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Florida Republicans Pull Ahead in Registered Voter Numbers

The latest numbers show that Republicans now have 588,930 more registered voters than Democrats while independents and no party affiliation voters make up 27.2 percent of the state’s registrations.

Once again, the numbers are inauspicious for Florida Democrats.

The latest figures show Republicans now have 588,930 more registered voters than Democrats, continuing a trend that makes the notion of election victories ever more elusive for the state’s No. 2 political party.

Statewide, Republican registrations make up 37.4 percent of the state’s 13.9 million voters. Democratic registration stands at 33.2 percent and no party affiliation/independents are at 27.2 percent.

“Every month, consistently, we are just adding,” Florida Republican Chairman Christian Ziegler said shortly after the state posted the latest tallies. “We’ve just added about another 20,000 to our lead. … Florida’s headed in the right direction. We feel good, as we do every month when these reports come out.”

The numbers, released Oct. 3 by the state Division of Elections are one more data point in a significant, long-term shift.

•Just a decade ago, immediately after President Barack Obama won Florida in 2012 on his way to a second term and then-U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson won reelection, Democrats had 558,272 more registered voters than the Republicans. They were No. 1, at 40 percent.

•Five years ago, just after Gov. Ron DeSantis narrowly won his first term, the Democrats still had an advantage — though it was smaller: 257,175 more voters than Republicans and 37.1 percent of the total.

•Two years ago, in October 2021, the state flipped, and the number of registered Republicans surpassed the number of registered Democrats.

Democrats say they’re attempting to turn around the trend.

“Florida Democrats are fully focused on registering new voters,” state Democratic Chair Nikki Fried said during a National Voter Registration Day event last month in Tallahassee. “We feel that the energy that we’ve been putting on the ground is starting to move the needle forward. There is excitement, there is energy and we are excited for 2024 because I truly believe we will see the pendulum swing back a whole lot faster than was originally anticipated.”

COVID, and More


Democrats’ domination of Florida registered voters has declined steadily. Even when they had more registered voters than the Republicans, Democrats were winning fewer and fewer major elections.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated long-term trends.

Two things happened during the pandemic.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, after initially supporting COVID restrictions, became a prominent champion of letting everyday people rather than public health experts decide what precautions they wanted to take, and touted Florida as a bastion of freedom.

That helped attract like-minded people to Florida, and when they fled Democratic-dominated states and moved to Florida and registered to vote — the Republican Party was more appealing for many.

“There’s a heck of a lot of new people moving here, and they happen to be conservatives moving here for freedom,” Ziegler said.

During COVID, there were about 600,000 newly registered voters in Florida, said Richard DeNapoli, Broward’s elected Republican state committeeman and former county party chairman who extensively analyzes political data. “Two out of three of those registered as Republicans. Florida kind of encouraged that because it was a state that opened quicker than elsewhere.”

“You just had a huge influx of people and largely they were conservatives that didn’t like the atmosphere in the more liberal states. And because people could work from home, they became more mobile,” DeNapoli said.

Mindy Koch, chair of the Palm Beach County Democratic Party, acknowledged that newcomers to Florida are a challenge for Democrats. “We are having a lot of people moving to Florida,” she said at a news conference last month, “because they like the political climate here.”

Florida has long been a mecca for people from other states. But the recent trends mark a shift from a previous generation, when waves of northeasterners retired to the Century Villages and other vast condominium communities in Broward and Palm Beach counties — and formed such a large base of Democratic voters that they were often courted by candidates for governor, U.S. Senate and president.

Even before COVID, there was a shift. The Villages, the central Florida retirement megalopolis home to many Republicans, was the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country from 2010 to 2020, Census data show.

Meanwhile, with Democrats largely more cautious than Republicans during the early stages of the pandemic — coinciding with the 2020 election season — both parties made fateful decisions. Republicans continued with their in-person organizing, including registering voters. Democrats largely eschewed in-person voter contact.

COVID isn’t the only reason for the switch, to be sure. Republicans have long had better-funded voter mobilization efforts than Democrats.

