Over the past half century, Florida has changed from solidly Democratic to a two-party state that media, candidates, and analysts watch closely to see which way the nation’s political winds will blow. How did this happen? Why, going into the 2016 election year, does Florida qualify as a premier swing state? Below, Susan A. MacManus, respected Florida political analyst, explains Florida’s transformation.


Florida’s Transformation

Florida’s political evolution began with explosive population growth, sparked after World War II and continuing for decades. This boom transformed what was a mostly rural, white, poor population of less than 2 million into the nation’s third-largest state—a cultural mosaic of 20 million people who mirror the racial, ethnic, religious, age, and geographic makeup of the nation.

As people moved to Florida from the Northeast, Midwest, other parts of the South, Latin America, and the Caribbean, they altered the political landscape. A state that had been dominated by the Panhandle’s “pork choppers”—white, segregationist, conservative Democrats—grew into a demographic and political microcosm of the country. With voters now split among Democrats, Republicans, and independents, Florida has more Electoral College votes up for grabs than any other large state (29 EC votes in 2016, compared to eight a half-century ago). This has transformed Florida into the nation’s largest swing state, a political powerhouse.

It’s not surprising that Florida has voted for the winning presidential candidate in all but one year since 1964. And it’s not surprising that when political pundits are attempting to read the tea leaves, they look to Florida for clues. Read more.

And post your comment below. This year, will we again say, “As Florida goes, so goes the nation”?

Scott Owens served nearly nine years as an infantryman with the Army’s famed 101st Airborne Division, including two tours in Iraq. Injured during a fire fight, he lives with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and PTSD. The Winter Haven resident has worked as an advocate for veterans’ issues and is a fulltime student studying political science. In this video, he talks about the Army core values that have helped guide and sustain him through some tough times.


Several veterans shared their personal stories on stage to community audiences in Florida as part of our work with The Telling Project. This program helps bridge the communication gap with an American public in which less than one percent has served in uniform over the past dozen years of war. And it demonstrates the power of stories to help us make sense of the world, to take us to places we have never been, to look at the world through someone else’s eyes.

Learn more about Scott Owens and other veterans in our next issue of FORUM magazine. Pre-order it here.

Watch this video of a 2015 stage production of “Telling: Tampa Bay,” featuring Owens, his wife Shannon, and five other Florida veterans.

As Florida’s population boomed in the 1950s, 26 African Americans—all self-taught landscape painters—succeeded despite Jim Crow racial and cultural barriers. They painted and sold idyllic depictions of natural Florida door-to-door and from the trunks of their cars along the East Coast. Today, known as The Highwaymen, they are honored for their legacy of resilience and ingenuity—and have been called “The Last Great American Art Movement of the 20th Century.”

Watch this video interview of Mary Ann Carroll, the only female member of The Highwaymen, the daughter of sharecroppers, with video producer Patricia Borns. “Only the strong survive,” she says. “A quitter never wins.”

Video Courtesy of Patricia Borns

Read this colorfully illustrated article about the new Florida Highwaymen Trail opening in Fort Pierce—home to most of the painters.
Painting by James-Gibson

Listen below to hear how The Highwaymen got started and thrived by working together.

Does history depend on who writes it? We honor the Pilgrims on Thanksgiving. But Florida historians say that America’s REAL first feast took place more than a half century before—and was a whole different story (with different food). What do you think about this little-known piece of history?

Watch this video about the real first feast—and read the story below.

The REAL First Thanksgiving feast?

True or False: The Pilgrims celebrated America’s first thanksgiving, a harvest festival in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621.

You may have answered “True,” based on what you learned in elementary school. But, according to research by Florida historians, the answer is “False.” The REAL first thanksgiving celebration actually took place 56 years earlier, in St. Augustine, 50 miles south of present-day Jacksonville.

On September 8, 1565, Spanish Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés landed in St. Augustine with 500 soldiers, 200 sailors, and 100 civilian farmers and craftsmen, some with wives and children. After claiming La Florida on behalf of Spanish monarch Philip II, Menéndez and his entourage celebrated a Mass of thanksgiving for the expedition’s safe arrival and then shared a meal with the native Indians.

These stand as the first documented thanksgiving events in a permanent settlement anywhere in North America north of Mexico, said Michael Gannon, an eminent Florida historian who holds the title of Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Florida.

Gannon’s research indicates that the REAL first thanksgiving meal probably consisted of “cocido,” a stew of garbanzo beans, salted pork, and garlic, accompanied by hard sea biscuits and red wine. If the native Indians contributed food to the meal, they might have brought protein sources such as deer, gopher tortoise, shark, drum, mullet, and sea catfish, and vegetables such as maize (corn), beans, squash, nuts, fruits, and miscellaneous greens.

