TAMPA — If they hope to unseat Florida Gov. Rick Scott in November and regain a foothold in state government, Florida Democrats will have to overcome a handicap that has plagued them for years — “voter drop-off” in nonpresidential elections.
Florida traditionally sees declines in voter turnout of up to 20 percentage points in nonpresidential years compared to presidential years.
The decline favors Republicans, experts say, because it’s greatest among the most reliably Democratic voting groups — minorities, young voters and unmarried women. Those individuals are less likely to go to the polls when there isn’t a high-profile presidential race.
The effects were clearly visible in the March special election to replace the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young in Pinellas County, an election with even less voter-drawing power than a normal off-year election.
In that March 11 vote, Democrat Alex Sink narrowly lost to Republican David Jolly, even though the Pinellas County congressional district has been trending Democratic in recent years. The district voted for President Barack Obama in both the last two presidential election years.
“It’s a topic of national concern amongst Democrats,” Sink said. “It’s an historical pattern that we’ve dealt with in many election cycles — how can we make our core voters as passionate and motivated as it seems the core Republicans are?”
Sink said Scott’s unpopularity among Democrats may provide some of the motivation Democrats will need to spur turnout in November.
“Sometimes you need to have a face on the enemy,” she said. “I think we won’t have as much trouble motivating our voters to go to the polls in November.”
But a new analysis of voting patterns by a liberal research group that studies voting, Washington, D.C.-based Voter Participation Center, includes a sobering estimate for Florida Democrats.
In 2014, blacks, Hispanics, unmarried women and voters under 30 will send 1.5 million fewer voters to Florida polls than in 2012, said the study, done for the organization by the Democratic-oriented polling and research firm Lake Research Partners.
By contrast, the study estimates the drop-off among all others at 618,000 votes.
Those figures don’t translate directly into Democratic or Republican votes, cautioned Page Gardner of the Voter Participation Center. The groups involved aren’t 100 percent Democratic or Republican.
But the study estimates that in 2012, minority, young and unmarried female voters voted for Obama over Mitt Romney by a landslide 67-32 percent, while the rest of the electorate reversed that — 63-35 percent for Romney.
That could be a major factor in a state where the 2010 governor’s race between Scott and Sink was decided by 61,550 votes, or 1.2 percentage points.
The results of the drop-off have been obvious in other Florida elections besides the Sink-Jolly race.
In both the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, Democrats gained state legislative and congressional seats while Obama was winning the state’s electoral votes.
But sandwiched between those elections was the Republican sweep of 2010, in which Republicans took back some of the Democrats’ 2008 wins, and Scott narrowly beat Sink in the governor’s race.
Why are the voters Gardner’s group studies less likely to go to the polls in off-years?
“Part of the reason is candidates don’t speak to their lives,” she said. “Part of it is their lives are so stretched and stressed.”
Unmarried women, she noted, make up 49 percent of all minimum wage workers. “They are paying attention to making it day by day. They’re not political news seekers.”
University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus said younger voters “don’t know much about state and local politics, so it will take a high-profile race at the top of the ticket to draw them in.”
Democrats have mounted a nationwide political initiative to energize their core groups in advance of the election by focusing on issues including a minimum wage increase and pay parity between men and women — and trying to highlight Republican resistance to those initiatives:
♦ In February, Obama signed an executive order raising the minimum wage for federal contractors from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour — in the process, highlighting Republican resistance in Congress to passing a national increase for all employers.
♦ Last week Obama signed another executive order requiring federal contractors to publish wage date broken out by gender, so women can find out whether they’re paid less than men. His weekly address to the nation Saturday focused on pay parity efforts and the minimum wage.
♦ In Tallahassee, Democratic state legislators including Rep. Janet Cruz and Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa have been pushing pay parity measures and legislation to raise the state’s $7.93 minimum wage, but getting nowhere against the large GOP legislative majorities.
To publicize the issue, the Democrats have held news conferences and phone banks targeting Republicans they say are blocking the legislation, including Sen. Nancy Detert of Venice and Rep. Carlos Trujillo of Miami.
Some Democrats, including Sen. Dwight Bullard of Miami, even announced they would attempt to live for a week on minimum wage earnings.
“In America, a parent working full-time at minimum wage makes a salary that is below the poverty line,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz of Weston, who’s also national Democratic Party chairwoman, in a conference call with reporters on the issue.
In Congress, “The Republicans won’t even discuss it,” she said.
Democrats have also organized college students to oppose what they call attempts by Republicans to suppress the youth vote, including the ruling by the Scott administration that the student union on the campus of the University of Florida can’t be used as an early voting site.
Charlie Crist, the likely Democratic nominee against Scott, held a rally on the UF campus on that issue in February.