Florida's rapid rise of No Party Affiliation voters
Amid the acrimony of partisan politics, the ranks of Florida’s unaffiliated voters are growing rapidly. Their elusive and critical votes reflect changing demographics.
Nobody puts Jason Holic in a bucket — especially a political one.
Holic, 36, who oversees strategic planning, research, and technology at Osceola County’s tourism authority, says he’d always toyed with the notion of running for public office, and the Jan. 6 insurrection was the “tipping point” that convinced him to throw his hat in the ring. “When I saw that, I’m like, you know what, the partisan nature of politics has really come to a head here, and I can only think of one way to dig out. We can’t keep digging down, so somebody needs to step up and figure out how to get out of the hole, and I didn’t see anyone else in our area doing that,” says Holic, who’s running as a No Party Affiliation candidate for the U.S. congressional seat being vacated by Senate hopeful Democrat Val Demings.
Like many Millennials, Holic says he hasn’t found a perfect home in either major party. “I think the reason that there is a rise of the NPA is because an increasing number of people don’t want to be put in a bucket,” he says. “They don’t want to live in a black and white world — because the world isn’t necessarily black or white, and those choices don’t necessarily reflect the way they live their lives or the advantage or disadvantages they’ve been given in life.”
There was a time when Holic would have been an outlier in Florida politics. Not anymore.
The rise of the NPA voter in Florida has been swift.
Two decades ago, when Florida had more than 9.3 million registered voters, roughly 1.5 million (16%) were registered as NPA. Today, there are more than 14.3 million Florida voters — 27%, about 3.9 million voters, are registered as NPA.
New voters and those under age 50 are particularly distancing themselves from the major parties. Even among voters over age 65, the most reliable bloc when it comes to turnout, one in five Florida voters is now registered as NPA.
Politicos of all stripes are taking notice and for good reason: With NPAs often the deciding factor in political races, the trend could shift the political sands of the nation’s biggest battleground state.
“They’re now such a large group, they matter really at all levels — certainly at the top of the ticket, certainly at the statewide level, and when you think about key statehouse and state Senate races,” says Alex Coelho, director of data and analytics at the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which works to recruit and promote “pro-business, pro-jobs” candidates in the Sunshine State. The unaffiliated voting bloc’s electoral punch is especially powerful along parts of the I-4 corridor, which has been trending younger and growing more diverse: “A lot of younger voters registering NPA are in those areas — that makes a huge difference in those areas, in a lot of those key seats in and around Tampa and Orlando,” Coelho says. “They’re a force to reckon with and growing every day.”
The reasons behind the shift are complicated, but in nutshell, most NPAs are registering that way because of their frustration with one or both major parties and the increased polarization of politics. The disillusionment is particularly acute among younger residents of Florida’s metropolitan areas.
Susan MacManus, a Florida political analyst and professor emerita from the University of South Florida who has studied the trend and Florida’s complex electorate for decades, doesn’t see it letting up. “It is just a matter of time before NPAs outnumber Democrats and Republicans in some parts of the state,” she says. “The burden is on the parties to prove their relevancy to an increasingly frustrated, distrustful and extremely diverse populace.”
In some regions, NPAs already outnumber registered voters of at least one party. Five counties in South and Central Florida — Broward, Miami-Dade, Orange, Osceola and Palm Beach — have more NPAs than Republicans. And NPAs exceed Democrats in 12 counties: Bay, Charlotte, Citrus, Clay, Collier, Lee, Martin, Nassau, Okaloosa, Pasco, Santa Rosa and Walton. More than 40% of current NPAs are Millennials (ages 26 to 41) or Gen Z (25 and younger) — and greater shares of Hispanic and Asian voters also identify as NPA than Democrat or Republican.
FLORIDA TREND reached out to both major state parties to discuss the changing electorate. Neither responded.
Alex Berrios, co-founder of an organization called Mi Vecino (“My Neighbor” in Spanish) that’s registering Hispanic voters in five Central and South Florida counties, says registrations are tracking roughly 56% Democrat, 14% Republican and 30% NPA in the neighborhoods it is canvassing. “It’s hard to explain to people when I tell them that young people, and especially people of color and Latinos, don’t see the difference between the two parties — they’re mind-boggled by that,” says Berrios, adding that minority voters often feel “their needs are not reflected in the policies” of either party. “Let’s say you’re 18, you came into the workforce in the year 2000 and George Bush is the president and you’re working poor and then in 2004, Bush is elected again. You’re working every day, but you’re poor. Now, Obama’s president in ’08 and guess what? You’re working, and you’re poor. Each cycle, you have stayed working, day in, day out, to remain poor,” Berrios says. “Materially, their lives do not improve.”
