When President Barack Obama faced Republican challenger Mitt Romney for the nation’s top elected office in 2012, polls showed the two in a dead-heat race. Pundits predicted the next president would be elected by a minority group, and eyed Latinos and African-Americans as the driving force behind whichever candidate won the election.
They were right, but exit polls showed another minority had a strong voice. LGBT voters overwhelmingly supported the incumbent Democratic president and could have very realistically helped push him into his second term.
Obama’s more than three-to-one edge in exit polls among the 5 percent of voters who identified themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual was more than enough to give him the ultimate advantage, according to a study by Gary J. Gates of the Williams Institute at the U.C.L.A.
Fast forward two years and that same LGBT voting power could determine the outcome of another neck-in-neck race—the race between Republican incumbent governor Rick Scott and Democratic challenger—and former governor—Charlie Crist. The two are vying for the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee on Election Day, Nov. 4.
Susan McGrath, president of the Stonewall Democrats of Pinellas County, wholeheartedly believes that the LGBT vote is crucial this November.
“St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman will readily admit that there’s power behind the LGBT vote,” McGrath says. “When he entered the race for mayor he was in third place. He will give credit to the LGBT community support as the turning point for him in that election.”
McGrath says that pro-equality voters typically turn out at twice the ratio of the general voting population and said that candidates recognize that and actually court pro-equality voters and groups in election season.
“As for the governor’s race now, because it’s close, it’s becoming increasingly more negative in campaigning,” McGrath says. “Governor Scott has just said he is willing to put in another $22 million of his own money into messaging, which will undoubtedly be negative. And what negative messaging does is it suppresses the vote and people stay home.
“When people lean toward not voting, the votes of the LGBT community become even more important.”
According to the 2010 census, there are 65,000 same-sex households across Florida, and many of them are raising children. That’s a relatively small percentage compared to the 7.4 million households in the state. But if those same-sex households vote, it could sway the election one way or another.
“We need you to vote like your marriage depends on it,” says Stratton Pollitzer, chair of Equality Florida’s Action PAC. “For the first time, we have a candidate for governor who is with us on 100% of the issues. If elected, Charlie Crist has the opportunity to make a substantial difference in our lives.”
With marriage equality victories sweeping the country, Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage still stands, despite being ruled unconstitutional by five different judges. That’s because Gov. Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi continue to defend the ban.
“Electing a pro-equality governor isn’t enough,” Pollitzer says. “We need an Attorney General who will immediately drop the appeals of our marriage equality lawsuits, and we need a state legislature that can help the governor pass his pro-equality agenda.”
As governor in 2008, Crist supported the amendment to Florida’s Constitution banning the recognition of same-sex marriages. He has since publically apologized—in a cover story conducted by Watermark founder Tom Dyer—for supporting the measure and says he has evolved on the issue. In fact, his campaign released a letter to Rick Scott in August, asking the governor to stop fighting for the ban on same-sex marriages.
“Four years ago, a district court of appeals ruled Florida’s ban on gay and lesbian adoption unconstitutional,” Crist wrote in the letter. “When the ruling came down, I believed it was my job as Governor to exercise the authority vested in me by the people and our Constitution. The day the judge ruled, I declared Florida’s adoption ban over. Gay and lesbian parents began adopting the children they loved immediately. It is one of my proudest moments as an elected official.”
Sally Phillips, president of the Florida GLBT Democratic Caucus and campaign manager for Hillsborough County Commission candidate Pat Kemp, admits that she initially supported Nan Rich as the democratic candidate for governor. But she now supports Crist and sees an opportunity to remove Scott and Bondi from office, which she believes should be the goal of all LGBT Floridians.
“That would excite me to no end to defeat Bondi,” Phillips says. “And in that mix, as a consequence of all of us voting, we could also put Crist in there. We could finally have a state we can be proud of and a state we’re proud to live in. It can happen as long as we get out and vote. If we vote, we’re going to win.”
Even if Bondi wins but Crist wins, he will have the power to halt the appeals process, Phillips adds.
To many, Crist is seen as a flip-flopper, and the former governor’s previous positions have prevented him from building the momentum he had hoped for. McGrath, however, hopes voters will look at where the Democratic candidate stands now, rather than where he stood six years ago.
“For me, I don’t care where you come from, I care where you are now,” McGrath explains of her support of Crist. “Even President Obama has had movements on his support of LGBT issues. He was kind of tepid when he started out and the more he learned and the more he thought about it, he evolved to become supportive.”
In a perfect world, McGrath would have liked to see Crist on the “right side of history” from the very beginning. But he has become more progressive and has said he will stop Florida’s fight to continue enforcing the state’s ban on marriage equality.
“Someone can have reservations about someone’s past,” McGrath explains. “But look at where they are in the here and now on issues. That’s a compelling argument to support Crist. We know where Scott is on the issues. He and Pam Bondi have a recent history and we know where they are right now. We’re at the tipping point for change, all we need is a little more support and we can bring that change to the people of Florida.”
Orlando HRC Steering Committee Political Co-Chair Tony Sanndonato is enthusiastic about the LGBT community’s voting power. He used the recent festivities of Come Out With Pride as a gauge of voter turnout among LGBTs.
“Last weekend we attended Orlando Pride and we saw hundreds of ‘LGBT for Charlie’ signs,” he says.”This is going to be a very close election. Every vote counts. HRC volunteers have been working in the Florida Democratic Party campaign offices calling voters on behalf of Charlie Crist for Governor. Charlie Crist supports marriage equality and would issue an Executive Order banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in state government. He also supports the Florida Competitive Workforce Act, which is a statewide non-discrimination bill.”
But it’s not all about the statewide positions. LGBTs must vote in pro-equality representation at the local level, according to Phillips.
“Locally it will matter more to your daily life than on the state level,” Phillips says, adding that getting Pat Kemp on the Hillsborough Commission is just as important as keeping Terry Kemple, a long-time anti-gay activist, from getting on that county’s school board. “We just have to make sure the community votes. We can make the difference and we can have marriage equality come the first quarter of 2015 if we get Charlie Crist into office. He will stop the appeals, he said he would do that.”
Early voting began statewide on Oct. 23. Polls are open on election day, Tuesday, Nov. 4, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.