Party Switching More Common Than You Might Think

Sep 13, 2014 by

Much has been made of former Gov. Charlie Crist changing parties from Republican to Independent to Democrat.

But is that a bad thing?

Many believe if Crist had run for reelection in 2010 as a Republican, he would have won overwhelmingly. Part of that is because he was well liked as governor and part is because he would have had the Republican political machine at his disposal.

Make no mistake, after 16 years of control of the state, Republicans have a huge advantage in statewide elections. The Republican Party of Florida can raise unlimited amounts of money and the Florida Legislature and governor can deliver or obstruct the policy and funding objectives of the big-moneyed special interests.

Additionally, Republican voters are much better at turning out to vote whether or not they are enthusiastic about their candidate. Perhaps that has to do with the makeup of the parties. Republicans are generally older, whiter and more male. Democratic voters tend to be younger, with more females and minorities. Older white voters cast ballots more frequently than young or minority voters.

So even though Democratic voters outnumber Republican voters in Florida, Democrats seldom win statewide elections. Two examples of candidates who have bucked this trend in the last decade are U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson and former Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink.

So I found it somewhat humorous when some accused Crist of being a political opportunist. Do those critics consider running as a member of Florida’s minority party — chronically underfunded, generally having low voter turnout and seldom winning statewide races — an “opportunity”? Perhaps, as Crist has stated, he was no longer comfortable with the party’s hard move to the right. He wouldn’t be alone.

This got me curious as to how prevalent party changing is among political figures and among voters.

On the national scene there are many politicians who have switched parties. Those who moved from Democrat to Republican include Ronald Reagan, Rick Perry, Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, Trent Lott, Elizabeth Dole, Susana Martinez and Condoleezza Rice.

Other political figures moved in the opposite direction from Republican to Democrat — Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, Arlen Spector, Lincoln Chaffee and Elizabeth Warren.

And in Florida, Crist is hardly the only renegade. Govs. Claude Kirk and Bob Martinez; Attorneys General Jim Smith and Pam Bondi; U.S. Reps. Andy Ireland, Bill Grant, Charles Canady, Tillie Fowler and Tim Mahoney; and a very long list of state legislators, including former House Speaker Allan Bense, have all switched parties.

Why do those in the political arena switch parties? It could be because they feel it is an ethical obligation — they no longer feel comfortable or share the party ideology. It might be to gain power and influence or it could be to get elected.

But what about the voters?

In Florida, a closed-primary state, voters used to register Republican or Democrat so they could vote in the primaries. Some voters registered in one party to vote in the primaries despite the fact that they felt more closely aligned with the other. But that is changing. More are registering or switching to No Party Affiliation (NPA).

The voting rolls in Florida show there are 11,811,927 registered voters. Of that total 39 percent are Democrats, 35 percent are Republicans, and 23 percent are NPA.

It’s interesting that 23 percent of all registered voters in Florida, nearly a quarter of them, do not affiliate with any party, even though it precludes them from voting in a primary election. Compare that to 20 years ago when NPAs were a mere 8 percent.

Florida’s Division of Elections does not have an online report of how many registered voters switched parties, so I called a few of the 67 County Supervisor of Election offices to try to get a feel.

Since 2009, there have been 22,880 party changes in Polk County, 56,911 in Pinellas County, 68,630 in Hillsborough County and 88,848 in Broward County. That means 237,269 party switches occurred in those four counties alone. Imagine what that number would be statewide! Keep in mind some voters may have switched more than once.

Apparently party switching is more commonplace and has less of a stigma than many would lead you to believe. For voters it’s easier to switch parties to show they no longer ideologically belong. For those running for office it’s a little trickier as people will question their motives.

As Winston Churchill said, “Some men change their party for the sake of their principles; others their principles for the sake of the party.”

Crist no longer fit well in the Republican Party. Perhaps he didn’t want to sacrifice his principles for the sake of the party. Voters get that.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at

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