by Nathaniel Rakich
Electorally, Florida bounces around like a beach ball. In 2008 and 2012, as Americans nationwide backed Barack Obama for president, Florida voted Democratic too. But in 2016, when Donald Trump reclaimed the White House for the Republicans, Florida switched its allegiance to the GOP. Indeed, the Sunshine State has voted for the national winner in each of the past six presidential elections.
But in 2018, Florida stopped following national trends. In a great year for Democrats nationwide, which saw them net 40 House seats and seven governorships, the “blue wave” stopped at Florida’s sandy beaches. Although the national political environment leaned almost 9 percentage points in Democrats’ favor, Republican Rick Scott defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson by 0.1 points, and Republican Ron DeSantis defeated Democrat Andrew Gillum by 0.4 points in the open-seat race for governor. The results prompted some pundits to relabel Florida a “red state” going into the pivotal 2020 election.
They’re right, to a degree: Florida has long been a slightly red state. Since 2004, it has consistently voted 3 or 4 points more Republican than the nation as a whole in presidential elections. (Indeed, polls of Florida are currently1 0.9 points better for President Trump than national polls, according to FiveThirtyEight’s polling averages.) But could what happened in 2018 — when Florida was so much redder than the nation that it was out of reach for Democrats, even in a wave election — happen again in 2020?
It’s true that, on the surface, Nelson and Gillum barely improved upon Hillary Clinton’s 1.2-point loss in Florida in 2016. Accounting for the much bluer national environment, that would imply either that Florida is immune to shifts in the national mood or that the state lurched to the right sometime in the intervening two years. But as the map below shows, Nelson actually performed from 3 to 14 points better than Clinton in a majority of Florida counties, even though he lost many of her voters elsewhere in the state. (Gillum’s map told a similar story, so we’re not showing it, as of the two 2018 Democratic candidates, Nelson — a moderate white man in his 70s — is a better stand-in for the party’s presumptive 2020 presidential nominee, Joe Biden.) This is important because it underscores that the state is not “wave-proof”; instead, it’s made up of some complex coalitions that we’ll dive into more momentarily.
Ultimately, Scott (and DeSantis) won because they did significantly better than Trump in a handful of big counties, virtually erasing Democratic gains elsewhere. Most glaringly, Miami-Dade County — Florida’s most populated county — and Osceola County voted more than 8 points more Republican in the 2018 Senate race than in the 2016 presidential race. In addition, Nelson underperformed Clinton by 6 points in the much less populous Hendry County.
What’s so special about these counties? They are Florida’s three majority-Hispanic counties, and it turns out that Hispanic voters voted significantly less Democratic in 2018 than in 2016. According to exit polls, Hispanic voters voted for Nelson 54 percent to 45 percent (the gubernatorial numbers were virtually identical), two years after they supported Clinton 62 percent to 35 percent. So the big question for Democrats in 2020 is whether Biden can return to Clinton’s level of support among Hispanics.
It’s hard to say for sure, as the reasons for Democrats’ 2018 underperformance in Florida are as diverse as the state’s Hispanic population. For example, Puerto Rican Floridians (who make up 32 percent of Osceola County) strongly dislike Trump, but they actually gave Scott high marks for focusing on their community in the wake of Hurricane Maria. But with Trump back on the ballot in 2020, there’s good reason to think that their Republican sympathies will evaporate once again. According to Carlos Odio, the co-founder of data firm EquisLabs, a private poll recently gave Biden a 41-point lead among Puerto Rican voters in Florida, which would be close to the 46-point lead Clinton enjoyed in a Latino Decisions poll immediately before the 2016 election.
