Tallahassee, Fla. — It took 120 years. But Abraham Lincoln's party is finally making it big here in the South. It's a triumph as sweet as a magnolia blossom for Republicans, who have courted Dixie for decades. But it's like a romance gone sour for Democrats, who have taken the South for granted since the days of their great-grandfathers, or even their great-great-grandfathers.
Political scientists, watching Southern voters change their party allegiance from Florida to Texas, say growing Republican strength in the South could:
Give the GOP a lock on the White House for the rest of the 20th century.
Shift the balance of power in the United States House of Representatives during the 1990s toward the Republicans.
Threaten the political future of the Democrats as a truly national party.
Nowhere is this historic shift better illustrated than here in Florida. The Sunshine State has flirted with the Republican Party since the days of Dwight D. Eisenhower. But at the local and state levels, Florida has largely remained an entrenched Democratic stronghold. Visitors to Tallahassee are still reminded that the city was the only Confederate capital east of the Mississippi River never captured by Yankee troops during the Civil War.
Republican power is growing vote by vote, county by county, district by district, from Key West to Pensacola. Old habits are dying. More voters, especially the young, for whom President Reagan is a powerful figure, are signing up as Republicans.
Republican leaders beam as they talk about the latest trends.
From 1981 to '84, Republicans outregistered Democrats among new voters in Florida by better than 2 to 1. That is continuing this year.
The news is even better for the GOP among Florida's white voters. In the past four years, Republicans have signed up white voters at a pace nearly five times as fast as Democrats -- 461,924 for the GOP, a relatively scanty 98,247 for Democrats. On a typical day, Republicans register 316 new white voters, Democrats sign up only 67.
While Democrats still outnumber Republicans on the Florida rolls, a few more years could reverse things.
Democrats are actually losing strength among whites in some critical areas. In Dade County (which includes Miami), Democrats dipped by more than 50,000 voters in the past four years. It would have been even worse for them if the number of black Democrats had not risen; white Democrats in Dade County declined by 73,715.
White voters were also leaving the Democratic fold in Broward County (Fort Lauderdale), while the party was barely holding its own in other major counties such as Orange (Orlando) and Pinellas (St. Petersburg).
While all this has been happening, Republicans have moved ahead with giant strides. Gains of 50 percent or more in Republican registered voters are common in many areas since 1980. Even in northern Florida, the state's bastion of ``Deep South'' traditions, there were GOP gains of 62 percent in Jacksonville, 39 percent in Gainesville, 51 percent in Tallahassee, 42 percent in Pensacola, and 54 percent in St. Augustine, and in a rural county like Dixie, a whopping gain of 132 percent.
Paul Allen Beck, a political scientist at Florida State University (FSU), says young people are leading the march to the Republican Party here. Just 20 years ago, Democrats outnumbered Republicans statewide by more than 4 to 1. Fifteen years ago, their lead fell to 3 to 1. Today, with 3,313,073 Democrats and 1,895,937 Republicans, that has fallen to only 1.7 to 1, and the gap continues to narrow rapidly.
Why is this happening? Dr. Beck suggests that young voters are ``very much attracted to Ronald Reagan.'' The President represents ``increased opportunities'' to young people and ``the kind of life they want.'' Even though he sits in the White House, Mr. Reagan is perceived as the outsider, opposed to the old, entrenched establishment and favoring change.
At the same time, Beck says, Democratic ideas are seen as ``old hat.'' Not only was Walter Mondale ``boring'' to young people, he was also ``the establishment'' in the eyes of the young voters, he says.
Beck suggests that the Democratic decline here may be even swifter and deeper than registration shows.
Using polls conducted by the Policy Sciences Program at FSU, Beck has tracked a steady rise of Republican loyalty in Florida since Reagan first won the White House in 1980. At that time, about 45 percent of the state's voters said they felt closer to the Democratic Party. Only 23 percent named the Republican Party.
Except for the 1982 recession, Democratic support has been declining ever since, while Republicans have gained, Beck observes.
Today, for the first time, Beck says one can begin to talk about parity between the parties -- one-third Democrats, one-third Republicans, one-third independents.
A similar realignment appears to be taking place in many other parts of the South. What is happening, Beck says, is that the South is finally lining up with the rest of the country. Its conservatives -- unlike in the past -- are becoming Republicans. Its liberals are remaining Democrats. Moderates are splitting in both directions.
In the past, Southern conservatives, because of the Civil War, supported Democrats, including Northern liberals such as Franklin D. Roosevelt, even when they weren't of the same ideology. War memories were that strong. As those memories fade, the South begins to look like the rest of the country politically, he says.
This is ``in many ways natural,'' says Beck. And since Florida has more than twice as many self-proclaimed ``conservatives'' (34 percent) as ``liberals'' (14 percent), it is little surprising that the GOP is gaining.
First of two articles. Next: Democrats fight back. Graph: Party registration totals in Florida, 1964-84
(4.4-to-1 advantage for Dems)
(3.4-to-1 advantage for Dems)
(2.5-to-1 advantage for Dems)
(2.4-to-1 advantage for Dems)
(2.2-to-1 advantage for Dems)
(1.7-to-1 advantage for Dems)