In the final week before Election Day, the two most recent US presidents will hold rallies in Florida, where a seismic political shift currently underway may alter the national political map in the years to come.
The circumstances of their arrivals have brought their own intrigue. With Democrats reticent to welcome Biden and his underwater approval rating elsewhere, the president will spend one of the final days before the election in a state that has been an afterthought for his party for much of the midterm cycle. Meanwhile, Republicans speculate Trump is holding court in the Sunshine State two days before the election in part to needle Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 rival who was not invited to the weekend campaign stop.
Most election years, a visit by a high-profile politician to the Sunshine State would be the norm, if not expected. Trump and Biden each had multiple stops in Florida two years ago – including dueling rallies days before the election in 2020 separated by a few hours and just 10 miles of Tampa roads. And four years ago, races for governor and US Senate in Florida were decided in a recount.
But now, Republicans and Democrats are on opposite trajectories. Republicans believe they are headed for their most successful election night in a generation, buoyed by DeSantis’ record-breaking fundraising and a surge of enthusiasm. Democrats, trailing in the polls and lagging in excitement, are hoping for an unexpected change of political winds or they could be left without a single statewide elected official in Florida for the first time since at least Reconstruction.
Here are four factors driving the state’s right turn.
When Barack Obama won Florida in 2008, his historic campaign brought a wave of new Democratic voters. Registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans in Florida by nearly 700,000, their largest advantage since 1990.
That gap has dwindled in the years since. But after the 2020 election, the reversal has accelerated and it has touched nearly every part of the state, from the urban cores and their suburbs, to the rural communities that line the Panhandle and dot Central Florida. Republicans grew their numbers in 52 of the state’s 67 counties since Biden and Trump were on the ballot. Meanwhile, there are fewer registered Democrats in all but one county than there were two years ago — a net loss of 331,000 voters overall.
As of last month, there were 5.3 million registered Republicans and just under 5 million Democrats in Florida, marking the first time in state history that the GOP will carry a voter advantage on Election Day.
“Voter registration has been a disaster,” said Thomas Kennedy, a Democratic National Committee member in Florida. “Our messaging sucks.”
Kennedy has called for the ouster of the Florida Democratic Party Chairman Manny Diaz.
One wildcard remains. The fastest-growing category of voters in the state are not Republicans or Democrats but people who choose neither party when they sign up to vote. There are 240,000 more Floridians who registered as “no party affiliation” than there were in 2020.
Trump’s surprisingly strong performance among Latino voters helped fuel his 3.5-point win in the Sunshine State in 2020. Perhaps nowhere was that dynamic more pronounced than in Miami-Dade County, where Trump lost by just 7 points to Biden after trailing Hillary Clinton there by 30 points in 2016.
Republicans have picked up where Trump left off. More than half of their gains in registered voters can be attributed to the 58,000 new Hispanic voters who checked “Republican” on their forms. Democrats, though, are bleeding support from these communities. The party saw a net loss of more than 46,000 Hispanic voters.
The reversal is made more stunning because Democrats entered the election cycle firmly aware of the trend and set out to address it, promising they would have dedicated staff and outreach focused on the disparate Hispanic communities that are scattered across the state. Democrat gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist chose as his running mate Karla Hernandez, an educator born to Honduran immigrants, and she has led the ticket’s Spanish-language outreach.
Those efforts have so far not materialized into broad new support, and heading into the election, Republicans believe they are poised to win Miami-Dade County outright for the first time since Jeb Bush was governor in 2002. Republicans gained almost 11,000 voters there; Democrats lost nearly 58,000.
“We don’t make everything about identity politics. Hispanics buy groceries too,” tweeted Christina Pushaw, who runs rapid response for the DeSantis campaign. “Less so these days, like everyone else, because of Bidenflation.”
It is also worth noting that Republicans saw a slight but sizable uptick of Black registered voters in the past two years while Democrats lost more than 71,000, a quarter of which came from Miami-Dade.
In the final months of the 2020 election, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg committed $100 million to help Biden win Florida. The sum was notable, but outsiders have long been lured to spend huge sums to shift what had been the country’s largest battleground. The 2018 election attracted tens of millions in outside spending by the two parties and their wealthy allies.
This cycle, most of that money is coming to one side, Republicans, and much of it is going to one person, DeSantis. The GOP leader is shattering fundraising records en route to approaching a $200 million campaign for governor. The Republican Governors Association has invested heavily to help DeSantis, donating more than $20 million this campaign cycle, and his political committee has collected more than 250 six-figure checks but also small donations from every state.
Most of the major blue benefactors, meanwhile, have stayed on the sidelines, leaving Democrats struggling to advertise in the final weeks of the race. Democrats here are worried that two decades of narrow defeats have soured donors on Florida for the foreseeable future.
There are Democrats who in hindsight regret not using the Bloomberg investment and other past donations to build a more sustainable party and register more voters instead of getting dragged into a winner-take-all air war each year with few victories to show for it.
“The other side of the coin, with Donald Trump on the ballot, how do you not throw everything at it to stop him? The stakes were so high that if there is a dollar left in your bank account, you didn’t try hard enough,” said a state party operative in Florida who asked to speak anonymously about the party. “But moving forward, we spend too much money on TV and direct mail. It just doesn’t get you that much. We don’t do year-round, deep canvassing. We parachute in two months before the election. We advertise instead of doing the hard work.”
Florida’s population growth over the last decade gave the state an additional US House seat following the results of the 2020 US Census. The effects of that will be felt as soon as next week. DeSantis pushed through an aggressively partisan redrawing of state congressional districts here that could give Republicans an advantage in as many as 20 of 28 districts. Republicans currently hold a 16-11 advantage in Florida’s US House delegation.
The additional seat in Congress also means Florida gets another vote in the Electoral College, bringing the total to 30. Already, Democratic worries about their electoral viability in Florida have some concerned that the party won’t compete for the presidency here in two years.
Republicans have publicly stated that is the outcome they are working toward.
“We have no excuses except getting the biggest election victory we’ve ever had,” DeSantis said at a rally Sunday, before adding: “I really believe the red wave starts in the state of Florida.”