The results are clear, there are far more precincts that Always voted Republican in those three races than those which voted Democratic.  In fact, the red precincts represent 47,000 registered voters, while the blue only represent around 13,500.   Clearly when it comes to state-wide campaigns, Republicans have the clear advantage.

The above map shows which precincts always went with which party.  If we narrow this down to include leaners,  we continue to see a Republican advantage.  For Democrats we removed Obama’s election (their worst showing) and for Republicans we removed Scott’s election  (their worst showing).  The result added in precincts that lean Democratic or Lean Republican.

This map shows that all precincts fall under either Democrat or Republican (lean or always) regarding the state-wide races.  No precincts showed themselves as being completely swing precincts, everything had a lean toward one party or the other.  That’s not good for Democrats, as a clear majority of the districts population lies within Republican-affiliated precincts.  In order for Democrats to win in the district, they need a candidate with especially strong crossover appeal, one who can makes gains in not just Lean-Republican precincts, but also in those precincts that always vote Republican further up the ballot.

The state of HD7 partisan-wise is truly striking, considering Democrats enjoy a very significant party registration advantage.  While registration in the south (and thus in North Florida) is not as strong a predictor of voting trends as other areas (with the classic southern-tradition Democrats voting Republican but still staying registered Dem), HD7 has a very significant registration advantage for Democrats.

Democratic registration is a 40 point advantage in the district, with only the rural precincts of Leon County having the most significant concentration of Republicans.   Otherwise Democratic registration is overwhelmingly dominant, despite the partisan nature of the district.  Indeed many of the precincts that are overwhelmingly Democratic are also the least loyal precincts to the Democratic Party.

The map below sheds further light on registration in the district.  The map below is a proportional-dot map that shows the Dem and Rep precincts, with the size of the circle reflecting the total number of voters for that party. For example, a blue precinct represents a Democratic-majority county, and the largest circle means that it has up to 1,000 registered Democrats for that precinct.  A red precinct with a circle reflects the total number of registered Republicans.


The map above shows that there are way more total Democrats than Republicans, spread throughout the district.  There are no major population hubs, with the Democratic edge spread throughout the land of HD7.

In the image below, I took the precincts that always voted Republican, and looked to see which ones where heavily Democratic.  Precincts in dark red always voted Republican yet have Democratic registration over 60%, while precincts in the lighter red always voted Republican yet had Democratic registration over 50%.

Democratic registration is clearly not a sign of Democratic loyalty.  In fact, while President Obama got over 90% of Democrats nationwide in 2008, he did not do nearly as well in HD7.   This can be best illustrated from the scatterplot below.  The dots represent each precinct in HD7.  The x-axis represents the percent a precinct is Democratic, and the y-axis represents the percent of the vote Obama won in 2008.  The top right grid represents precincts Obama won and were majority-Democratic.  As the plot shows, only a few precincts fell under that category.

As the scatterplot shows, a majority of the precincts fell under the plot that had Obama lose despite the precincts being over 50% Democratic.

Racial Component to Democratic Strength

Indeed, about half of the precincts Obama won that were over 50% Democratic were those that were also largely African-American.  Only a handful of precincts majority-white went for Obama… all of those with significant African-American minority populations.  However, their are only a few African-American precincts, hardly enough to give Democratic candidates a significant edge.

As the map above shows, a vast majority of the precincts in HD7 are not only majority white, but most are over 70% white.  This does not bode well for most Democratic candidates, as their share of the vote decreases as the percent of a precinct grows in terms of white population.  Look at the scatterplots of both Obama and Alex Sink to see how they performed in relation to the white percentage of a precinct.

Both graphs, but especially the Obama graph, show a clear decrease in the percent of the candidates vote as the percent of the white population increases; with only a few outliers precincts on display.

In fact, lets see on the map how many white precincts actually voted for President Obama in 2008.  The map below shows precincts Obama won that were majority white, and another category for those over 60% white.

As we can see, only a few precincts meet this criteria.

Next looks look at how Gelber did among white voters.

Gelber definitely did better, picking up many precincts in Jefferson County.

Finally, lets look at Alex Sink, the best performing state-wide candidate for this region.

Sink by far did the best, picking up white precincts across the district through Leon and Wakulla and a few in Calhoun and Liberty.  However, the fact she lost the district is evident in the fact that she still couldn’t make big ground in Franklin, Calhoun, Madison, or Taylor.  Without a candidate making ground there, they have no hope to win the district overall.  For a Democrat to win in the district, they need to get back the white southern Democrats who have been leaving the party over the last several decades.  However, all is not lost, as there are examples of Democrats garnering that kind of support needed to win.  No more recent example exists than that of state representative Leonard Bembry.

