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Election 2004

Rural vote gave state to Bush

The president made key gains in Florida suburbs and small towns, pushing him past a Democratic campaign that focused on urban areas.

Published November 14, 2004

A lot of Florida Democrats scoffed when President Bush flew into the little Democratic stronghold of Gainesville two days before Election Day.

And as Democrats chuckled dismissively, some 17,000 people from nearby rural counties such as Gilchrist, Lafayette and Dixie drove in to cheer the first sitting president since Grover Cleveland to visit their area.

Then those bucolic, often overlooked counties produced some of the most dramatic Bush victory margins in the state.

Now many Democrats are rethinking long-held assumptions about how they can win Florida. The emerging post-election gospel: It's past time for Democrats to start fighting hard for voters living outside Florida's cities and nearby suburbs.

"As of Nov. 3, I am a Democratic evangelist with a calling to bring the party out of the cities and into the countryside," David Beattie, the state's most sought after Democratic pollster, said of Florida and the country. "A lesson America learned from Vietnam is you cannot win the cities and lose the countryside and expect to win the war."

While legions of Bush-Cheney volunteers scored significant gains in virtually every corner of Florida, some of the most impressive GOP numbers came in rural areas and in outlying suburbs. Known as "exurbs" to demographers, these outer-ring suburban areas are flourishing in counties such as Pasco, Hernando and Polk. Some Democrats fear they have the potential to turn America's largest battleground state into a Republican fortress.

The numbers behind president Bush's 5 percentage-point margin over John Kerry in Florida tell the story.

In 2000, Al Gore beat Bush in urban and suburban counties by 372,692 votes, while Bush won Florida's exurban and rural counties by 373,229 votes, according to an analysis by Beattie. The upshot was a virtually tied election, where Bush finally won by 537 votes.

This year, Kerry had a 303,378 vote advantage in urban and suburban counties, while Bush won rural and exurban counties by 684,588 votes. That gave the president a victory margin of more than 381,000 votes.

The challenge for Democrats is apparent in maps produced by the St. Petersburg Times comparing the performance of Tampa Bay precincts in 2000 and 2004. The precincts Gore won four years ago dwindled this year, particularly in the fast-growing areas of Pasco County east of U.S. 19.

Likewise, in exurban Hernando County Bush went from losing by nearly 2,000 votes in 2000 to winning by more than 5,300 votes this year. In fast growing rural Citrus County, the president stretched his 4,200 vote win in 2000 into a victory by more than 10,000 votes this year.

"Instead of playing defense in areas where we're strong now, we need to play offense in areas where we're weak," said U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek of Miami, chairman of the Kerry-Edwards campaign in Florida. "It's going to take organization and even harder work, it's just that simple. . . . There are people living in many of these suburban communities that can do more for the Democratic Party than put yard signs in front of their house."

Democrats acknowledge some of the conservative "Dixiecrats" living in rural Florida may be out of reach for statewide Democratic candidates.

But they say some of those rural residents, and especially exurban Floridians, can be won over with clearly enunciated Democratic visions for economic opportunity, better access to health care and improved schools.

It takes a candidate who does not appear culturally foreign or out of touch and can spell out an overarching set of ideals instead of merely a list of issues.

Tellingly, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Betty Castor outperformed Kerry in much of the state. She barely lost Florida after performing weaker than her campaign hoped in North Florida.

Even most Republicans downplay suggestions that the state has become reliably Republican. "I don't think we know for certain whether the support the president received in this election was institutionalized or candidate-driven," said former state Republican Chairman Al Cardenas.

But thanks to a grass roots network Gov. Jeb Bush started building in the 1990s and helped elevate to unprecedented heights this year, they have an advantage that can't be overstated.

"Unless the Democrats regain their footing on the ground game, it's going to be more of the same," Republican consultant Adam Goodman said of upcoming elections.

The beleaguered Florida Democratic Party has no political machine; only one statewide officeholder, Sen. Bill Nelson; no clout in Tallahassee; and a slew of disorganized local parties. Unlike this year, they may not be able to continue to rely on lavishly funded independent groups doing the grass roots work typically undertaken by parties and campaigns.

"It takes organizing in all 67 counties, and it's a long term process," said Karin Johanson, the former political director for the Democratic National Committee who headed the Florida branch of America Coming Together, an independent Democratic voter mobilization group. "We were going up against people who were organizing for four years. You have to start today."

Amid their losses were hints of positive trends for Florida Democrats.

Just as exit polls showed Bush marginally cut into the strong Democratic blocs of Jewish and African-American voters, a sampling of overwhelmingly Cuban-American voting precincts in Miami-Dade County suggested Kerry made significant improvement among those overwhelmingly Republican voters. Democratic pollster Sergio Bendixon said Kerry won 28 percent of the Cuban vote, compared with 17 percent for Gore in 2000.

Overall, exit polls showed Bush won the coveted Hispanic vote 56 percent to 44 percent. Republicans dispute that Democrats made a significant inroads among Hispanics and say Bush gained among coveted non-Cuban Hispanics in Central Florida.

But a sampling of six predominantly non-Cuban Hispanic precincts in Osceola County near Orlando showed Kerry winning from 53 percent to 62 percent of the vote. In the end, that did little for Kerry along the Central Florida battleground.

Among nine counties running along the Interstate 4 corridor between St. Petersburg and Daytona Beach, Kerry picked up nearly 206,000 more votes than Gore. Bush picked up nearly 334,000 more than in 2000. His biggest gains were in Hillsborough and Polk counties, where his victory margins increased by more than 40,000 votes since 2000.

"We took care of our job in terms of I-4 corridor Hispanics," said Joe Garcia, a Miami consultant who worked with the New Democrat Network, an independent group that spent millions courting Hispanics in Florida and elsewhere. "The problem we didn't expect was this huge shift in other voters. . . . in terms of security moms."

"Security moms" are women voters often sympathetic to Democratic priorities who may have concluded Bush was more likely to keep America safe in the age of terrorism. That was a consistent message of the Bush-Cheney campaign, and exit polls found that while Gore had an 8-point advantage among women voters in Florida in 2000, Bush led by 1 point this year.

Democrats had a detailed plan for winning Florida, which Republicans somehow obtained. The 47-page draft "Florida Victory 2004" dated Sept. 3 predicted a 70-percent turnout, and concluded Kerry would comfortably win Florida's 27 electoral votes if he could get 3.31-million votes.

Kerry won 3.57-million votes and Bush still comfortably won Florida's 27 electoral votes. That may be the clearest evidence of all that Democrats badly need a new Florida playbook.

[Last modified November 14, 2004, 00:19:06]

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