‘Florida is Trump’s state to lose’

The nation’s biggest swing state looks even more like Trump Country heading into 2020.

Newly released Florida voter data suggest President Donald Trump will begin his reelection campaign as the favorite in a state that offers a windfall of 29 electoral votes. The driving force: white voters who broke Republican and showed up in such big numbers in 2018 that it looked as if they were casting ballots in a presidential election and not a midterm.

That amped up turnout came despite an unprecedented Democratic effort in 2018 and record turnout numbers for young, African-American and Hispanic voters in a midterm election, according to new figures from the Florida Division of Elections. As a result, Republicans managed to hold on to the governor’s mansion for the sixth midterm in a row, defeat a three-term incumbent U.S. senator and dominate the state legislature.

“Florida is Trump’s state to lose,” said Matthew Isbell, a Democratic data analyst who crunched the newly released voter numbers and marveled at the strong GOP turnout in a year when Democrats steamrolled Republicans in the rest of the nation.

No one is ready to declare Florida a red state. At most, Isbell and others view it as a “lean Republican” state heading into 2020. The state has a big and dynamic electorate and elections are so close and so hard to predict that the November contests for governor and Senate went to their first-ever modern-day recounts, as did the race for Florida agriculture commissioner, which a Democrat won for the first time in decades.

But compared with last year’s hype and hope for Florida Democrats, the November elections were, in the words of one top activist, “soul crushing” for the party. It ushered in a fresh round of intraparty finger-pointing heading into 2020 and has renewed the internal debate over how far left the party should move and to what degree it should focus on white working-class and older voters vs. younger nonwhite voters.

After Trump unexpectedly won the state in 2016, many Democrats wrote it off as a fluke. They expected to dominate in 2018 because Trump was unpopular, voters often punish the president’s party at the polls in his first midterm and Democrats had something they never had before: Andrew Gillum, a young, dynamic, African-American nominee for governor who would help drive youth and black turnout.

And Gillum did just that.

For the first time in a Florida midterm, the African-American share of the vote was roughly equal to the share of registered black voters, 13 percent, according to the Florida Division of Elections. In all, more than 8.2 million Florida voters cast ballots.

Young voters also surged to the polls, with those aged 18-29 increasing their overall share of the vote by 2.6 percentage points compared to the last Florida midterm in 2014. The proportion of Hispanic voters also grew. And 517,000 Floridians who were registered to vote but didn’t in 2016 decided to cast ballots in 2018 and were, relative to the electorate at large, disproportionately nonwhite, according to an analysis by University of Florida political science professor Daniel A. Smith.

“It’s the Gillum Effect. There’s no way you can underestimate this. The Gillum Effect is real,” Smith said, adding. “Gillum could be a major player in 2020.”

Gillum told POLITICO last week he intends to use his political committee, Forward Florida, to register and mobilize Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters with an eye on matching ongoing Republican outreach efforts for their voters. His main goal: stop Trump.

The biggest factor in Florida politics over the past two elections has been Trump and his effect on white voters, ginning them up in three Sunshine State rallies last year and defying pundits who said the president shouldn’t risk political capital by stumping for candidates who might lose.

But Ron DeSantis won his race for governor and Gov. Rick Scott won his race for U.S. Senate.

Exit polls in 2016 and 2018 showed the Republican top-of-the-ticket candidates earning disproportionately high support from white voters, who comprise 63 percent of Florida’s voter rolls but cast more than 67 percent of the ballots, the new data show.

And more registered Florida Republicans turned out overall than Democrats — by 1.5 percentage points — even though Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 2 percentage points on the voter rolls.

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Ryan Tyson, a top Florida Republican political consultant and data analyst, said the last election exposed a Catch 22 for Democrats. If they move too far left and dwell on race too much, they risk pushing more white voters toward Republicans.

“The lesson for the Democrats is that, in going for the heart and soul of the progressive base, it can antagonize the other side. So what you gain in one place, you lose in another,” Tyson said. “We’ve seen the coalescing of the white vote and unless something happens to break this lock on white voters — and especially white independent males over 50 — I don’t expect Trump to lose in 2020.”

A new Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy survey shows Trump is better positioned in Florida than in most other swing states — voters are evenly split over whether to re-elect Trump or not, 45-46 percent.

To highlight just how important the white vote was in keeping the state in Republican hands in 2018, the University of Florida’s Dan Smith pointed out that turnout hit presidential levels in some Republican counties. Overall, turnout was 62.6 percent in this midterm statewide. But in Sumter County, home to the mammoth Villages retirement community, turnout was at 80 percent for white Republican males, Smith said.

The steady influx of conservative retirees to the Villages and elsewhere helped offset the natural growth of Florida’s Hispanic population, especially with Puerto Ricans who moved to Florida before and after Hurricane Maria. Except for Republican-leaning Cuban-Americans, Hispanics tend to disproportionately back Democratic candidates.

But precinct data and exit polls indicate that GOP-leaning Cuban-Americans turned out in strong numbers while Democratic-leaning non-Cuban Hispanics didn’t. Hispanics overall represent 16 percent of registered Florida voters but only cast 13.6 percent of the ballots in November. That’s still an all-time high for Hispanics in a midterm.

The uptick in Hispanic voters gives some measure of comfort to the Florida Democratic Party’s executive director, Juan Peñalosa, who said “there’s still room to grow with Hispanics. We have the time. And we know what our weaknesses are.”

The number of Hispanic voters continues to grow faster than any other demographic group. So if the trend continues, this population of Democratic-leaning voters could reach a tipping point in 2020. Democrats also hope — and Republicans fear — that a new voter-approved constitutional amendment in the state that could automatically restore the voting rights of more than 1.4 million former felons could play a pivotal role as well.

But Democrats like Isbell have now seen three general elections in Florida lost by Democrats. They’ve seen Republicans swamp the polls on Election Day. They’ve seen Democrats and their pool of voters disproportionately stay home.

“Democrats have to work harder to win because their coalition is less reliable voting-wise. They are relying on a coalition that you really have to drag out,” Isbell said. “It’s the same old story, wash, rinse, repeat.”