By Ben Wiser

Political analysts often refer to Florida as “America’s ultimate battleground state,” a result of population growth and rapidly shifting demographics. The past three presidential races show just how fickle its electorate can be.

Both parties contested the 2000 presidential election in Florida, but no one anticipated how close a contest it would become. After a 36-day period of recounts and court tussles, the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in Bush v. Gore, effectively ended the recounting of ballots and guaranteed Republican George W. Bush the presidency. In 2004, Bush defeated Democrat John Kerry by a more comfortable five-percentage-point margin. In 2008, the state swung back to the Democrats when Barack Obama capitalized on a massive campaign organization effort to defeat Republican John McCain by three percentage points.

Before Florida acquired an outsized role in presidential politics, it was actually the smallest Southern state in 1930 with only four seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Despite its humble beginnings, Florida has since has grown into an electoral powerhouse with 27 U.S. House seats for the 2012 election cycle. The state gained two seats in redistricting after both the 2000 and 2010 Census. Republicans have wielded a significant advantage in designing new districts because of their control of the state legislature. The state’s current U.S. House delegation – composed of 19 Republicans and 6 Democrats – reflects the benefits of party rule at the state capital in Tallahassee.

Republicans have largely controlled Florida politics since the 1990s. The state Senate currently houses 28 Republicans and 12 Democrats, while the state House contains 81 Republicans and 39 Democrats. Those majorities are likely to hold this fall given the GOP’s control of the redistricting process.

Still, Florida Republicans are likely breathing a collective sigh of relief that Gov. Rick Scott is not up for reelection in November. Scott garnered negative headlines in December 2011 after earning the dubious distinction of least popular governor in the country with only 26 percent of Florida voters saying they approve of his performance, according to Public Policy Polling. His popularity has since risen with 38 percent giving him approval, though 48 percent of more than a 1,000 likely Floridian voters polled said they still disapproved of his actions as governor – due in part to such controversies as his education reforms that included eliminating teacher tenure and linking pay raises to increased student performance.

This year, two competitive races bear watching. U.S. Rep. Allen West, who rode the wave of Tea Party support into Washington in 2010 and currently represents Florida’s 22nd district, has been drawn into a new, more Democratic-leaning 18th district for the 2012 election. West’s tussle with Democrat Patrick Murphy is ranked as a toss-up by Real Clear Politics. Also, incumbent U.S. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson leads Republican Rep. Connie Mack by 5.3 percentage points in an average of polls compiled by Real Clear Politics.

While the Republicans are likely to continue their reign at the state level, the question remains – why is Florida the quintessential swing state?

Both Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney have made numerous visits to the state and flooded its media markets with millions in TV ads in an attempt to persuade the last remaining sliver of undecided Floridians. In a statistical analysis of both parties’ registered voters in the state, University of South Florida government professor Susan MacManus and research associate David Bonanza said the candidates must also not neglect the demographic and geographic realities within their own party.

Among Florida’s voters, 40 percent are registered Democrats, 36 percent are registered Republicans and 20 percent are not affiliated with a party, according to the analysis. But the parties have roughly equal voter registration — at 38 percent each, with 20 percent not affiliated — in the Interstate-4 corridor, a “swing voter” region of central Florida that runs through Tampa Bay, St. Petersburg and Orlando and typically decides statewide elections.

A closer analysis of the I-4 corridor reveals why it’s so important for both parties to sway undecided voters in the region and ensure their base turns out at the polls. The largest share of the state’s registered Republicans – 25 percent – reside in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Sarasota media market, and the second largest share of registered Democrats, 22 percent, are located in that same market.

Cubans, who are Republican-leaning and overwhelmingly reside in the southeastern Miami-Dade region, have traditionally comprised a majority of Hispanic immigrants to Florida. But with the recent influx of Puerto Rican migrants to the I-4 corridor and Mexicans to the Tampa Bay region, Cubans now account for only about a third of Florida’s Hispanics.

Outside of the Miami region, the counties in Florida with the largest concentrations of Hispanic voters in both parties are all located in the I-4 corridor — Osceola, Orange, Hardee and Hillsborough counties.

No matter who prevails in a tight race, Florida again stands poised to propel either candidate to the White House with a huge electoral boost.


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