Gannon’s findings are based on documents from the Menéndez expedition and research by archaeologists. But despite such irrefutable evidence, Gannon said it would be difficult to change American lore about this traditional holiday.

“It is very difficult to get the powered-wig states to the north of Florida to recognize St. Augustine’s priority among American cities,” he said. “Even historians and journalists, particularly those of an Anglo-American bent, seem reluctant to accord any special stature to that dark-haired community, which was set in place one year following the death of Michelangelo and the birth of William Shakespeare.”

Gannon also noted that by the time the British colonies Jamestown and Plymouth were founded, “St. Augustine, Florida, was up for urban renewal. It was a city with fort, church, market, college seminary, six-bed hospital, and 120 shops and homes.”

So, as we begin this season’s preparations for a Thanksgiving feast of turkey, dressing, gravy, cranberry sauce, vegetables, breads and, of course, pumpkin pie—don’t forget the garbanzo beans!

© Florida Humanities Council

Don’t share this with your friends up North…unless you want company

This 1970s commercial—named one of the top 100 TV spots of all time—tantalized people in snow country. Florida historian Gary Mormino tells us how Florida sold the sun starting in the Gilded Age. Has this marketing of paradise changed?

When You Need It Bad We’ve Got It Good (1970s)

Selling the Sun

By Gary R. Mormino

SellingTheSunA TV commercial in the 1970s tantalized New Yorkers, comparing their freezing trudges through snow-clogged streets with alluring scenes of palm trees, soft breezes and fun-in-the-sun frolicking in the sea. “When you need it bad, we’ve got it good,” sang the siren song. “Come to Florida!”

That Florida tourism ad, named one of the top 100 TV spots of all time, is part of a winter marketing campaign that began in the 19th century and continues today. What began with selling Florida warmth to tubercular Yankees expanded to enticing anyone seeking a winter refuge, whether tourists or snowbirds.

The Gilded Age, the era between the 1870s and 1890s, witnessed the first flowering of Florida tourism. In magazines and books, postcards and paintings, the idea of a Florida dream emerged, the notion that travelers could enjoy palm trees, sand dunes, and even a better life. Or at least a better February!

A new, more democratized Florida dream emerged in the 1920s. The Model T brought millions of middle-class winter tourists. Advertisements in print, on the radio, and in the movies portrayed Florida as the new Mediterranean. A new architecture, Mediterranean Revival, emphasized that Americans no longer had to spend winters in Malaga or Portofino; rather, they could luxuriate in Miami Beach, Sarasota, or Boca Raton.

During the Great Depression, Americans heard about Florida while dancing to Irving Berlin’s Moon Over Miami or listening to his Florida by the Sea in the Marx brothers film, Cocoanuts.

The prosperity following WWII ignited a new love affair with Florida. In 1950, a Gallup poll confirmed that the southernmost state was Americans’ third favorite destination, behind California and Hawaii. Florida embarked upon a campaign to become number one.

For decades, newspapers mailed winter editions to tourists. The Orlando Sentinel even scented its annual citrus edition with orange perfume. In New York City’s Grand Central Station and scores of other busy transportation hubs, bathing beauties handed out free Florida oranges, orange juice, and tourist brochures to coincide with the season’s first blizzard.

The new medium of television served as handmaiden for Florida tourism. Miami Beach was synonymous with Arthur Godfrey’s shows. The ukulele-strumming, floral-shirted Godfrey said, “Come on down!” In the early 1960s, viewers eagerly awaited the words, “From the sun and fun capital of the world, Miami Beach, it’s the Jackie Gleason Show!”

Then came Disney. His Sunday-night TV show promoted Disneyland in California. That success inspired him to roll the dice in 1971 and gamble on Walt Disney World, a development that transformed Florida tourism.

The rest, as they say, is history.

GARY R. MORMINO, Florida Humanities Council scholar-in-residence, is the Frank E. Duckwall professor emeritus in Florida Studies at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

America’s first cowboys did not ride the Wild West

We love the western cowboys of Hollywood fame. But the real first cowboys were called cowmen, and they trailblazed the piney woods, swamplands, and plains of Florida. Here’s the fascinating story. How does it live on today?


The legacy of America’s first cowmen

Listen to the voices of people who live and know the world of Florida’s cowmen. Among those featured in our 2001 radio program is the late author and scholar Joe Akerman, who wrote our FORUM feature on “America’s First Cowmen.”

Florida cattle drives continue…

Check out the 2016 Great Florida Cattle Drive. It’s not for sissies.