Ron DeSantis probably didn't turn Florida red

The state was already changing in big ways before he was elected governor.

September 11, 2023, 2:34 PM

In his presidential campaign, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has pitched himself as a transformational leader who has reshaped the politics of his home state. His 2022 reelection by 19 percentage points “was not just a big victory,” he has argued. “It was really a fundamental realignment of Florida from being a swing state to being a red state.” And most political analysis agrees that the Sunshine State, once known for its impossibly close elections, is now a comfortably Republican-leaning state

But it’s unclear how much credit DeSantis himself deserves for this shift — or if it even counts as a realignment at all. The most prominent argument in his favor, that Republicans have moved to the state thanks to his COVID-19 policies, is hard to prove. His investment in the state GOP appears to have paid real dividends, but several other factors contributed to that push’s success. He probably didn’t have much to do with another one of Florida Republicans’ biggest accomplishments over the past few years: their inroads with Hispanic voters.

And finally, there’s considerable doubt over whether DeSantis’s premise — that Florida will continue to be a safe Republican state going forward — is even correct. The data suggests DeSantis’s 2022 rout was a historical outlier, driven by a massive partisan turnout gap, and it’s unwise to make sweeping pronouncements based on just one election.

‘Political refugees’ might not be such a game-changer

Ask many Florida Republicans, and they’ll tell you Florida has gotten redder because DeSantis’s famous opposition to COVID-19 restrictions during the pandemic drew anti-lockdown Republicans to the state in droves. “COVID, and Gov. DeSantis’s policies that were implemented during COVID, is in my view responsible for the deeper shade of red that Florida has now become,” said Justin Sayfie, a prominent Florida Republican political consultant.

The problem with this theory is that Florida’s population was already expanding even before COVID-19 hit. It’s true that the pandemic had a particularly big impact on Florida: According to American Community Survey estimates, 674,740 people moved to Florida from a different state or the District of Columbia in 2021, the biggest influx of domestic migrants into any state.* But by Florida’s standards, it wasn’t that unusual. While the 2021 uptick was a bigger number than any year from 2011 to 2019, it was consistent with the general trend of more and more people moving to Florida as the decade wore on. And only 73,129 more domestic migrants moved to Florida in 2021 than in 2019, before the pandemic.

Of course, these newcomers to the Sunshine State could be qualitatively different from their pre-pandemic predecessors: more Republican, more ideologically motivated. Sayfie says that, anecdotally, several recent transplants have told him that they moved to escape COVID-19 restrictions. “The reason they’re coming is that they’re political refugees. They’re seeking refuge from the policies in their home states.

But all the old reasons people moved to Florida before the pandemic didn’t go away overnight, either. We couldn’t find a scientific poll asking people why they moved to Florida, but the Tampa Bay Times put out an open call for answers to that question in 2022, and the most common responses were lower taxes, affordable housing prices and good weather. That’s consistent with research that has found that most people who move do so for financial, not political reasons. (To be sure, “lower taxes” counts as a political reason to move — but it’s not one that DeSantis can take credit for, as the state constitution has banned personal income taxes since 1968.)

A few respondents to the Tampa Bay Times did cite coronavirus restrictions as a reason for their move, so it’s possible that some of the increase in migration from 2019 to 2021 was because of DeSantis’s policies. On the other hand, several respondents also cited their newfound ability to work remotely, which is another possible explanation for the 2021 spike. Overall, it’s tough to say with any confidence that DeSantis’s COVID-19 policy caused a significant number of people to move to the state who wouldn’t have done so otherwise, much less an influx of new residents that was large enough to change the state’s political composition.

DeSantis has done a lot of party-building

DeSantis probably had more of an impact on Florida’s political hue by investing in campaign field operations to expand the state GOP. There are currently 525,418 more registered Republican voters in Florida than there were at the end of 2018, and some of that growth can be credited to DeSantis. Shortly after his 2019 inauguration, he directed the state GOP to focus on registering more Republican voters. The GOP’s net increase of more than 40,000 voters that year was the party’s biggest gain in the year before a presidential election this century. Then, in 2020, the party added a modern record of nearly half a million voters on net. In 2021, DeSantis contributed $2 million to the registration push, and it paid off that November, when the number of registered Republicans at last surpassed the number of registered Democrats. Finally, in 2022, amid DeSantis’s reelection campaign, the GOP capped off an impressive quadrennium by adding 188,323 Republicans to the rolls on net. You guessed it: That was the most for a midterm year in at least 20 years.

But as helpful as DeSantis was to these efforts, he can’t take full credit. As the chart above makes clear, Republicans had been closing the registration gap with Democrats for quite some time — and their efforts really went into overdrive starting in 2016, a couple of years before DeSantis came on the scene. Former President Donald Trump’s campaign probably deserves kudos for the dramatic increase in Republican registration in both 2016 and 2020.

