ORLANDO, Fla. (The Hill) — Florida is starting to look like Trump country.
Long the largest — and most unpredictable — battleground state in the nation, Florida politics have transformed at a breakneck pace in recent years, becoming increasingly conservative even as hundreds of thousands of new residents flocked to the state, often from bluer territory.
The sweeping political shift taking place in the Sunshine State is due to a perfect storm of circumstances – including changing demographics and a poorly organized state Democratic party.
But some also put a strong emphasis on the pandemic, which they link to population displacement.
“There’s one word and that’s COVID,” said Nelson Diaz, Republican lobbyist and former Miami-Dade County GOP chairman. “It made the red states redder and the blue states bluer. It gave people like [Florida Gov.] Ron DeSantis is a platform to stand up for freedom and it has given Democrats in Democratic states a plan to run for office.
Diaz said he thinks the state’s embrace of conservative policies has drawn many newcomers to Florida.
“These are Republicans who are sick of their blue laws in their blue states or they’re just independent-minded people to begin with and they’re just sick of these blue states and they’re taking advantage of the freedom that Florida has to offer,” he said.
Florida’s population growth has been staggering. Between July 2020 and July 2021, the state’s population grew by more than 211,000, net migration surpassing all other states, according to Census Bureau estimates. Orlando and Jacksonville were among the 10 fastest growing metropolitan areas between 2010 and 2020.
Many of Florida’s new residents also appear to be from more Democratic states. In 2019 alone, about 28,000 people moved to the Sunshine State from California; 28,000 left New Jersey, while 57,000 left New York, according to Census Bureau data from that year.
DeSantis seized on the pandemic as the starting point for an ultra-conservative and ambitious political agenda that propelled him to stardom among Republicans nationwide and turned him into a potential contender for the presidential nomination. of the 2024 GOP.
Over the past two years, he has repeatedly resisted the advice of federal health officials for a hands-off approach to the outbreak, earning him praise from conservatives who have come to terms with it. to see Florida as a haven from pandemic-era restrictions and mandates imposed in other states.
Florida’s importance to the modern GOP has only grown since then. Now in his post-presidency, former President Donald Trump has settled into his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, attracting Republican candidates, donors and luminaries.
Meanwhile, DeSantis has placed conservative grievances and culture war issues at the center of his platform. In March, he signed a law banning public school teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity with students until third grade. After Disney, the state’s largest private employer, criticized the bill, Republican state lawmakers and DeSantis moved to revoke the company’s 55-year-old special tax district. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, as a draft document leaked last week showed, that is sure to be another issue that excites conservatives, further dividing the electorate in the state.
Aubrey Jewett, a professor of political science at the University of Central Florida, said Florida’s shift to the right is also due to longer-term changes. For one, the state’s Hispanic population has grown significantly over the years, and Republicans have made strong inroads among many of those voters.
At the same time, Florida’s massive elderly and retired population has become more conservative. More importantly, Jewett said, “they register and vote.”
“Basically what’s happened is the older senior generation — let’s say the New Deal generation — who were pretty loyal Democrats, they’re dying and they’re being replaced by the Baby Boomer retirees and a lot of them are moving out in Florida and they’re very Republican,” Jewett said.
But Jewett noted that Florida voters are often not as conservative as the state’s political leaders and suggested that the rightward shift in Florida politics may be driven more by elected officials like DeSantis than by the electorate. in its entirety.
“I think there’s a question of how much mass public opinion has changed in Florida, or is it more elite opinion, where Republicans who get elected are pushing more conservative policies,” said Jewett.
Still, the numbers seem to favor Republicans. A Morning Consult poll released late last month found DeSantis’ approval at 56%, putting him in a strong position as he heads toward his re-election bid this year.
The results of Florida’s 2020 presidential election also reflected the growing strength of the GOP. Trump carried the state by nearly 3.5 percentage points, nearly tripling his 2016 margin of victory in the Sunshine State.
Perhaps even more notable were his gains in Miami-Dade County, a Democratic stronghold and a predominantly Hispanic region. In 2016, then-Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton won the county by nearly 30 points. Four years later, in 2020, President Biden has won by just over 7 percentage points.
Since then, Florida’s political trajectory has only darkened for Democrats. Late last year, the number of registered Republican voters surpassed the number of registered Democrats, a dramatic change since former President Barack Obama won the state in 2008, when there were 700 000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.
“When you look at what’s happened from a numbers perspective, there’s an awful lot to worry about,” Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based pollster and consultant whose firm has helped Obama’s campaign to win the state in 2008 and 2012.
“It became MAGA in exile, explains Amandi. “Florida is now the birthplace of the MAGA movement. And then you have DeSantis, who is Trump’s protege or biggest competitor. The feeling is that if you believe in the MAGA philosophy, Florida is where you want to be.
It’s not uncommon now, on what was once a blue field, to see Trump or “Let’s Go Brandon” flags outside homes and on boats sailing the intra-coastal waterways.
“The fundamental problem is that the Democratic Party’s brand is completely tainted in the state of Florida,” Amandi explained. “The Republicans defined the party as the party of socialism and said the Democrats were toying with Communism.”
The Democratic Party, he added, must now get down to rebranding and redefining.
“If a caretaker abandons a property, he can’t be shocked when the base of the house starts to rot from the inside out,” he said.
“You don’t do this three months before an election,” he said. “It takes years, and it has to be continuous and relentless.”
Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who is based in the Sunshine State and served as Florida director for Obama’s 2008 campaign, said there are a few issues that have led to the rise of Republicans in Florida: a higher than average percentage of white voters who did. not going to college and Hispanics, who have gravitated over the past two cycles toward the Republican Party.
“You can see the change in the numbers,” Schale said. “Clearly Florida is tougher than it was a few years ago…And I don’t think 2022 will be a good year for my party.”
“If we don’t address those two red flags, our path becomes really narrow,” he said.
During Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, Schale said he and his team sought to “root” their candidate in the state while consistently highlighting issues that matter to voters.
“We ran more ads talking about our view of taxes versus their view of taxes more than any other issue. Because why do people move to Florida? Because it’s traditionally a place that has a cost cheap living and a low tax base. We hammered home that message for three, four or five months.
Democrats, he said, need to start committing time and investment and organizing efforts on the ground, including registering voters year-round, not just months before an election, telegraphing a message strong and running for candidates “who can speak to voters who don’t necessarily always agree with Democrats.
“It’s about displacing 3, 4, 5 percent of voters,” he said. “It’s all about the margins… And if we do all of that, there’s no reason we can’t win.”
But the problems don’t just lie in Florida, Schale said.
“There are definite challenges, but those challenges are not unique to my condition,” he said.