The first point of entry for many NPAs is when they get their Florida driver’s licenses — leading some to conclude that at least some portion of the NPA electorate has a low interest in politics or are inexperienced new voters without fully formed political views or preferences. Each month about two out of every five new voters register as NPA or minor party voters, and nearly half of all new voters under age 50 are signing up as NPAs.
But party abandonment is also on the rise. Between January 2021 and August of this year, 84,700 registered Republicans and 119,461 registered Democrats switched to NPA. Nearly 154,200 NPA voters joined the major parties.
“There has been migration away from both parties as they further polarize. ‘I didn’t leave party X; the party left me.’ Because we are so polarized, NPA is the migration point for most voters rather than switching to the other major party. Then there are people that from the start register as NPAs as a rejection of both parties. ‘I am not a part of either party’s BS anymore,’ ” says Alex Patton, a Republican political consultant and owner of Ozean Media in Gainesville.
Steve Downey, a Tallahassee resident, is one of those voters. For years, Downey supported Democratic positions on issues such as gun safety but registered as NPA in 2016 after concluding the two-party system was fundamentally broken. Downey says he’d prefer there be more focus on the policies than on the party building its business. “The people who are NPAs are not politically uncertain. They may be indicating the two-party system just does not adequately reflect all their views,” he says.
While he still consistently votes Democratic, Downey says he thinks the party apparatus has become too commercial and bureaucratic, and he didn’t like how the 2016 presidential primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, was handled. “The Democrats did not give Bernie Sanders a fair chance early in the primary season, and it really ticked me off,” he says.
David Jolly, a former Republican congressman who represented the St. Petersburg area from 2014 to 2017 and left the GOP in 2018, blames some of the current state of affairs on what he says is the “almost fatal conceit” of both major parties. His own politics (he identifies as an independent) run the spectrum from left to right. “I joke that I’m for greater gun control but lower taxes. I’m not allowed to exercise those principles in any party today,” he says. He laments that the “fight, fight, fight” themes dominating the campaign airwaves aren’t helping.
Party rejection is especially acute among younger voters, he suspects, because partisanship runs counter to the flexibility they enjoy in other parts of their lives. “They can design personal playlists with music apps, find short- or long-term housing for a week or a year and then move along. They have the ability to work from home or (freelance via the) gig economy — but for their politics, they’re being told, ‘No, you have to fit into these 200-year-old parties where we’re going to tell you what to think,’ and it’s so archaic,” he says.
Jolly helped launch the Forward Party this summer with former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Jolly says the aim is to coalesce people around shared values — such as economic opportunity, liberty and defense of democracy — and allow them to “express their independent politics, their independent thought and look for the best answers whether they’re left, right or middle.” But he acknowledges getting traction will be difficult in the face of campaign finance and election laws that favor the two-party system.
In Orange County, which leans blue (41%) but is nearly a third NPA, congressional candidate Holic nonetheless hopes he’ll stand out as an alternative to politics as usual. He has a suggested $100 campaign contribution limit and takes no cash from corporations. And he says his NPA identity is helping him connect with voters along the spectrum. “If I don’t have a political label, then it’s much easier to talk to and connect to people and understand what their viewpoints are,” he says.
“I’ve had several people try to convince me to declare a party one way or another, but for me it’s out of principle. If what I’m running for is to help bridge the partisan gap, then I can’t be just another person on one side of the aisle planning to reach across. I have to be the person in the aisle willing to reach all sides and help chart a path forward.” — FLORIDA TREND Associate Editor Laura Cassels contributed to this report.
Dariel Cruz Rodriguez
Navigating Florida’s Closed Primaries
Just weeks before he was to leave for his freshman year at the University of Chicago, Dariel Cruz Rodriguez, 18, was campaigning door-to-door for a non-partisan school board candidate in Orlando.
Rodriguez is the co-founder of Students for Open Primaries, an organization grown out of Florida’s 2020 Amendment 3, which would have created an open primary system where the top-two candidates, regardless of party, advanced to the general election for state legislators, the governor and Florida Cabinet offices. The proposal drew more than 57% of the vote but fell short of the two-thirds majority required to amend the Florida constitution.
