Few statistics from this month’s midterm election were more surprising than the gains Republicans made in Florida among Hispanic voters. In perhaps the most important swing state in the country, and in defiance of most polls and conventional wisdom inside the Beltway, the GOP saw an 18-point net gain among this constituency in the Sunshine State compared to 2016.
In his victory over Sen. Bill Nelson (D) for the U.S. Senate, Republican Gov. Rick Scott earned 45 percent of the Hispanic vote to Nelson’s 54 percent. Similarly, GOP nominee Ron DeSantis defeated Democratic Andrew Gillum to become Florida’s next governor, winning 44 percent of Hispanics, according to exit polls, to Gillum’s 54 percent. Scott and DeSantis aggressively courted Hispanics. The latter even named a Latina, Rep. Jeannette Nuñez, as his lieutenant governor nominee.
It is rare in the rest of the country for Republicans to only lose Hispanics by single digits, or even 10 points. In California, Gavin Newsom won 64 percent of Hispanics in his successful bid for governor. In New York, Andrew Cuomo clinched a whopping 82 percent share of the Empire State’s Hispanic electorate in his re-election. Nationwide, Democrats won almost 7 out of 10 Hispanics in U.S. House races.
Florida’s Unique Hispanic Electorate
Florida has been an outlier for the GOP, thanks in no small part to the influence of the state’s Cuban American electorate. Since becoming a towering force in Florida politics in the early 1980s, Republicans have courted Cuban voters, who are approximately 6 percent of the state’s electorate.
In fact, Cuban Americans are such an important voting bloc for the GOP that when George W. Bush emerged as the winner in 2000 following the contentious Florida recount, pundits credited a rightward shift among Cuban Americans with delivering him the state by just 537 votes, and with it, the presidency of the United States. Eighteen years later, Cubans have pulled through for conservatives once again.
In an analysis I performed of official election results in Miami-Dade County, I found that Scott and DeSantis defeated their Democratic opponents by a 2:1 margin, or 33 points, among Cubans. This was consistent with pre-election surveys showing both Republican officials with commanding leads with Cuban Americans.
Cubans had been trending blue in recent presidential elections. In 2012, Mitt Romney won these same precincts by 28 points. Four years later, however, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by a smaller 17-point margin, 57 to 40 percent. Had either Scott or DeSantis (both of whom won their races by less than half a percentage point) simply mirrored Trump’s 17-point Cuban margin, they both would have lost.
In the case of Scott, who was elected by about 10,000 votes, the effect of the Cuban electorate was even more dramatic. Even if Scott had replicated Romney’s impressive 28-point margin among Cubans, he would have lost, as this would have reduced his statewide advantage by about 25,000 votes, and Scott would now be planning his retirement instead of staffing a Senate office.
Presidential Years Are Different
While the Republicans’ midterm victories in Florida prevented a blue wave from becoming a tsunami, the state’s electoral demographics will likely not be as favorable to the GOP in 2020.
Non-Cuban Hispanic and youth turnout levels tend to be lower in midterm elections than in presidential years. According to pre-election day statistics issued by the Division of Elections, Hispanics made up just 13 percent of those who had cast a ballot, despite being 16.4 percent of the electorate. This is further evidenced by the fact that among the 10 counties with the lowest turnout in this month’s election, three were majority-Hispanic: Miami-Dade, Osceola, and Hendry.
While Cubans are less than a third of Florida’s registered Hispanic voters, they can make up close to 40 percent of Hispanics who vote in midterm elections given lower turnout among non-Cuban Hispanics, who tend to be more liberal. This has benefited Republicans, especially since the Cubans who do vote are typically older and more conservative, but it is unlikely to repeat itself in presidential years.
Since 2000, Florida’s Cuban voters have increasingly supported Democrats in presidential elections, as the voting patterns of younger Cuban Americans more closely reflect those of their millennial and Gen-Z counterparts across the country than that of their conservative grandparents.
Florida’s Hispanic electorate has also become more diverse, as more Puerto Ricans and immigrants from Central and South America have moved to the state. In 1990, a plurality of Florida’s registered Hispanic voters was Cuban, and as recently as 2006, a majority of the state’s Hispanics was signed up in the GOP. Today, Florida Hispanics are more likely to be registered as Democrats and Cubans are now just 31 percent of the state’s Hispanic electorate.
Red Flags for Both Parties
The midterm data cut both ways. On one hand, Republicans have had a perfect record in Florida’s gubernatorial elections over the past 20 years that began with Jeb Bush in 1998, and they will continue to dominate the state’s capital, Tallahassee, for the foreseeable future. Next year will also be the first time since Reconstruction that Florida has sent two Republican senators to Washington, D.C.
Demographic trends have typically benefited Democrats in recent years. Florida has turned blue in two of the last three presidential elections and no GOP presidential nominee has won the state’s growing Hispanic vote since 2004. Republicans’ low performance with Hispanics poses a challenge for the GOP, as this demographic group’s share of the statewide electorate has increased by 53 percent (or 5.7 percentage points), over the last 12 years.
Trump compensated for getting trounced among minorities by doubling Clinton’s vote totals among whites, which are approximately two-thirds of the state’s voters. By running up the score on Clinton in predominantly white, rural, and exurban counties, Trump made up for massive losses in Democratic strongholds in southern Florida and earned the state’s 29 Electoral College votes.
DeSantis and Scott followed a similar formula by winning six out of 10 white voters, slightly below Trump’s share, and outperforming him among blacks and Hispanics. However, Republicans should not take false comfort in the inroads they made with Florida Hispanics in 2018 or interpret this as a sign that “things aren’t that bad.”
A Tough Electoral Map Ahead in 2020
The GOP’s success in Florida this year was largely driven by demographic circumstances that are unique to the state, as well as some voters’ decision not to vote. It would be just as foolish for Republicans to count on this happening again in the future as it has been for Democrats to rely on infrequent voters to win back the governor’s mansion.
Yes, the GOP retained the governorship and flipped a Senate seat in the face of strong headwinds, but on the basis of decreasing statewide margins resulting from lost ground in important areas such as Jacksonville and Tampa. If these patterns hold, they represent ominous signs for Republicans.
Analysts attribute Republicans experiencing declines in places like Duval and Pinellas counties and losses in the House to Trump turning off suburban voters, despite a strong economy. This should perturb Republicans in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, whose suburbs Trump carried by 10 points and contain half of those states’ voters. The GOP won these states by a combined 56,000 votes in 2016, meaning that if all else holds, the slightest shift among suburbanites could place them and their 36 Electoral College votes in the blue column.
Trump can lose Michigan and Pennsylvania and still be re-elected if he holds on to Ohio, Wisconsin, and Florida, but the latter is more purple than people realize and this year’s results might suggest. For instance, had Trump and Clinton earned the same vote percentages as DeSantis and Gillum across the state’s 67 counties, his victory margin would have been cut by a little over 80 percent.
If Trump loses Michigan and Wisconsin, and Florida plays out the same way in 2020 as it did this year—except this time you adjust for a Hispanic electorate that will probably be larger, younger, and less Cuban—the GOP would almost certainly lose Florida and probably the White House, unless Trump manages to flip a state he lost (such as Minnesota, Virginia, or Colorado), which is plausible, but unlikely.
Keeping Florida red defied expectations and was no easy feat, but rather than being sanguine about this year’s results, Republicans should be concerned about what they might mean for 2020.