What’s the Matter With Florida?
How shifting demographics and partisan composition have kept the Sunshine State out of reach for Democrats.
Even as most other traditional battleground states gave Democrats plenty to cheer about in the 2022 midterm elections, Florida—long considered a swing state—broke heavily for Republicans. GOP success in the state wasn’t confined to just one or two races either: the party made gains up and down the ballot. Incumbent Governor (and recently announced 2024 presidential candidate) Ron DeSantis won re-election in a landslide as his party earned supermajorities in the state legislature, while Senator Marco Rubio also won re-election by a significant margin and Republicans picked up four U.S. House seats thanks in part to aggressive gerrymandering.1
And as if that weren’t enough, Democrats were locked out of all statewide offices for the first time since the Reconstruction era.
These results didn’t necessarily represent a significant departure from the state’s recent history, however. Republicans have controlled the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the state legislature since 1999.2 Moreover, since 2000, they have won 32 of the 39 contests for statewide office, including 15 by double digits.3 For their part, Democrats have won just one election for statewide office since 2012—the 2018 race for agriculture commissioner.
Even so, Democrats’ growing weakness in Florida has been somewhat hard to process. The state was a presidential bellwether for much of the past century, and candidates for the nation’s top office have averaged a winning margin here of just one point since 2000. In the three midterm elections that took place in the 2010s, all of which clearly broke for one party or the other at the national level, top-of-the-ticket contests in Florida continued to be very close. This included near wins for Democrats in both the U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races in 2018, where they fell short in each by less than half a point.
Though frustrating, these results were nonetheless a sign to many that the Democratic Party still had life and that Florida should not be written off moving forward.
While Democrats have found indisputable success at the national level in the last three cycles and been competitive in Florida over the past decade, the state has remained something of a white whale for them, often zigging toward Republicans while much of the rest of the country zagged toward Democrats. The narrow 2018 Democratic losses in Florida came as most other states experienced a blue wave. Many presidential battlegrounds flipped from Joe Biden to Donald Trump in 2020—or at least moved leftward from 2016—while Florida voted for Trump by a wider margin than the first time. Democrats stopped a red wave in key 2022 midterm swing states while at the same time Republicans routed them in the Sunshine State.
The results of last year’s midterms have already put a damper on many Democrats’ hopes of competing in Florida in 2024. There’s a bigger-picture consideration as well: many of the trends evident in the state should have theoretically made Democrats more competitive, not less. Florida’s population has boomed since the turn of the century, and it is among the top 10 most diverse states in the country. These factors have transformed states like Colorado and Virginia from red to blue during that time. Others like Arizona and Georgia look to be following suit as well. But not Florida.
So, what gives? Why has this state not only continued to remain just out of reach for Democrats but begun trending even more red recently?
There are a few key factors that have precipitated these developments. The first is the rightward shift among the state’s Hispanic voters. This has been most apparent in Miami-Dade County, whose population is more than two-thirds Hispanic and home to a sizable Cuban American contingent that has historically leaned more conservative. We first saw meaningful signs of Democratic slippage in the county in 2018: Senator Bill Nelson and gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum each won it by about 21 points after Hillary Clinton carried it by nearly 30 in 2016. Given that each man lost his race by less than 0.5 points, their failure to match Clinton’s margin doomed them both.
Democrats’ underperformance in Miami-Dade that cycle may have been a canary in the coalmine. Though Biden’s campaign invested heavily in Florida in 2020, Trump won it again—and Miami-Dade went from backing Clinton by 29.4 points in 2016 to voting for Biden by just 7.3 in 2020. This 22-point rightward swing was the largest of any county in the state and a troubling sign of Democrats’ standing with Florida’s Hispanic voters. Then the bottom seemed to fall out in 2022: Rubio and DeSantis both carried Miami-Dade as they secured re-election, with DeSantis becoming the first GOP gubernatorial candidate to do so in 20 years.4
Democrats’ struggles with Hispanic Floridians have not been confined only to Miami-Dade or Cuban voters—they have lost ground with Hispanics across the state. After DeSantis carried 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in his first gubernatorial campaign, he won 56 percent in the 2022 midterms. He also split the Puerto Rican vote with his Democratic opponent, Charlie Crist, which is notable given Puerto Ricans are traditionally a Democratic-leaning group.
At the precinct level, a New York Times analysis showed that rightward shifts from 2016 to 2020 occurred in majority-Latino precincts throughout the state, including around Fort Lauderdale and Orlando (the latter of which is home to a sizable Puerto Rican population). Equis Research also found that Miami-Dade precincts where a majority of voters were Latino but not Cuban swung right by an average of 20 points. Things did not get any better in 2022, with Democrats falling even further from 2020 in the state’s three majority-Hispanic counties.
