In 2020, the GOP holds the slightest of edges in Florida

The common narrative among activists and those who are hopeful that Democrats will win Florida in 2020 is that President Trump is so unpopular and demographic shifts will deliver the state to the Democratic Presidential nominee. But the problem is Trump isn’t as unpopular in the state as many Democrats think (particularly among those most likely to vote) and the demographic shifts in the state, much like they did prior to the 2018 election probably slightly favor the GOP.

However, the Democrats march in Florida’s urban areas continued in 2018 with Andrew Gillum pilling up record raw vote margins for a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Broward and Orange counties while flipping Duval to the Democratic column for the first time in over three decades.

More good news for the Democrats is the party itself seems more organized to deliver higher turnout than in past cycles. But party organization and that of outside activist groups can only do so much in a landscape that at this moment does not appear particularly favorable to the party.

While urban voters have shifted wholesale to the Democrats across the country and the suburbs even in major southern metropolitan areas have followed, Florida has some very unique elements that runs counter to some of the national trends.

1- The growth of exurban Florida continues. The Villages, Eastern Hillsborough County, Southwest Florida, as well Pasco, Marion and Volusia Counties gives the Republicans an advantage. We discussed these changes in a recent Florida History Podcast. 

2- The continued erosion of support for Democrats among white voters among, especially Catholics as well as the slow but sure shift of urban largely white suburbs in Pinellas and Palm Beach Counties away from the Democrats. The flip side of this is the increasing struggles of the GOP in the Orlando area where white voters are continuing to abandon the party in large enough numbers to pad overall Democratic margins in Osceola and Orange Counties. In some cases however, this is caused by more conservative whites simply moving further out of the area into Lake, Sumter or Volusia Counties. But it must be noted that Orange County now is reliably producing the second largest margins for Democratic candidates at the top-of-the-ticket in the state behind Broward, which is the Southeast United States most Democratic large county.

3- The growing Venezuelan exile population in south Florida and its impact on the electorate. From a policy standpoint, I often criticized Democrats for sucking up to anti-Maduro elements in recent years but after evaluating the electorate I completely understand from a political standpoint why the Democrats have shifted to this posture. Will the shift mitigate the damage done in 2018 when the GOP made opposition to “socialism” after two decades of ebbing and flowing fortunes for the left in South America in which many of the bourgeoisie from those countries have relocated to Florida.

While urban areas around the country are shifting heavily to the left with local white voters joining minorities in rejecting the GOP a trend that continued in 2018, Florida’s continued growth is based largely on migrants from the northeast and midwest – in many cases these are middle income whites that are generally conservative. In other areas they are white voters who are leaving core urban areas such as Miami-Dade, Broward and Orange counties and moving to more conservative suburban and exurban areas.

Palm Beach County for example, 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. The northern part of Palm Beach County is becoming more like the Treasure Coast or Southwest Florida in terms of demographics and cultural preferences. Environmentalism is strong, but on other issues the Democrats fall short with these voters. Andrew Gillium in 2018 was able to improve Democratic performance over both Clinton in 2016 and Obama in 2012 in what were once core-GOP areas east of US 1. This is an encouraging sign, however Democratic leakage in other parts of the county particularly the west and north are a cause for concern.

Gillum also turned around Clinton’s defeat in Pinellas County and won Duval, becoming the first Democrat running for either President or Governor to do so since 1982. Gillum also carried Seminole County, a locale whose flip to the Democratic column has felt inevitable for a number of years.  But meanwhile the continued trend of leakage of Democratic votes in neighboring counties like Pasco and St. Johns continued in 2018.

Democrats have not found a way to translate concerns about environmental issues on both the Treasure Coast and from Sarasota south to Naples on the Gulf Coast into votes. In fact those areas have become more Republican, though Gillum made headway in St Lucie County which he restored to the Democrats column. But in contrast, he lost Sarasota County by far larger margin than Charlie Crist had four years earlier. The GOP’s ability to run up margins in the fast growing areas of Southwest Florida is the decisive vote statewide. Not only in terms of statewide campaigns, but the Democrats creep into relevancy in the State House and State Senate – until the Democrats can win more than a single seat south of Bradenton on the west coast or any seats south of Lakeland in the interior of the state, it will be very difficult to win control of either chamber.

Counties such as Polk and Volusia with their Democratic heritage have trended toward the GOP even as their Hispanic percentages have increased. The effectiveness of Ron DeSantis and Rick Scott in attracting Latino’s to the GOP in 2018 was fatal for the Democrats. In the era of identity politics, the Democrats cannot afford any leakage among core constituencies.

The impeachment of Trump as well as a possible conflict with Iran are unlikely to have any sort of impact on the type of middle class white voters outside the core urban counties Democrats need to woo.

The growth of the Venezuelan vote and the influence those voters have had on other Latino groups, particularly after two decades of large scale leftism in South America does not favor the Democrats. To the credit of the party and many Hispanic Democratic officials, they quickly recognized this (certainly faster than I did) and have tried to mitigate the damage. But  the influence of these sorts of voters not only on Presidential politics but multiple close state legislative seats in Miami-Dade County could prove critical.

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 happening at all – in fact the opposite seems to be occurring. 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. But this could have impacts elsewhere as most of Florida’s new Republicans have come from somewhere else in the United States.

However, the good news is the more Midwesterners that move to Florida, the more likely states like Michigan and Wisconsin are to flip back to the Democrats.

As 2020 continues we will provide analysis and like 2018, numbers to predict and analyze electoral trends.

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