MAY 8, 2014
Florida has been an afterthought in electoral politics over the last few cycles, but it is positioned to return to the forefront. No state looms larger as the Republican Party mulls its future.
It’s not just because two of the party’s top presidential hopefuls — Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio — are from the Sunshine State. The state’s growing diversity will make it far harder than commonly believed for Republicans to retake Florida, the nation’s most populous swing state in 2016. If the country’s growing diversity dooms the modern Republican Party, then Florida will be the first exhibition of the G.O.P.'s demographic death spiral.
Florida’s non-Hispanic white voters have plummeted since 2000, to 67 percent from 78 percent, according to the Census Bureau. The number of eligible Hispanic voters doubled over that period, and the state’s new Hispanic voters aren’t Republican-leaning Cubans. They include Democratic Puerto Ricans, who have flocked to the Orlando-Kissimmee area, and other non-Cuban Hispanics settling elsewhere in the peninsula. The newest Cuban voters aren’t as Republican as their parents, either; younger, third-generation Cuban-Americans didn’t grow up during the Cold War.
The influx of Democratic-friendly Hispanics and broader Democratic gains among Hispanics combined to flip Florida’s Hispanic vote. According to the exit polls, President Obama won Florida’s Latinos by a 21-point margin, 60 to 39 percent, a reversal from 2004, when Latinos voted for George W. Bush, 56 to 44 percent.
Certainly, Florida’s politics have been stubbornly resistant to change. The margin there in both the 2000 and 2012 elections was closer than in any other state, even as those experiencing similar demographic changes, like Nevada, lurched decidedly toward Democrats.
Florida remained so close because the Republicans made nearly countervailing gains among the state’s white voters. Mr. Obama lost Florida’s white voters by 24 points — 9 points worse than Mr. Kerry’s defeat in 2004. There was no other battleground state where Mr. Obama lost so much ground among white voters. Florida would have gone the way of Nevada if Republicans hadn’t made those gains: Mr. Obama would have won by 7 points if he had retained even Mr. Kerry’s tepid support among white voters.
Mr. Obama didn’t do well in Florida, but that isn’t necessarily a sign of strength for the Republicans. He was a terrible fit for the state’s eclectic mix of white voters. The Florida Panhandle is full of the culturally Southern white voters who rejected Mr. Obama, as they did across Dixie. Mr. Obama also struggled with whites over age 65, who represent 30 percent of the state’s white voters, and among Jewish voters, who represent about 15 percent of self-identified white Democrats in Florida. Mr. Obama’s strengths — like his appeal to young, socially progressive voters in well-educated metropolitan areas — lack pull in Florida.
All of this will be reversed if the Democrats nominate Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is a good fit for the state’s odd combination of Southerners, New York expats and older white voters. Mrs. Clinton doesn’t even need to outperform Mr. Obama among Florida’s white voters anyway, as she’ll benefit from four more years of demographic change.
A Democratic rebound in Florida would make the G.O.P.'s path to victory extremely challenging. Republicans could flip Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Iowa, Wisconsin and New Hampshire and still fall short. To compensate, Republicans would probably need to win states like Minnesota, Michigan or Pennsylvania, which were not seriously contested in 2012 and have been out of the reach of Republican presidential candidates for a generation.
Yet Florida is where the G.O.P. has the most opportunities to improve its chances. There are few places where an immigration reform bill could help the party more than in Florida, where 22 percent of the population is Hispanic.
Immigration reform may not be sufficient for the G.O.P. to make significant gains among Hispanic voters, who lean Democratic on economic issues. But two of the G.O.P.'s presidential front-runners hail from Florida, and presidential candidates tend to perform better in their home states. For all of the other reasons that establishment Republicans are drawn to Mr. Bush, his biggest political asset may be the lift he would give his party in Florida.