Heading into 2024, warning signs still flash about Democrats’ strength (or lack thereof) with Florida’s Hispanic voters. A March 2023 University of North Florida poll found President Biden’s favorability rating with this group at just 43 percent, with a paltry eight percent saying they had a “very favorable” view of him—lower than for any other racial or ethnic group. And the news didn’t get any better for Biden in the trial heats: he lost Hispanic Floridians to Trump, 52 to 41, and to DeSantis, 58 to 34. If Biden has any hope of bouncing back in Florida next year, he’ll have to start by fixing his standing with this influential voting bloc.
The second major factor working in Republicans’ favor is the changing partisan makeup of the electorate. For most of the past two decades, Democrats held a steady registration advantage over Republicans in Florida. By 2020, however, Republicans had almost entirely closed the gap, and they finally overtook Democrats in late 2021. (Some of this may have simply been registered Democrats who had been voting Republican formalizing their party change.)
The GOP’s registration advantage—and subsequently dominant performance in 2022—has been thanks in no small part to a surge in new arrivals during the COVID pandemic who have disproportionately leaned Republican. According to figures from the Florida Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, the state saw a net migration gain of over a million people between 2020 and 2022. The increase in 2020 alone—some 410,000—represented Florida’s largest net gain in new residents in a single year in nearly half a century.
This migration appeared to expedite the shifting partisan makeup of the registered voter population. One analysis found that 393,800 active voters had moved to Florida between March 2020 and November 2022. Nearly half (46 percent) of them were Republicans compared to 29 percent who were independents and just 23 percent who were Democrats—a departure from years prior when new arrivals registered more evenly between the two parties. The partisan disparity was most pronounced after September 2020, when DeSantis announced Florida was entering its final phase of re-opening. The author of that analysis offered this context: “The number of Republicans who have moved to Florida alone exceeds the number of transplant voters in each of the two most populous states, California and Texas.”5
According to the AP VoteCast survey, these changes appear to have had a significant impact on the makeup of the electorate. In 2018, 46 percent of Florida midterm voters either identified as or leaned Republican compared to 42 percent who identified as Democrats or leaned Democratic. The Republican advantage grew in 2020, as the electorate was 51 percent Republican and 43 percent Democratic. But the impact of the registration shifts appeared no longer in doubt by 2022, when the electorate was a whopping 55 percent Republican versus just 38 percent Democratic. If the voting electorate is that hostile from the outset, Democrats will have a hard time competing in future elections.
Finally, the state Democratic Party has been in shambles since the Trump era—and not just because of its glaringly poor electoral track record or the inexorable decline in the voter registration race against Republicans. Following the 2020 presidential election, the state party was in such debt that it couldn’t pay bills or employees’ health insurance for a time. As the 2022 midterms rolled around, members of the DNC were calling on the state party’s leader, former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz, to resign over a number of issues: a failure to follow through on promises to build up party infrastructure, a “non-existent” presence on Spanish-language media, and the fact that Democrats were getting “eaten up” in early voting. (Diaz had his own criticisms of the state party’s woes.)
Since their dreadful midterm showing, Florida Democrats have been staring into the abyss, with “no clear leader, infrastructure, or consensus for rebuilding.” If the Biden team decides to invest in the state for his re-election campaign, they will likely have to expend substantial resources rejuvenating the party apparatus there—an expensive endeavor made even less appealing by the high cost of running ads in the state. Though Biden aired one of his first campaign ads of the 2024 cycle here and his team has indicated it may even try to compete for the state’s electoral votes, he does not need to win Florida to secure re-election. And given the amount of work required to rebuild the state party—and the depth of the hole Biden must dig himself out of with Hispanic voters—skepticism is warranted about how much the campaign will truly make a play here in 2024.
On the other hand, Florida’s size, population growth, and increased diversity may have Democrats thinking they simply can’t afford to let their state party infrastructure crumble any further. Moreover, Republicans have used their new supermajorities in Tallahassee to govern even further to the right, which could provide the Democrats with an opening for a comeback. Although more Florida voters now identify as Republican, less than 20 percent of those who voted in each of the last two general elections called themselves “very conservative.” And recent polling has shown that some of the GOP’s new laws related to abortion, guns, and the culture war appear to be deeply unpopular—even a majority of Republicans oppose the state’s six-week abortion ban and permitless carry law. There is also some evidence that the previously demoralized Democratic base is starting to awaken.
No matter what, though, Florida Democrats have their work cut out for them. In the face of a virtually nonexistent party infrastructure and weak bench, they must somehow find their way out of the wilderness, lest they allow the Sunshine State to slip away from them indefinitely.
Michael Baharaeen is the director of political research at Blue Compass Strategies. He is a native of Kansas City and writes the Checks and Balances newsletter on Substack.
In fact, DeSantis’s 59.4 percent of the vote was the most ever for a Republican gubernatorial nominee in state history.
This does not include Republican Marco Rubio’s 2010 Senate victory, which he won by 28.7 points over the Democrat Kendrick Meek after Meek and independent Charlie Crist split the anti-Rubio vote (which totaled 49.9 percent).
Rubio technically won Miami-Dade in 2010, though he faced two opponents who collectively earned a greater share of the vote there than him. The last Republican Senate candidate to win a majority here was Connie Mack in 1994.