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Sayfie Review Featured Column

by Dr. Susan MacManus
November 3, 2010

In 2000, Florida gained a national reputation as the very definition of a “swing” state.  Between hanging chads and butterfly ballots, Florida’s identity as a decidedly “purple” state became a centerpiece of national political discourse.

A decade later, last night’s elections confirmed Florida’s status as a state both split along the narrowest of margins, yet also as a state very open to electing firmly conservative candidates.

The exit polls, conducted by a consortium of news organizations, highlight changes in the makeup of the Florida electorate and important shifts in voting behavior that have implications for statewide as well as Presidential candidates in 2012. While the final exit poll numbers will not be available for a few days as experts finalize the data set, the preliminary numbers included here give an interesting peek at what happened.

The biggest lesson – both of the national elections as well as those in Florida – is that independents are everything.  “Turnout” is often used as an excuse for a candidate’s defeat, but in the case of Florida, the partisan makeup of the electorate did not change significantly from 2006 and, in fact, was slightly more tilted toward Democrats.

Let’s first consider the gubernatorial race.  Of who cast a vote for Governor this year, 36% identified as Democrats, and 35% as Republicans.  In 2006, we also saw 36% as Democrats, but instead had 40% said they were Republicans.

Scott’s victory rests squarely on the shoulders of independents.  Rick Scott won independents by 10 points – 52 to 42. 
The same rule applies when we look at the Senate race.  Independents played a critical role. Exit polls show that Marco Rubio won a majority (51%) of independent voters, while Crist only earned the votes of 35% of independents.  While the proportion of voters in the Senate race who identified themselves as Republicans dropped from 40% in 2006 to 36% in 2010, Republicans managed to secure Rubio’s seat confidently, and not because of “base turnout” but rather because Rubio was able to bring enough independents on board to create a winning coalition.

So why did these voters break for Republican candidates? I believe it comes down to one thing: the economy.  Some 69% of Florida voters named it as the most important issue facing the country today.  Among those voters, they broke for Rick Scott 51-47.   When you look at the 86% of Floridians who said they are “worried about economic conditions,” some 55% voted for Scott. 

Of particular note is the fact that while Alex Sink won voters who said their personal family financial situation had gotten “better” or stayed the “same,” Rick Scott won almost 2 out of 3 voters who said their family financial situation had gotten worse.
The exit polls showed that 35% of Florida voters have had someone in their household lose a job in the last two years.  Seven out of ten are “angry” or “dissatisfied” with the federal government. 

This was an election about frustration as well as economic conservatism. Some 57% think that government is doing too much, while only 36% think government should do more.   Florida also moved to the right on the broad question of ideology. While in 2006, only 34% of Florida voters considered themselves conservatives, they made up 39% of voters this year.

This election infused independent and Republican voters with a shared sense of deep frustration with government and the state of the economy.  It was precisely that coalition that pushed Marco Rubio and Rick Scott across the finish line.

We all hope that the economy will improve over the next two years.  If it does, the challenge to Republican candidates will be to sustain support from independents even in the absence of high unemployment and frustration. Florida remains a decidedly “purple” state on many levels.  Wise campaigns in 2012 and beyond will keep in mind these lessons and remember that the key to success in the Sunshine State rests on winning independent voters.