The 2022 primaries were the first election where Rodriguez was old enough to vote, initially registering as NPA. To not be shut out of closed primary races, he re-registered as a Democrat and intends to change back to NPA for the general election. It’s a lot of machinations for a student — the first in his family to attend college — who is busy studying public policy, but Rodriguez is nothing but determined to have his independent voice heard.
“Young people do care about politics — they worry about whether they can afford a house some day or have children or get a good job. They are worried about climate change,” he says. “It’s frustration — you sign all these petitions, you go to these events, you elect your representatives, and they just vote the way their party wants them to.”
Like many of his Gen Z compatriots, Rodriguez doesn’t see the two-party system reflect his views nor interests. He’s also emblematic of one of the most visible trends in the state’s changing electorate: A young Hispanic from Central Florida opting for NPA.
An independent analysis of statewide voter registration data conducted for Florida Trend by political scientist Susan MacManus and a data team found about 18% of Florida’s electorate is Hispanic, but Hispanics account for 23% of the voters who switched from a major party to NPA.
Florida has 17 counties where NPA registration is now larger than at least one of the major political parties. Most of these counties are in South Florida and Central Florida and have larger populations of young people who are more likely to register as NPAs. Ten years ago, only two counties — Broward and Osceola — had more NPAs than one of the major parties.
Students for Open Primaries functions as a think tank, using social media and digital engagement to reach out to young voters to press for open primaries. Fourteen states and the District of Columbia have closed primaries, although some states allow the parties to decide whether unaffiliated voters can participate. The group’s work was featured in the documentary, The Young Voter, by Miami filmmaker Diane Robinson.
“A lot of people I know are NPA because they see Republicans and Democrats as labels that help candidates get elected instead of matching up with their values,” Rodriguez says. “They see it as a brand; they see it as an owner of political views — and they don’t want people to own their political views.”
Having spent days knocking on doors to share campaign material and having conversations with strangers whose views span the political spectrum, Rodriguez says he’s more resolute in the need for change.
“A lot of the people I’ve met are really nice. They are family people, and they really care about what the candidate stands for and how that’s going to benefit them,” he says.
“I was just talking to someone who is a Republican, and she said she knows it says Republican on her registration card, but she’s voting for whomever can make her life easier.” — By Vickie Chachere
Seeking Common Ground
Entrepreneur Roberto Torres launched his version of the American dream in Tampa, founding the Blind Tiger chain of coffee shops, a fashion enterprise and a co-working space. Amid the city’s surging innovation economy, Torres — originally from Panama — is known to readily share lessons from his journey with up-and-coming startup founders.
Torres describes himself as a person with conservative values who aspired to become a CPA when he caught the entrepreneurial bug and decided he didn’t want someone else to determine his future. “I am a Latino; I am a Catholic; and I am an accountant,” Torres says. “Everything about me should scream Republican.”
When Torres joined a leadership group in Tampa and began to have deep conversations with colleagues about the community and common challenges, he says he began to see the world through a more nuanced perspective. Torres says he now registers as an NPA voter.
“As a business owner, I’ve had to learn to understand and how to listen to people or otherwise I’d be on the firing line,” he says. “Coffee shops are for everyone. You can’t say, well you are a Republican or a Democrat, you are not welcome here. There are places like that, but that’s ridiculous. You are alienating 50% of your customers.”
Blind Tiger has seven locations across the Tampa Bay region, and Torres’ Black & Denim has a boutique in Ybor City, next to one of his cafes, that specializes in classic American styles. When the city’s startup economy began to flourish almost a decade ago, Torres added a co-working space to his Ybor shops, achieving what many urban planners consider the trifecta of modern placemaking: Uniting work, culture and food.
Like many of Florida’s small-business owners, Torres welcomes Florida’s business-friendly environment and appreciated Gov. Ron DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic allowing for businesses to reopen. Torres was public in his advocacy for vaccines to keep his employees and customers safe, but understood the objections to mandates from businesses and employees without face-to-face customer engagement. He feels the pinch of providing health insurance for his team, for now helped by the Affordable Care Act but on the verge of facing higher costs for less coverage if he creates more jobs.
About half of Torres’ 42 employees are people who identify as LGBTQ+, and he laments the harsh rhetoric directed toward people with those identities as of late. And as a businessman who sees the economy boom, he understands the struggle of service industry workers who earn upward of $20 an hour and still can’t afford their own places to live. Torres is a board member for Feeding Tampa Bay, which is working to find solutions for families whose incomes are so constrained that one emergency expense tips them into homelessness or hunger.