And in their quest to take the lead in party registration, Republicans got the biggest assist from an unlikely source: Democrats. In addition to those 525,418 more registered Republicans, Florida also has 299,808 fewer registered Democrats than it did at the end of 2018 — despite the state’s population growth. The Florida Democratic Party has, for years, been in shambles, and they have been unable to invest in the kind of registration efforts necessary to combat natural attrition from the voter rolls. If the party had simply been able to hold steady at the 5,315,954 registered voters it had at the end of 2020, registered Democrats would still outnumber Republicans statewide — despite DeSantis’s best efforts.

Hispanic voters didn’t swing just because of DeSantis

You also can’t talk about the GOP’s recent dominance in Florida without talking about the significant inroads they’ve made among Latinos. According to Catalist, a Democratic-aligned data firm that uses the voter file to analyze past elections, Hispanic support for Florida Democrats cratered in 2022. Former Rep. Charlie Crist, Democrats’ gubernatorial nominee, got just 44 percent of the Hispanic vote. By contrast, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton received 66 percent of the Hispanic vote as recently as the 2016 presidential race.** That’s a big deal in a state whose citizen voting-age population is 21 percent Hispanic.

But it’s hard to say that Hispanic voters are moving right because of DeSantis. For one thing, the Republican shift started well before the 2022 campaign. In 2020, Biden got just 50 percent of the Hispanic vote in Florida, according to Catalist, which accounts for most of the drop between 2016 and 2022. If anyone deserves credit for this, it’s probably Trump, who appealed to Hispanic voters with his own push to reopen the economy during the pandemic, as well as with targeted outreach to Florida’s diverse Hispanic communities. And of course, Latinos’ rightward swing is a national phenomenon, not just a Florida one. Nationally, Hispanic support for Democrats fell from 71 percent in 2016 to 62 percent in both 2020 and 2022.***

That said, Latinos did continue to move toward Republicans between 2020 and 2022 in Florida when they did not do so nationally. That could have been thanks to DeSantis, or it could have been because Florida’s Hispanic population is unique (while most Latinos nationally are Mexican American, Florida’s Hispanic community mostly consists of people of Cuban, Puerto Rican and South American descent, who may have different political priorities)

Or there might not have been movement at all, and Republicans ended up with higher support among Latinos in 2022 simply because many Hispanic Democrats in Florida just didn’t bother turning out to vote in 2022. According to Florida Democratic data analyst Matthew Isbell, there were 959,980 Latinos registered as Democrats in Florida at the time of the 2022 election, versus just 728,027 who were registered as Republicans. But only about one-third of those Hispanic Democrats actually voted, compared with more than half of Hispanic Republicans, which meant that the actual electorate contained more Hispanic Republicans than Hispanic Democrats. In other words, a lot of DeSantis’s success with Latinos in 2022 was due to disparities in turnout.

Florida might not be that red anyway

Dive into the turnout numbers for 2022 and an even bigger problem for DeSantis’s narrative emerges. A lot of DeSantis’s success across the board was due to disparities in turnout. Overall, Isbell found that 63.4 percent of Florida’s registered Republicans cast a ballot in 2022, but only 48.6 percent of its registered Democrats did. That 14.8-point turnout gap was way out of line with the 2016, 2018 and 2020 elections in Florida.

Forget the question of whether DeSantis deserves credit for Florida’s swing to the right — this raises the question of how much Florida has swung at all. After all, 2022 was only one election, and history is rife with examples of landslide victories in swing states that didn’t permanently change the states’ political nature. (Take Nevada, which reelected then-Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval by 47 points in 2014 in between voting for then-President Barack Obama by 7 points in 2012 and Clinton by 2 points in 2016.) There is evidence that Florida has been drifting toward Republicans in recent years, but that trend predates DeSantis, and there was no sign before 2022 that it would become a state where Republicans win by 19 points with any regularity.

Given all the evidence, it seems more likely that DeSantis is “just” a strong candidate with a strong political operation than a politician who has fundamentally reshaped Florida politics. Even Sayfie, who does believe DeSantis has helped make Florida somewhat redder, thinks 2022 will prove to be an outlier. DeSantis got extra credit from voters because of his anti-lockdown policies during the pandemic, he said, that future Republican candidates won’t benefit from. “That perfect political storm will not happen again.”

*No data is available from 2020, the first year of the pandemic.

**Catalist’s numbers represent two-way vote share between Democrats and Republicans — that is, they disregard third-party votes.

***Based on presidential numbers for 2016 and 2020 and the national House popular vote for 2022.