Florida reaches peak political power (and how the rest of the Top 10 are doing)

The U.S. Census Bureau released its latest state population estimates on Monday, and the anti-climactic headline is that Florida narrowly missed taking the No. 3 slot away from New York.

But Florida has momentum: Its estimated population grew by 1.20 percent from 2012 to 2013, more than tripling New York’s 0.38 present growth rate. New York’s edge over Florida in total population shrank from 255,000 to 98,000 during that single year. Barring a huge economic change (and the state kept growing even during the real-estate collapse of the mid 2000s), Florida should pass New York in the next year or so.


In presidential politics, Florida is more powerful than ever, as it’s the biggest state likely to be seriously contested in 2016 (with California a lock for Democrats and Texas in the bag for Republicans).

In 2012, both parties got a bigger share of their total vote from Florida than at any time in American history. The charts below depict the waxing and waning clout of our 10 biggest states over the past eight decades, and Florida has been on a steady ride to the top. It has an older and more Hispanic electorate, but also a more urban population with a smaller percentage of college graduates than in the U.S. as a whole, which means the “liberal on social issues, conservative on fiscal issues” formula so popular among the Northeastern Corridor intelligentsia may not be the perfect platform here.

In general, conservatives are celebrating Florida’s impending leap over Hillary Clinton’s home base of New York. The Weekly Standard’s Geoffrey Norman writes that New York is weighed down by “unions, bloated state government, and political corruption.” He also notes: “Florida has no personal income tax, which many, no doubt, find even more agreeable than semitropical weather.” (Florida does have a higher sales tax than does New York, 6.0 percent versus 4.0 percent, and “killer property taxes.”)

The New York Times’s Jesse McKinley points out that New York City is growing, but upstate cities like Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse are stagnant or in decline. That means the state is at risk of losing more congressional seats, and possibly federal funds for education, health, and transportation.

But McKinley finds a silver lining for his state in the possibility of future problems in Florida:

… bigger is not always better. While politicians might welcome the larger tax bases that come with bigger populations, demographers say a need for more services increases. More populous places also have more congestion on highways and more wear-and-tear on public spaces.

The demand for more services may explain why bigger and more urban states have been trending Democratic in recent presidential elections, while the GOP has become more dependent on smaller states with a substantial small-town population. (They include Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia.)

The charts below illustrate the changing importance of what are now the 10 most populous states in America. Each chart follows the percentage of both major parties’ total vote that came from the state in each presidential election from 1932 to 2012. Taken together, they show how the Democrats have become more dependent on large Northern states with slow population growth, while the Republican base has shifted to fast-growing Southern states.

Note: An asterisk indicates the year in which the state contributed its largest share of the national vote for the Democratic or Republican party. The figures to the right of each chart are for 2012.


The biggest state in the U.S. has been rapidly losing relevance in presidential elections. California accounted for 10.10 percent of all votes cast in the U.S. in 2012, down only a bit from its height of 10.79 percent in 1988. (New York has the post-1900 record, with 13.57 percent of the total U.S. vote in 1944.) But in 2012 the GOP got only 7.94 percent of its national vote from California, the lowest share since 1944. The gap of 3.97 points in California’s shares of the Democratic and Republican national vote totals is the largest in any state since 1924, when 5.78 percent of all Democratic votes and only 0.83 percent of Republican votes came from Texas.

The state reached its apex of influence over the Republican Party in 1968, when Ronald Reagan was governor and Disneyland was three years away from being eclipsed by Florida's Walt Disney World. Since then, California has become more urban and less white, and it accounts for almost 12 percent of all Democratic votes cast in America.


Texas is destined to become the Republican Party’s biggest source of votes. It surely would have passed California by now if the state didn’t have such a poor voter turnout. (Only 49.7 percent of eligible adults voted in 2012, compared with 55.2 percent in California and 58.2 percent in the U.S. overall.)

