Mark R. Howard
The GOP's effective Florida ground game was evident in the 2020 election.
Now that the dust has settled on the 2020 election, there are a few things to note about how Florida voted and why. As is frequently the case when I write about electoral politics, I’m indebted to the research and insights of USF Distinguished Prof. Susan MacManus, an expert on state politics.
The balloting saw the Democratic Party, to put it bluntly, get its butt kicked — the Democrats outspent the GOP by more than $50 million in Florida and ended up with nothing to show for it. Michael Bloomberg’s $100-million pledge to defeat President Donald Trump in Florida generated few votes but many complaints from Florida Democrats about its timing and how it was spent. In any event, it was a good illustration that money doesn’t guarantee wins — you have to spend it effectively. And so in a year where Democrats were giddy at the prospect of victory up and down the ballot, not only did Trump carry the state, but the Democrats lost two congressional seats, five state House seats and a state Senate seat. The Republicans won Florida, MacManus says, “because they had a much more effective ground game, guided by current and detailed data on different slices of the state’s diverse population.”
The state Democratic Party apparently takes most of its marching orders from the national party apparatus and a cadre of party-approved, out-of-state consultants and pollsters who don’t know and understand Florida. Post-COVID, for example, the Biden campaign ordered a halt to door-to-door canvassing and relied on social media and television ads, which proved ineffective. The Republicans started earlier, masked up after COVID and kept going door to door. They registered enough new voters to narrow the gap between Republican-registered voters and Democrat-registered voters to 134,000 — the narrowest gap between the two parties in Florida history. Couple the new Republican voters with a weak turnout by black voters and a splintered Latino vote — advantage Trump. Lesson for the Democrats is that national templates don’t work in Florida.
In looking at the election results, several broad themes stand out to me:
- Theme 1: Diversity. Not in the ham-handed, identity-politics sense that liberals tend to employ, but in the complex layers of identity and perspectives that exist among groups — and which most reporters and pollsters have failed to capture or appreciate. Case in point: The Democratic Party strategists never understood the diversity among Hispanic subgroups in Florida, which range from a concentration of Puerto Rican voters in Central Florida to Colombians, Cubans, Venezuelans, Dominicans and Nicaraguans in South Florida. The Puerto Rican vote in Central Florida splintered more than Democrats expected because many Puerto Ricans work in the tourism and service industries and were clobbered by the economic shutdown during the pandemic. They feared Biden was more likely to impose a second shutdown than Trump.
In South Florida, the Democrats failed to answer the GOP’s attacks on Biden/Harris as “socialist” because they didn’t understand how those broadsides resonated with populations of Venezuelans, Cubans and Nicaraguans who’ve been-there-done-that with socialist rulers and/or social disorder. Trump got 12% more of the vote in Miami-Dade in 2020 than he did four years ago, a more than 200,000-vote swing. The Dems also failed to appreciate the differences between Caribbean blacks and African-Americans, whose experiences and perspectives don’t always overlap.
- Theme 2: Pocketbook Issues. Along with the Puerto Rican voters in Central Florida, large numbers of millennials — typically stereotyped as socially conscious liberals — voted their wallets. With many employed in service jobs decimated by the pandemic-recession, many voted both for the constitutional amendment raising the state’s minimum wage — and for Trump. More than 40% of Florida voters ages 18-24 voted for Trump, as did 35% of those 25-29 and fully half of those 30-39. Like some Puerto Ricans, they feared a second shutdown as well and felt Trump was less likely than Biden to put them out of work.
Meanwhile, Trump made inroads with black voters, drawing higher percentages than he attracted in 2016. In 2020, around 13% of votes cast by black men and 7% of those cast by black women went to Trump. Those gains were a significant factor behind Trump’s 3.4 percentage point win. Before the COVID shutdown, black unemployment had reached record lows, and wage levels had been rising modestly.
- Theme 3: Women Candidates. Statewide, 177 women from both parties ran for office — a record that included many first-time candidates. Women won 57 races — eight seats in Congress, nine seats in the Florida Senate and 40 seats in the Florida House. Running counter to stereotypes, 21 of the 56 Republican women who ran in party primaries were women of color.
- Theme 4: Bottom-Up vs. Top-Down. Reflecting the fact that not all politics is national, or even ideological, were both the failure of the centralized, top-down Biden campaign strategy and local votes on tax referenda across Florida. Voters passed 20 local sales and property tax increases (in 19 of the state’s 67 counties) worth $400 million. The taxes will go generally for bedrock services — schools, transportation, public safety, water and sewer, parks and libraries. The majority got more than two-thirds of the vote. Only one failed — a measure in Liberty County — falling short by just 17 votes, and voters there approved another sales tax referendum that funds fire services. “Florida taxpayers have shown they are willing to pay more taxes if they feel the return will be worth it,” says Florida TaxWatch.
Florida continues to be one of the most interesting states — complex and mirroring a host of differences and preferences that defy the pigeonholing and oversimplification that characterize too much of the way it’s covered.
— Mark Howard, Executive Editor
Read more in Florida Trend's January issue.
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