October 22, 2007

The "Dixie-Dade" Strategy

A lot of folks who follow Florida electoral politics--statewide races especially--would say that for a Democrat to win the state, he/she needs to dominate South Florida, fight to a draw or better in Central Florida, and survive in North Florida.

In Maryland, it's much the same equation: dominate the "Blue Corridor" stretching from Prince George's County through Montgomery County, Howard County all the way to Baltimore City; fight to a draw or better in the Baltimore suburbs; and survive in Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

In Virginia, you need to rack up giant margins in Northern Virginia (NOVA), get out the progressive vote in Norfolk/Newport News, Charlottesville, and Richmond, and survive in Southside, Shenandoah, Northern Neck, Middle Peninsula, Southwest VA and assorted hinterlands.

The 1994 Bush-Chiles Florida gubernatorial election put conventional wisdom about the state to the ultimate test. It taught a good rule of thumb: If a Democrat can carry Dixie and Miami-Dade County, they've bagged the elephant. Governor Chiles won re-election in a year when Congressman Newt Gingrich's slash-and-burn conservative revolution incinerated every big oak in the forest from Texas to Alabama to New York. Social conservative Rick Santorum won a Senate seat in Pennsylvania. Even in Democratic strongholds Maryland and Massachusetts, incumbents fought to 11th hour, nail-biting victories. In his first mid-term test, voters pushed back President Bill Clinton's agenda in state houses across the country and in Washington, DC.

Dixie County is the heart of Florida's Big Bend, aka "Nature Coast," where the swampy, poison ivied, cypress-kneed Suwannee River empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It is "cracker" country that supported cracker Democrats like Bob Graham, Lawton Chiles and Bill Clinton. You're about as likely to find a Starbucks there as you are a liberal Democrat. In 2004, President Bush carried it by 68%.

Miami-Dade County...as late as the 1950s it was still a "lamb chop" compared to the North Florida "Pork Choppers" who ran state politics. When Chiles was born, Miami-Dade was a burgeoning backwater. Today, the census bureau estimates it's the eighth most populous county in the United States and its got the political heft worthy of an international metropolis. Half the county is foreign-born. Half speak Spanish as their first language. In 2004, Democratic presidential candidate Senator John Kerry carried it by about 53%.

Dixie County favored Governor Chiles in 1994 by 22 votes, Miami-Dade by about 17,000. The exact numbers don't matter so much as the image of a Dixie Blue Dog and a Miami-Dade Yankee going into the voting booth on Election Day in the nation's fourth largest state and pulling the lever for the "Dream Team" Chiles/MacKay. The He-Coon's campaign surely didn't target Dixie and Dade; but it must have been a satisfying sprinkle on top of the victory cake to take them both. The very mark of the 67-county strategy.

As many have remarked, Chiles could "swim in two ponds." Of course, win a big enough margin in Miami-Dade and the rest of Florida--including little Dixie County--can take a long walk off a short pier. The election is sealed up. But the Dixie-Dade Strategy is about symbolism. And that still counts for a lot in politics.

Dixie County: Chiles-MacKay Country in 1994.

Miami-Dade County: Chiles-MacKay Country in 1994.

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