Before the rise of South Beach and Disney World, Florida was a place of swamplands, poor farmers and “yellow dog Democrats” — a term that arose to describe voters who would support an ugly, yellow dog over a Republican candidate.
Of course, that has changed.
The growth in both the size and diversity of Florida’s population has increased its importance in presidential elections, making today’s primaries there critical in the 2008 election, at least for Republicans (Democrats have agreed not to campaign in Florida, though New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton plans to put in an appearance there today). In his recent book, “From Yellow Dog Democrats to Red State Republicans,” David Colburn explores the political evolution of the state since 1940 and the impact it has had, and will continue to have, in national politics.
Colburn writes that the rise of Florida’s political importance dates back to World War II, when veterans returned from Europe and moved their families to the tropical paradise where they had spent their days training for war. From 1946 to 1950, Florida’s population increased by 900,000 as Northeasterners arrived and settled in Palm Beach and Miami and Midwesterners flocked to the Tampa Bay area.
But the growth in population and diversity would not stop there. With the 1950s came retirees, attracted to the state for its year-round warm weather, and an ever-increasing Cuban and Hispanic population in Miami.
Today, Colburn writes, Florida’s political importance lies with the population, which reflects that of the rest of the country in terms of diversity.
“Florida has changed within a lifetime from a biracial, one-party state to a state that has, in some ways, set the pattern of the entire country — and if not the entire country, then certainly the Sunbelt,” Colburn said in an interview Monday.
Colburn said his main reason for wanting to write the book is to clear up the work of a few historians who believed that race and class were the factors that led to the growth of the Republican Party in Florida.
“Race and class didn’t really capture what was happening in the state,” he said.
Other factors at play included the redrawing of districts after the 1990 Census, Colburn said.
The Republican Party redrew the district lines with the consent of black legislators to place more black voters in certain districts, allowing them increased representation. At the same time, Republicans thought they could win in voting districts with a higher percentage of white voters.
But Colburn noted that while the Republican Party has grown in Florida, Democrats haven’t exactly disappeared from the scene. He said the Democrats campaign as hard as Republicans in statewide elections.
In fact, Colburn said there are 300,000 more registered Democrats in Florida than Republicans. But the state’s Republicans tend to have a stronger sense of party loyalty than Democrats, Colburn said.
“Statewide elections are a different kettle of fish,” he said.
Asked about today’s primary, Colburn said Republican candidate Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) could gather the votes of senior citizens, who largely are military retirees. But Colburn added that seniors also are upset McCain did not discuss the economy more in the debates. Colburn predicted that Mitt Romney might very well garner the support of seniors, who account for 16.8 percent of the population.
As for Democrats, Colburn said Clinton could easily take the lead because of Sen. Barack Obama’s (Ill.) lack of campaigning in the state.
Colburn gave his predictions with the caveat that he speaks as a historian who has studied the progression of Florida’s politics until now.
Such context may be key to truly understanding the nature of the Florida vote. For those wishing to gain this background, Colburn’s book provides an interesting and, at times, entertaining history of a state with one of the most vital elections.
The sentiment of Florida’s importance in national politics can be found in a quote Colburn uses from Dan Rather, the former CBS television news anchor: “Florida is the whole deal, the real deal, a big deal.”