On the flip side, inflation is putting the squeeze on small businesses. At his coffee shops, a box of 500 cups now costs $119, up from $50 recently. The price of the coffee beans has tripled. Fellow small-business owners tell him they think they have a better chance of surviving a recession than continuing to navigate soaring inflation.
Like a lot of voters, Torres says he doesn’t understand how Congress’ approval rating can be below 20% but the re-election rate is close to 95%. “The worst thing I can do is close my eyes and pretend each party has the one solution,” Torres says. — By Vickie Chachere
Laying the Groundwork
“I feel I cannot run on civility if I am in either party because both parties are to blame for the incivility.”
Banks Helfrich is an NPA running for an open seat in Florida state House District 25.
Helfrich, who lives on a seven-acre farm in Clermont, has an unconventional political resume. He once was a clown with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and spent more than a decade playing characters like Harpo Marx and Stan Laurel at Universal Studios theme park. More recently, he’s been writing and directing independent films. On occasion he appears at local libraries doing his Jiggleman act, a comedy routine for children.
The native Floridian says he decided to enter the political arena in 2016, when 63 legislators ran unopposed, guaranteeing their return to Tallahassee. “I was irked. I couldn’t believe half of the lower house, half of the Florida population, did not have a choice. So in 2018, I decided to run for something,” Helfrich says. He declared his candidacy for the “easiest” office he thought he could run for: Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District, Seat 1. “Ironically, I was unopposed,” he says.
Helfrich launched his House bid in the Republican-leaning district about a year ago and has built his candidacy around the notion of civility. “We need to find a way to come back together,” says Helfrich, who’s one of 17 NPA candidates running for state or federal office in Florida this year.
The odds, however, are long. No NPA candidate has ever won a major election in Florida. NPA candidates often face a tough time on the campaign trail when it comes to fundraising. In most state and federal races, candidates rely on money from their parties, says April Schiff, president and co-founder of Strategic Solutions of Florida, a GOP consulting firm in Tampa. “You can have the best message in the world, but I try to envision who they would raise money from. It makes it very difficult,” Schiff says.
Helfrich’s opponent, Taylor Yarkosky, a Montverde Republican who runs a sinkhole repair company, has raised more than $241,000 in contributions, loans and in-kind donations, according to state campaign finance records. Helfrich has pulled in $20,500.
Despite the financial disadvantage, Helfrich is hopeful that he, or another NPA candidate in Florida, might still pull out a victory this year. “The district that I’m in, a Republican has probably been there 30-plus years. To have someone win that as an NPA changes the trajectory, and I feel it’s already changing the trajectory of both parties now,” he says. “The point is, for one of us to win, a pebble is dropped in this pond, and it will ripple. The parties will not have complete control over everything.”
NPAs can be “hard to activate,” says Republican strategist Alex Patton, but “most NPAs lean one way or another, so it is more of identifying which ones lean your way and finding out what motivates them. “Normally, you mine them for an issue that’s salient in that election. Are you a NPA that cares about health care the most? Push that button. Are you a NPA that is riled up about immigration? Push that button,” he says. Just don’t label them a Democrat or Republican, Patton says. “They don’t like that affiliation with the party. They don’t like politics. If you talk to them in focus groups like we do, they’re like, ‘Oh, politics is terrible; all politicians are horrible,’ but then they also want low taxes, so they vote like a Republican. Or they care about education, so they vote for a Democrat. They just don’t like the party or the people.”
Turnout Is the Question
It’s one thing to register to vote and quite another thing to actually cast a vote. A big chunk of NPAs don’t vote at all, Florida’s election statistics show. In the 2020 general election, only 57% of registered NPAs voted, compared to 71% of registered Democrats and 75% of registered Republicans. More than one-third of all NPAs chose to sit out the last four general elections, compared to about a fifth of registered Democrats and Republicans sitting on the sidelines.
About the Research
Florida voter registration data used in this report was compiled by the research team of Susan A. MacManus, David Bonanza and Anthony A. Cilluffo in partnership with FLORIDA TREND. The data was gathered from voter registration rolls compiled by the supervisors of elections in each of Florida’s 67 counties and reported to the Florida Division of Elections. The data is from the close of the July 2022 voter rolls.
MacManus is a University of South Florida professor emerita of political science. She is an internationally known expert on Florida politics. Bonanza is a USF graduate in business economics, co-author of numerous publications on Florida politics and currently teaches high school math and science in Brevard County. Cilluffo is an economist whose research includes demographics and politics. He is a USF graduate who later studied at the London School of Economics and earned a master’s degree in public affairs from Princeton University.