In 1998, Palm Beach County was one of just six Florida counties to support Buddy MacKay for Governor, and in 2000 was the scene of the theft of the century, when Al Gore lost the Presidency due to a flawed ballot design and other voter errors. (When we say theft, we don’t claim George W., Bush sought to steal the Presidency but do without a reasonable doubt believe more people in Florida intended to vote for Al Gore than George W. Bush.) As someone ever present on November 7, 2000 in southern Palm Beach County and then in a recount mode for the next 36 days, Palm Beach County seemed to me to be a county where anything positive or negative was possible.
The county is overwhelmingly Democratic but the performance of the party has been stagnant locally since that 2000 election. Republican strength on the coast has been supplemented by pockets of growth in the western part of the county and ever so slightly by growing Jewish discontent with President Obama’s policies. The biggest factor in Republican growth has demographic changes. In the late 1990s it was thought that as liberal Jewish retirees from the Northeast died off, both Broward and Palm Beach would gradually shift back towards the Republican column. Prior to the mid 1970s, both counties were among the handful of reliable Republican counties in the state thanks to prominence of northern immigrants who backed the party of Lincoln, Ike and Rockefeller. But as the national Republican party has become more associated with extremism, urban and suburban areas nationally have shifted towards the Democrats, meaning Palm Beach and Broward were never in real danger of sliding back towards the GOP.
Broward County has experienced a massive influx of immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin American since 2000, with the shifting demographics replenishing dying off liberals with other Democrats, albeit less liberal ones on social/cultural issues. Palm Beach County on the other hand has had a much more limited influx of immigrants and economic growth in the county has been fueled by Republican related interests. But the GOP has failed to take full advantage of these opportunities because the local party is beset by infighting and tired leadership. Still local Republicans have improved their performance relative to the rest of the state in each of the past three election cycles. Palm Beach still favors Democrats, but while other urban areas such as Orlando and Tampa/St Petersburg are swinging heavily away from the GOP, Palm Beach County appears poised to possibly begin going the other way if Republicans can figure it out.
The Democrats locally have long been split between north and south county factions. The north county faction which has been closer with labor and liberal activists has faced off with the south’s “condo commandos” whose ideology seems to be both inconsistent and at times aligned with development/polluter interests. In fact, in southern Palm Beach County a responsible vote has at times in the past been against a Democrat and for a Republican. This reality has made it difficult for Democrats to coalesce as a unified party. The alliance of some local Democrats with business interests alienate many Democratic activists and disgust many conservatives as well.
This dichotomy creates a strange conundrum come time for national elections. While partisans are expected to line up in their respective camps, leaders in Palm Beach are often conflicted, and this produces under-performance for both parties. Against this backdrop comes a Presidential election where Barack Obama is polling worse locally than he did in 2008, just two years after Alex Sink woefully underperformed in the area and many local Democrats abandoned the Democratic ticket to back Jeff Atwater for CFO. Palm Beach was the only urban county in the state where Sink’s performance was at the same level as Buddy MacKay’s in the 1998 election when Jeb Bush won. In every other urban county Sink ran several percentage points higher than MacKay had in 1998.
During the past few months Palm Beach Democrats have been rocked by multiple scandals involving leaders of the local party as well as the continuing drama around State Attorney candidate Dave Aronberg, who has been repeatedly attacked by the otherwise left leaning editorial board of the Palm Beach Post, and has faced numerous allegations of campaign impropriety. Additionally, several contentious primaries in August have opened wounds that have yet to be healed within the party, partly because of the DEC scandals and ensuing leadership vacuum.
All of these factors makes Palm Beach County difficult terrain for the Democrats. The Obama Campaign has a margin of victory they’d like to bank coming out of southeast Florida. Word on the street is that this number is about 500,000 votes, which can offset large losses in the Panhandle and southwest Florida. With the current situation in Palm Beach County it puts the pressure on Broward to squeeze out even greater margins than the county has produced through the years, something that may not be mathematically possible.