“This is New York State. We built the first railway and the first trade route to the West. We built the tallest skyscrapers, the greatest empires. We pushed the country forward. Then, some said we lost our edge …” – Promotional ad touting the “new New York.”
By Patrick Reddy
Special to The News
In every census since 1950, New York State has lost electoral votes, leading to numerous articles on the Empire State’s declining influence in national politics. Some of those stories were undoubtedly true as New York State simply has less representation in Washington, D.C. But the seeds of future Empire State influence were planted elsewhere in the 1950s and now, surprisingly, New York-style ideas and politics have spread to key areas of suburbia and the Sun Belt. The reports of the state’s political demise have turned out to be greatly exaggerated. The official motto for New York State is “Ever Upward.” The description of New York’s influence might be “Ever Outward.”
Census records from 1810 to 1970 reveal New York was the nation’s most populous state. New York collected numerous electoral records: from 1810 to 1840, it had the highest percentage of electoral votes (nearly 15 percent) in U.S. history; it had the highest number of electoral votes (47) from 1930 to 1950; and it cast the highest percentage of the national popular vote (25 percent in 1832). In 1944, when the influence of big cities was at its peak, New York City alone cast 7 percent of the total national vote, a record by miles for any one place. Also in 1944, the Borough of Brooklyn cast more votes than the entire state of Texas, which is amazing considering that Texas had twice as many people as Brooklyn, and Texas is almost 4,000 times the physical size of Brooklyn.
And the Empire State was not just political power. New York was by far the richest state in America, with per capita incomes more than 50 percent higher than the national average during the 1940s. New York has been dubbed the national “media center,” a highly accurate label because it was the birthplace of the television and film industries before they headed west to Hollywood.
A political powerhouse
This electoral clout was reflected in both parties’ nominees for president. From 1868 to 1950, no less than 15 New Yorkers were either the Democratic or Republican nominees, by far the most from any state. And that doesn’t include Republican presidents who were elected as temporary residents of New York: Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and Richard Nixon in 1968. As Teddy White wrote in his classic “Making of the President, 1960”: “The Empire State is so various in complexion, so rich in manpower, resources and votes, so dominant in the web of communications, that a governor of that state is considered presidential timber from the moment the votes are counted that give victory.”
Ideas from New York were also dominant: Former Gov. Theodore Roosevelt was America’s first “progressive” president, promoting Gotham-centered ideas on regulation of working conditions, anti-monopoly laws, progressive taxes on incomes and inheritances, and civil rights. A generation later, his distant cousin Franklin Roosevelt expanded on those ideas with labor unions, Social Security and public works programs. The title of a nostalgic book on New York says it all: “When Brooklyn Was the World.”
Clout begins to wane
California officially passed the Empire State in 1970 and Texas did so in 2000. In the 2010 census, New York was almost caught by Florida for the number three spot, and projections have the Sunshine State passing the Empire State by 2015. As late as the 1980 election, New York was still second to California with 41 electoral votes. In the next two reapportionments, it lost a record-breaking eight House seats to the South and West – mainly to California, Texas and Florida. After the 1990 census showing New York losing seats again, Manhattan-based political consultant Henry Sheinkopt (who has worked for Hillary Clinton and Michael Bloomberg among others) commented: “We’re in trouble … people didn’t really like New York before, but they only dealt with us because we had clout. Now they won’t have to.”
But what if New York’s clout didn’t just evaporate; what if it reappeared in different places? In 1960, New York State had 9.3 percent of the U.S. population, compared with California’s 8.8 percent. Fifty years later, New York was down to just 6.3 percent, while California had soared to 12.1 percent. Where did New York’s clout go?
Exodus to Florida
Undoubtedly, many ex-New Yorkers moved to the suburbs of New Jersey and Connecticut as those two suburban-majority states grew much faster than New York. And many former New Yorkers joined the move to the Sun Belt, California, Texas, Arizona – and especially Florida.
After the 1960 census, New York State had 43 electoral votes. In 2012, it was down to 29. At the same time, Florida jumped from 14 to 29. Not all of the migrants to Florida came from New York, but many did.
These were mostly older white voters moving out of New York: in 1960, the Empire State was nearly 90 percent white; in 2010, it was only 65 percent white. As the Census Bureau reported: “In the 2010 census, the two largest flows are from New York to Florida and from California to Arizona. For census 2000, the largest is from New York to Florida and second largest is from New York to New Jersey.” New York State has sent more of its residents to Florida (2 million-plus) than any other state.
I recall seeing a headline in USA Today during the 1980s stating that the most common move in America was New York to Florida. (The joke in Florida is that the further south toward Miami you go, the closer to New York you get). Today, roughly 20 percent of Floridians have roots in Greater New York. It is remarkable to go to holiday parties in Florida and not hear a single Southern accent.
From 1952 to 1988, Republican nominees carried Florida in eight of 10 elections based on a wave of middle-class migrants and conservative Southern Democrats switching parties. Two Southerners, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter, were the only two Democrats to win Florida. But in the 1990s, Florida changed again.
Gold Coast grows
A new wave of retirees from the New York area to the Gold Coast – the counties of Miami-Dade, Broward (Ft. Lauderdale), Palm Beach and Monroe (Key West) – utterly transformed this section of Florida, which casts 25 percent of the state vote. The Gold Coast is now the most Democratic major metro area in the South. In 2008, Broward County alone delivered the votes that allowed President Obama to win Florida and guarantee an Electoral College majority. And in the closer 2012 election, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties all delivered 100,000-plus vote margins for Obama as he carried Florida by just 75,000.
Since 1950, the populations of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties have increased by an average of 1,400 percent! Some of this rapid population growth was undoubtedly due to immigration from Latin America. But much of it is Jewish and working-class Catholic migrants from the New York area. The Gold Coast is an extension of Northeastern Democratic liberalism. By the 1980 census, 51 percent of Floridians had been born outside the South. Today, it is more than 70 percent Northern suburban.
Building a ‘Blue Wall’
Ron Brownstein, in National Journal, detailed a “Blue Wall” of 18 states along the Northern tier and on the Pacific Coast with a total of 242 votes that have gone Democratic the last six presidential elections in a row. This Blue Wall (including New York, of course) was the backbone of Obama’s re-election strategy. With the votes of former New York residents painting Florida blue, he was guaranteed another term in office.
New York currently has 29 electoral votes. And if ex-New Yorkers can tip the 29 votes of Florida into the Democratic column, that will mean that the Empire State really influences 58 electoral votes, three more than California and 20 more than Texas. Based on its ability to swing the nation’s ultimate battleground state of Florida, the influence of “Greater New York” is bigger than ever. And if this pattern repeats for Democrats in 2016 when former New York Senator Hillary Clinton could be leading the Democratic ticket, American politics will have truly changed.
Can New York rebound?
Even before Hurricane Sandy hit, state government had started a TV campaign to remind viewers of New York’s storied past and communicate its hopes for the future. The ads ordered by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo end by stating: “Today, there’s a new New York State where innovation meets determination and our businesses once again lead the world.”
At the Dec. 12 concert to benefit the victims of Hurricane Sandy, numerous speakers and performers extolled the toughness of New Yorkers and their ability to bounce back from troubles. Whether the physical land of the Empire State can be renewed after the devastation of Sandy and whether New York will regain its financial strength remain to be seen. But even if New York never regains its former spark and clout, the Empire State’s influence will continue on in the 21st century – mostly in Florida.
Patrick Reddy is a Democratic political consultant in California who grew up in the New York area. His parents have retired to Florida.