We’ve heard virtually ad nauseam that Florida is shifting irrevocably toward the Democrats because of the increase in the Hispanic and foreign-born population. While the upward shifts in Democratic vote can be observed in some core urban areas (Miami-Dade County went from 52% Democratic in the two party vote to 65% between 2000 and 2016, Orange County going from 51% to 64% in the same period) we’ve seen an increasingly static performance in top-of-the-ticket statewide elections from Democrats. The 2010, 2012, 2014 and 2016 elections were eerily similar at the top-of-the-ticket for both parties, while down ballot the GOP dominated.
This would indicate despite all the talk of shifts in the electorate and clear changes we are seeing in other large states (including Georgia believe it or not) as Hispanic/Latino numbers grow and urban whites become more Democratic, Florida isn’t really changing at the bottom-line level. Our state, with its decades-long propensity to attract anti-tax exiles from other parts of the country to planned bedroom communities is actually based on recent evidence seeing a shift in margins for either party in certain geographic locales rather than a complete statewide change.
We’ve dissected at length the troubles for Democrats in medium-sized counties in the state with largely white working-class populations and how Democrats have lost vote share in bedroom communities up and down I-95 and I-75. We have looked at the increasing difficulty the party has had with catholic voters, particularly white Catholics who until recently favored Democratic candidates (this is no different than the Midwest but still something state party officials should be aware of and working to solve). What we haven’t discussed at length is the decline of the party’s vote share in areas that are growing rapidly, filling up with white transplants from the Northeast and Midwest.
Hillary Clinton’s performance in both Pinellas and Palm Beach counties was the worst by a Democratic nominee for President since Michael Dukakis in 1988. Palm Beach has to be of particular concern as Al Gore ran almost seven points better in the county than Hillary Clinton did. At a time when urban areas across the country are shifting left, Palm Beach is doing the opposite. In fact, in 2016 Cobb and Gwinnett County Georgia voted Democratic for the first time since native son Jimmy Carter was the party’s nominee in 1976 and Dallas County, Texas which Bill Clinton lost in both 1992 and 1996 gave his wife a 27-point victory. Similar stories can be told across the country, including Orange County here in Florida which voted for the Republican nominees in both 1992 and 1996 against Bill Clinton but gave his wife a nearly 30-point win this past year.
Urban areas are shifting heavily to the left with local white voters joining minorities in rejecting the GOP – for example, DeKalb County, Georgia which was the first part of that state to elect Republicans in the 1960’s and continued to do so into the 1990’s gave Hillary Clinton over 80% of its votes last November. Palm Beach County has seen large Hispanic growth since 2000 but also has enjoyed major development in the northern part of the county which is attracting the type of GOP-leaning anti-tax whites that have long moved to the west coast of Florida. Therefore at a time when urban areas across the country are shifting left, Palm Beach is moving to the right, something that appears to have been unnoticed by the leadership of the Florida Democratic Party.
Speaking of the west coast of Florida, Democrats have made little to no progress in gaining any sort of foothold south of Sarasota. An area with well over a million people is hardly being touched by the Democratic Party. For years, Midwestern migrants have made Southwest Florida a Republican bastion, but as the area continues to grow, the GOP is enjoying larger and larger margins that help offset the increasingly gaudy numbers Democrats take out of Miami-Dade, Broward and Orange counties.
As far as Pinellas is concerned, the Democrats non-emphasis on localized type environmental issues at a macro level might have played a role in the demise or simply put the party has become too identified with identity politics. Pinellas isn’t growing anywhere near the rate of other urban or even medium-sized Florida county, but the success of Democrats statewide has since the early 1990’s had a correlation to how the west side of Tampa Bay performs for the party, and based on 2016 the returns aren’t encouraging. On the other side of the bay, concerns persist.
The areas of Hillsborough County with rapid growth, such as Riverview and Brandon are offsetting the vote gains Democrats are making in urban Tampa and the areas around the University of South Florida. The Jacksonville area has seen any gain the Democrats make in Duval County offset by increased GOP margins in St John’s and Clay Counties as new residents move in. The shifts in places like Flagler and Putnam counties has been largely uncontested by the Democrats. Flagler, reliably Democratic in Presidential Elections from 1992 to 2008 gave Trump a twenty point win in 2016. As the county’s population has grown, so has the GOP base thanks to the influx of out-of-state migrants.
As Brevard, Pasco, Marion, Sumter and Lake Counties have picked up more white migrants from other states, they’ve shifted further and further into the GOP column at all levels. Democrats have had virtually no answer for the increase in GOP margins out of each of these counties. Even in rock-ribbed Democratic Broward County, the 2016 election results showed some increasing and surprising GOP strengths in some western suburban areas – not anything substantial ,and if there is one place where the Democratic infrastructure can withstand a GOP push it is Broward – but this is certainly worth tracking in the coming cycles as it might indicate the types of new residents that Palm Beach has attracted.
What’s been assumed by political insiders and Democrats for sometime – that a shift to the Democrats was inevitable in this state because of demographic changes isn’t a forgone conclusion at all as we see based on recent evidence. Florida continues to use new housing development and planned communities to stimulate its economy, therefore attracting the type of voters from up north that shifted this state towards the GOP in the first place – perhaps leading to a long-term stalemate in numbers where the institutional advantages the GOP enjoy in this state will allow them to continue to eek out narrow win after narrow win at the top of the ticket. For national Democrats, turning Florida blue is essential as the party’s path to winning the Presidency depends more heavily than ever on Florida now that the industrial Midwest is shifting away from the party.