Democrats may not be able to solve their problems so easily with Cuban Americans, though, who make up the plurality (36 percent) of crucial Miami-Dade County. Cuban Americans are the rare bloc of Hispanic voters who truly lean Republican; in fact, they outright backed Trump in 2016. Trump is estimated to have won between 50 percent and 58 percent of Florida’s Cuban American vote in 2016, and this group has been even more Republican in past presidential elections. They still vote strongly Republican in elections for lower offices as well. For instance, the Florida International University Cuba Poll, which has measured public opinion among Cuban Americans for almost 30 years, found that Scott and DeSantis each won about 70 percent of the Cuban American vote in Miami-Dade. This was likely instrumental in Miami-Dade’s rightward shift in 2018: An analysis of the 2016 and 2018 results by Democratic data consultant Matthew Isbell found that the Miami-Dade precincts that swung hardest toward the GOP were its most Cuban American precincts.
And unfortunately for Biden, Trump’s crusades against socialism and hardline stance against Cuba and its close ally Venezuela2 may have elevated his standing among Cuban Americans. An EquisLabs poll from November 2019 found that 63 percent of Cuban American voters in Florida would vote to reelect Trump (though, of course, that was long before the pandemic started dragging down his polling numbers across the board). That wouldn’t be as bad for Democrats as 2018, but EquisLabs estimates that level of support would be worth a net of 90,000 more Trump votes in Florida than in 2016.
However, even if Trump makes inroads with Cuban Americans, some historical trends suggest that Miami-Dade will not be as red as it was in 2018. For reasons ranging from disproportionately low Democratic turnout in midterms to the Cuban American habit of voting more Republican in nonpresidential races, the margin in Miami-Dade is almost always less Democratic in midterm years than in the presidential years on either side. So Miami-Dade’s right turn in 2018 was actually completely predictable — and it might not mean anything for 2020.
The real question mark is whether Miami-Dade will follow the pattern of recent years in 2020 and be bluer than it was in 2016. For reasons ranging from generational change (Cuban Americans born in the U.S. are more likely than their immigrant parents and grandparents to vote Democratic) to the ubiquitous urban and suburban realignment, the county has voted more Democratic in every successive presidential election since 2004.
Of course, there’s always the possibility that this trend won’t continue.
One final point in Biden’s favor is Florida’s large population of older Americans. Of all the states in the union, Florida has the largest proportion of residents age 65 or older (20 percent) — and polls indicate that Biden is winning among these voters nationally. That’s unusual for a Democrat these days, too, which speaks to Biden’s current electoral strength. There is evidence that Biden isn’t doing quite as well among older Floridians (Trump was leading among them by 8 points in both a recent CBS News/YouGov poll and the latest New York Times Upshot/Siena College poll), but the former vice president is still doing better than either Clinton (who lost among voters age 65 or older by 17 points) or Nelson (who lost among them by 14) did, according to the exit polls.
If this trend holds, it has the potential to help Biden all across the state, but especially in counties with lots of retirement communities. Two of these counties are where Democrats also lost ground in the 2018 Senate race: Collier (which was 4 points redder in 2018 than in 2016) and Sumter (which was 3 points redder). Collier, on the southwest coast, is home to Naples and is 31 percent age 65 or older.3 And Sumter, the location of famously massive retirement community The Villages, is a whopping 56 percent age 65 or older. Unlike Miami-Dade and Osceola, these counties might really be drifting toward Republicans in the long term, but Biden may have what it takes to temporarily reverse that trend.
In summary, it’s not unreasonable to believe that Biden will be able to hold onto (or build upon) Nelson’s gains in the blue counties in the map above, thanks to the current pro-Democratic national environment. And with the help of Hispanic voters, older voters, or both, it’s also not hard to imagine Biden returning to Clinton’s levels of support in some of the counties that drifted red in 2018. However, Trump is fighting to build upon his 2016 support among these voters too, and without them, Biden will have a hard time winning the state — as 2018 showed.
The bottom line: The outlook is bright for Democrats in the Sunshine State. On average, polls of Florida show Biden leading Trump by a healthy 7.1 points.4 If that holds, it would be a blowout by Florida standards — the widest margin for a presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush won by 22 points in 1988. But, of course, if Florida does go blue again in 2020, it would put the state in a very familiar role: as a beach ball once again.
Nathaniel Rakich is FiveThirtyEight’s elections analyst. @baseballot