Model for winning:  Leonard Bembry

Leonard Bembry is the current state Representative for House District 10, which has now been broken up in redistricting, with parts of it now in the new HD7 (refer back to the original base map at the top of the this article).  Bembry’s old HD10 seat was no more favorable to Democrats than the new HD7 was.  The old HD10 gave Obama around 38% of the vote, yet Bembry won the open seat in 2008 and held it by a double-digit margin in 2010 during the red wave.  Bembry represents true southern conservative Democrats, and because of that was able to win such a seat.  The map below shows the precincts he won in his 2008 election (only the precincts in the new HD7 are shown.. there were more counties to the east in HD10 not displayed here).

Bembry won handily in all counties except Franklin.   His strong showing in Taylor is especially striking.

Then, lets look at his 2010 win, were he staved off a challenger by an even larger margin despite being in the midst of the red wave year.

Bembry did much better than other southern democrats in 2010, gaining from his 2008 numbers, and winning most precincts in those that fall under HD7.

Overall Bembry did very well in this mass of precincts.  He always won most of them, and only never won a handful.  The map below shows the precincts color-coded based on how the leaned in the HD10 races of 2008 and 2010.

Bembry overperformed compared to other Democrats because he was able to hold onto white southern voters.  In both 2008 and 2010 he won many more white precincts than any of his other Democratic colleagues. The 2008 map below shows the precincts he won that were 50% white or more.

The next map shows his 2010 results among majority-white precincts

The scatterplot below also shows how well Bembry performed with white voters.  He took many more white precincts available to him than any other Democratic candidate.

Bembry overwhelmingly won white precincts in just his 2008 run, even more so in 2010.  He is the strongest performing Democrat to in recent years for the region.   The graph below highlights just how much Bembry in overperformed President Obama.  The graph below shows the precincts that always voted for Bembry.  The red line shows the percentage line for 50%, and the blue bars represent Obama performance in each of these precincts.  As seen, Obama mostly fell well under 50% in these precincts that, again, ALWAYS voted for Leonard Bembry in the general election.

The data shows Bembry’s strong cross-over appeal into the white conservative Democrats that are moving further and further away from the national Democratic Party.  For Democrats to hold the new HD7, they need a candidate with that same appeal.

2012 Election

The 2012 election featured the potential for a very interesting showdown.  Republicans nominated Halsey Beshears, a newcomer to politics, while the Democrats nominated Robert Hill, the Clerk of the Court for Liberty County.  Hill is the traditional conservative southern Democrat, and on paper is a strong candidate against Beshears.  Hill was elected as a Democrat in Liberty in 2000 and was unopposed ever sense.  He faced a three-way race for the nomination for HD7, and won with 40% of the vote.

As the map shows, Hill (blue) won thanks to strong wins in the western part of the district that Democrats have fared poorly in before.  He won up to 80% in Liberty and Calhoun areas.  These same precincts Hill won big are overwhelmingly Democratic in registration, so Hill has already garnered support in the primary that easily transfer to the general (although not guaranteed).  The results should give Democrats hope that Hill can win in November.

Unfortunately, the reality of the situation has been money.  Beshears has proven to be a powerful fundraiser, and also has a SuperPAC behind him.  In addition, the Republican Party has pushed hard for Beshears, while the Florida Democratic Party has not put much focus on the 7th house district.  Hill is finding himself underfunded and swamped against Beshears’ advertising, which is focusing on a moderate message.   Hill is no doubt the underdog in this race due to the uneven balance of money.  However, Hill demonstrates strong support in the western counties, and if he can hold that past the primary, and do well in those precincts that remained loyal to Bembry, he just may pull it off. Bembry also was outspent in 2008 and still won the race, so all is not lost in regard to Hill pulling off a win.  If he does, it will be thanks to the overwhelming Democratic registration advantage and those same Democrats sticking with Hill more than they will for Obama.  If Hill wins, the Dixiecrats will live on.  If Beshears takes it, Dixiecrats will suffer another major blow in the panhandle.  And as trends in the deep south have shown, these blows are not easy to recover from.


1 Comment

  1. I’m sure you know this, but Beshears won. With over 60% of the vote. And at the same time, Democrats gained 8 House seats. Sure, the Democrats are dying in the Panhandle, but they’re making it up in other areas.

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