Will Florida Ever Be a Battleground Again?

Are demographics electoral destiny? If so, the Republicans won't be gloating for too long.
Photograph by Getty Images

Florida has been the swingiest of swing states for multiple cycles—notably in 2000, when it was the ultimate electoral battleground. Democrats won the state in 2012 by a razor-thin 0.9 percentage point margin. And in this year’s gubernatorial race, incumbent Republican Rick Scott narrowly edged out former Democratic governor Charlie Crist.

But while electorally the state has bounced back and forth, the demographic line is much straighter and less ambiguous—which could mean that Florida will swing less and less in national elections. The state is inexorably becoming more diverse, with growing populations of blacks, Hispanics and Asians, and fewer and fewer of the aging whites who’ve buoyed Republican prospects in years past.  If each racial and ethnic group votes the same way and turns out at the same rate as they did in 2012, according to a simulation by Patrick Oakford of the Center for American Progress, the Democrats’ margin would expand to 3.4 percent. "It doesn't mean Republicans will never win Florida,'' said Democratic political consultant Joe Trippi. "But it means it will become more and more of an uphill fight.''

And Florida is a microcosm for what's happening in battlegrounds across the country. The national population shift is playing out in key competitive states across the presidential electoral map. Notwithstanding the Republicans’ midterm victory, Democrats appear to be winning the Demographic war.

Demography isn't destiny and no election is an exact replay of the last. Electoral coalitions shift with the times. Compelling candidates and messages draw in new voters. A potential Hillary Clinton candidacy in 2016 might, for example, excite fewer blacks to vote yet win over more whites. Still, absent Republic gains with minority voters, the changing electorate provides Democrats a growing structural advantage in holding onto the White House.

Since 1996, non-Hispanic whites' share of eligible voters has declined an average of 2 percentage points every presidential election, to 71 percent in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"The shift is dramatic,'' said Jen O'Malley Dillon, who helped manage President Barack Obama's re-election campaign. "You're talking about a significant impact on the electorate in swing states.''

Poll Position

The share of eligible voters who are non-Hispanic whites will decline between 2012 and 2016 by nearly 5 percentage points in Nevada, nearly 4 points in Florida, and about 2 points in North Carolina, Virginia, and Colorado, according to projections by the Center for American Progress, a research group aligned with the Obama administration.

"It's not just that there will be more people of color going to the polls, it's that they're going to the polls in places where every vote counts,'' said Oakford, who made the 2016 Florida vote projection for Bloomberg.

Among Republicans, the demographic shift has sparked a debate over whether to court Hispanics more forcefully by supporting an immigration-policy overhaul.

Against 'Demographic Determinism'

Rich Lowry, the editor of the National Review who has urged Republican lawmakers to oppose immigration legislation, rejects "demographic determinism'' in presidential voting.

"There's no doubt it's a challenge,'' Lowry said in an interview, though it's one he says his party can overcome without resorting to "blatant ethnic politics.'' Instead, he said, Republicans should emphasize policies such as child tax credits and lowering health-care costs that address the concerns of "working-class voters of all races and ethnicities.''

The population shift is playing out as the two fastest-growing minority groups, Hispanics and Asians, have been solidifying their party allegiances: They're now joining blacks in overwhelmingly favoring Democrats in presidential elections.

As recently as 1996, Asians backed Republican Bob Dole over Democrat Bill Clinton yet voted 73 percent for Obama in 2012. Hispanics gave 44 percent of their support to Republican Bush in 2004 and only 27 percent to Romney in 2012, exit polls show.

White Flight

Republican political consultant Stuart Stevens, Romney's chief strategist, said some trends favor his party. The growing number of older voters may foster a more conservative outlook that benefits Republicans in 2016, he said. And without Obama up for re-election, blacks' eagerness to go to the polls may slip.

Stevens says Republicans can connect with Hispanics on issues other than immigration, such as education and health care. Registered Hispanic voters rated education their most important concern, followed by the economy and health care ahead of immigration, which ranked fourth, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center poll.

The Romney campaign's monitoring of Obama advertising directed at Latino voters in 2012 showed that he most often emphasized the Affordable Care Act, which is more popular among Hispanics, Stevens said. 52 percent of Hispanics had a favorable view of the health care law last month compared with 36 percent of Americans overall, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation Health Tracking Poll.

O'Malley added that while the rising numbers of Hispanics may be an opportunity for Democrats, their support isn't certain, and doesn't hinge on a single issue. "These voters are not monolithic in who they are and how we communicate with them," she said.

 Still, immigration and political rhetoric that has been deployed by Republican opponents is a foundational issue for many Latino voters, said Gary Segura, co-founder of the polling firm Latino Decisions.

Sixty-two percent of Hispanic registered voters know someone who is an undocumented immigrant, and 32 percent know someone who has been detained or deported for immigration reasons, according to a June 2014 Latino Decisions poll.

In Florida, the rhetoric of the immigration debate resonates more than specific policy differences because of the ethnic mix of the state's Hispanics. Two-thirds of Latino voters are either Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, or Cubans, who are protected by special immigration rules, said Fernand Amandi, managing director of Bendixen & Amandi, a market-research firm.

"They perceive the anti-immigration rhetoric as a form of code for anti-Hispanic rhetoric,'' Amandi said.


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