As the chart shows, the Texas population boom has disproportionately benefited the Republican Party. The state’s peak share of all Democratic votes came in 1988, when Sen. Lloyd Bentsen was the party’s vice-presidential nominee and the ticket still lost by 12 points. In 2008, Barack Obama’s 3.5 million votes here was a record for a Democratic nominee, but the Republicans keep snatching more new voters, getting a record 4.6 million in 2012. Mitt Romney got 7.50 percent of all his votes in Texas, down just a smidge from George W. Bush’s 7.53 percent in 2000.

New York

In 2012, New York was the second-biggest source of Democratic votes and the sixth-biggest source of Republican votes. Despite the near inevitability of it being overtaken by Florida in total population, the Empire State should retain its runner-up status among Democrats for a few more elections, given its lopsided partisan preference. (Obama won it by 28 points, compared with less than 1 point in Florida.) But its stagnant population has meant a steady decline in importance over the past seven decades. For both major parties, New York peaked in 1944, the last time that both the Democrats and Republicans nominated residents of the state (Franklin D. Roosevelt and Thomas Dewey).


Florida is at peak influence in both major parties, thanks to the tightness of the race here in 2012. It’s a safe bet that Florida will be No. 1 in campaign spending in 2016, regardless of whether the GOP puts someone from the state on its ticket. When Jeb Bush was last elected governor, in 2002, 5.1 million votes were cast. When Sen. Marco Rubio was elected in 2010, voter turnout was 5.4 million. In the presidential election two years later, 8.2 million people voted. The Democrats are not going to concede that anyone has a grip on such a rapidly growing electorate.


As with most Northern states, Illinois has seen its electoral clout diminish over the past 80 years. But in contrast to Pennsylvania and Ohio, a sizable gap has opened between the two major parties here, with Obama getting 4.58 percent of all his votes from his home state and Romney getting only 3.50 of his votes from Illinois. This gap has persisted from 1992, when Bill Clinton won here easily, and Illinois should be a gimme for Democrats if the 2016 race is at all competitive.


The Keystone State has had a long, slow decline in influence since the Great Depression. It’s also been strikingly consistent in its partisan bent, and it’s been slightly more important to the Democrats beginning in 1952. Still, its closeness in 2012, when Obama carried it by 5 points, means it will still be a GOP target next time.


Ohio is now the swing state in presidential election, having voted for the winner of the Electoral College every time since 1960 (when it totally missed the appeal of John F. Kennedy). It has the most stable-looking of our 10 charts, featuring a gentle slope downward and a parity between Democrats and Republicans over the past 50 years. In 2012, Romney got 4.37 percent of his total vote here and Obama got 4.29 percent of his total in Ohio; this small difference reflects the fact that Obama could have won without this state, albeit with a more tenuous Electoral College majority.


In 1988, Michigan was almost exactly as important to both major parties, and George H.W. Bush’s nearly 8-point win here mirrored the national result. Since then, the state has been part of the more Democratic half of the U.S., possibly because the GOP’s move to the right on social issues hasn’t played well in the Detroit suburbs and possibly because the collapse of the auto industry has voters looking for more government intervention in the economy.


Georgia’s population rise has benefited the Republicans for most of the past half-century (the exceptions being the elections when Jimmy Carter was the Democratic nominee), and in 2012, Romney got almost as many votes here as in considerably larger Illinois. But Georgia’s share of the GOP electorate may have peaked in 2008 at 3.42 percent; it fell almost imperceptibly to 3.41 percent in 2012. At the same time, Georgia’s share of the Democratic electorate rose slightly from 2.65 percent to a modern record of 2.69 percent. Whether the Democrats make a serious run here in 2016 may depend on how U.S. Senate candidate Michelle Nunn does this fall.

North Carolina

Population growth and increased voter turnout means that North Carolina is now more important to both parties than at any time since before the Great Depression, when it was part of the Democratic Solid South. It was Romney’s tightest victory in 2012 (he beat Obama by 2.1 points), but as the chart indicates, it’s a must-win state for the Republicans in 2016 — unless the party reverses trends to pick up Rust Belt states including Michigan and Pennsylvania.

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