Is Florida Still A Battleground?

For as long as I can remember, Florida has been considered the perennial battleground state.  Like Ohio, the state has voted for the winning Presidential candidate since the new Millenium.  But, the state known for Hanging Chads and giving George Bush the Presidency might actually not be a battleground anymore.

It took Democrats by surprise in 2016 Trump won Ohio and Iowa by such massive margins.  The party consoled itself with the narrative though that states like Florida stayed close and Georgia, Texas and Arizona seemed to be trending blue.  In 2018, these trends only accelerated.  That is, except in Florida.

The state known for its heterogeneous mix of Republican retirees, anti-Communist Cuban Americans, Southern Florida white liberals and growing Puerto Rican population delivered a resounding victory for Republicans at virtually every level of governance (but hey, Democrats won the Agricultural Commissioner race).  Republicans managed to hold the Governorship for the SIXTH midterm in a row, knock off a three-term Senator and hold the state legislature.  In doing so, the state of Florida voted a whopping 9 points more Republican than the nation (compared to the national House vote).

Democrats wrote off Trump’s win 2016 as a fluke.  He had managed to squeak by with an unusual coalition of mostly rural, suburban and older whites while Democratic turnout was down compared to 2012.  But, 2018 proved this theory wrong.  Despite a surge in turnout among affluent, white liberals, young voters, and blacks the GOP emphatically kept its hold on the state.  Even as Democrats were winning over white, female suburban voters who had backed the President the GOP’s gubernatorial and Senatorial candidates were making inroads among Cuban-Americans and Puerto Ricans, effectively cancelling out any gains Democrats were making.

The midterms were the perfect storm for Democrats to turn Florida blue (or at least blueish).  They had a charismatic, young gubernatorial candidate in Andrew Gillum.  Senator Bill Nelson, despite a sleepy start to the campaign, was the perfect guy to appeal to older, moderate and conservative whites in the Panhandle and suburbs.  The national environment was toxic to the GOP.  All this did drive Democrats to the polls in big numbers.

For the first time since the 2000 Presidential election, the African-American share of the vote was roughly equal to that of the share of registered voters (13 percent).  Young voters increased their turnout relative to 2014 by 2.6 percent.  A whopping 517,000 voters who did not vote in 2016 also turned out (according to a data analysis).  A large majority of these voters were non-white.

Even so, Democrats could not get over the hump.  Republicans in 2016 won 57 percent of the white vote.  This year, they won 60 percent.  The shift in voting patterns was an increase in more non-white voters supporting Republicans and suburban whites shifting blue while even more rural, white voters turned out to vote.

In essence, the Democratic Party is stuck between a rock and a hard place.  If it shifts left it wins the suburbs and brings out a more diverse coalition.  But it also drives more rural, white voters into the GOP’s arms.

Now, consider an additional factor.  Republicans have a significant weakness among women nationally, and in Florida.  But, at least in the Sunshine State, it is outweighed by their mammoth strength among whites.  For example, exit polls showed Andrew Gillum won women by 12 points.  Ron DeSantis won men by 21 percent.

This key component of GOP strength in the state is magnified by the fact it means even Independent voters lean rightward.  For example, while Independent women went 47-42 against Trump in 2016, men went 50-38.  Even in a favorable Democratic year, Independent men went Democratic by a single point.

Combine this with the fact Republican turnout eclipsed Democratic turnout by five points and it is easy to see how the GOP ran eight points ahead of the national House popular vote.  Among the 2018 electorate, Trump had a 51 percent approval rating fueled by GOP turnout.

To highlight how significant the GOP advantage was among whites in 2018 look no further than Sumter County (home to the villages).  There, and in surround counties, turnout was 80 percent among white, GOP males.  No other demographic turned out at such a level.

The influx of white retirees to the Villages and the fact the Cuban-American population leans conservative has kept the state in the grip of the GOP despite demographic changes.  Even the growth in the Puerto Rican population was muted due to strong GOP turnout among Hispanics while Democratic Hispanics turned out but at a lower level.

Democrats hope a demographic tipping point will occur soon as the Hispanic population grows and a new voter approved Constitutional Amendment allows former felons to vote.

Still, for all the promises of a blue Florida, demographics seem to be evening out any major partisan shift vs. states like Arizona, Georgia, and Texas, where Democrats have made significant inroads.  Florida might look like an attractive target on the surface for the party but it might not be.  It might be a resource dump.  Democrats would be wise to consider this in 2020.


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