In conservative, often rural areas of the state, there are residents who had registered as Democrats long ago, sometimes because it was the thing everyone had done for generations. Voting patterns started shifting with the emergence of “Reagan Democrats” in 1980, when Republican Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter for the presidency.

More recently, some of those Democrats who had been voting for Republicans have formally switched their registrations. “It is the continuation of the trend of many northern Florida Democrats moving toward the Republican Party, which is a better fit for their more conservative views,” said Kevin Wagner, a political scientist at Florida Atlantic University.

Ziegler said the trend toward the Republicans has “been on fire” since Donald Trump announced his 2016 presidential candidacy. He said 25 of Florida’s 67 counties have flipped from Democrat to Republican since January 2016.

Democrats and Republicans agree on what’s been happening. Many of the shifts, Fried said, are from people who “haven’t been voting as Democrats.”

In many cases, DeNapoli said, “Their voting pattern was already Republican. If you see Liberty County or Jefferson County flipping, if you look at the voting history, the voter registration flipping is basically reaffirmation of how they’ve already been voting.”

Rise of Independents


Republicans and Democrats still dominate, but registering with no party affiliation is proving far more inviting for people who don’t want to identify — publicly, at least — with one of the two major parties.

Wagner said “a huge number of people (are) choosing no party affiliation,” a trend that’s taking place nationwide.

Florida now has 3.8 million no party affiliation/independent voters, making up 27.2 percent of registered voters in the state.

No party affiliation/independents are by far the fastest-growing share of the electorate.

Florida’s population growth in the last 15 years has put 2.5 million more people on the voter rolls, an increase of 21.9 percent.

There are 1.6 million more NPA voters in Florida than 15 years ago — an increase of 76.8 percent, far outpacing the Republican growth of 1.1 million, which is an increase of 26.8 percent.

Democrats, by contrast, have 183,046 fewer registered voters than in 2008, a decrease of 3.8 percent.

South Florida


South Florida is still solidly Democratic, though not as much as it once was.

Broward County: For more than a decade, no party affiliation/independents have been the No. 2 party identification in Broward, with Republicans in third place.

The number of registered Democrats and Republicans has gone up in Broward County during the last two decades and the number of registered Republicans has declined. NPA/independent affiliations have soared.

Broward’s 1.3 million registered voters were 46.6 percent Democratic, 30.2 percent NPA/independent, and 21.4 percent Republican at the end of August.

Miami-Dade County: The county still has a Democratic advantage, but it’s declined significantly.

It has fewer Democrats than 15 years ago, more Republicans and many more NPA/independents.

The county’s 1.5 million registered voters were 36.2 percent Democratic as of Aug. 31, and 29.7 percent Republican and 32.3 percent NPA/independent on Aug. 31

Palm Beach County: The number of Democrats has slipped in Palm Beach County since 2008 by about 20,000 and the county has about 35,000 more Republicans. It has about 104,000 more NPA/independent voters.

The county’s registered voters are currently 38.5 percent Democratic, 29.8 percent Republican, and 29.3 percent NPA/independent.

With the exception of a slight increase in the number of registered NPA voters in Broward, all three counties currently have fewer registered voters across the board than at the end of 2022, the same thing that shows up in the statewide numbers.

Supervisors of Elections Offices perform extensive list maintenance in odd numbered years after major elections, with names of people registered moved to inactive status. During the past eight odd-numbered years, the number of registered Florida voters has decreased in six. Fried said current list maintenance is especially hurting Democrats, an argument her predecessor offered after Republicans took the lead in registrations in 2021.

Minor Parties


There are multiple minor parties, in Florida, such as the Libertarians or Greens, that attract some voters. Their numbers have bounced around in the last 15 years, but in total aren’t significant.

As of Aug. 31, there were 297,405 people registered in minor parties, 2.1 percent of the state’s total.

In 2008, minor party registrations were 3.2 percent of the total; in 2013, 2.9 percent; and in 2018, 0.9 percent.

Comeback Attempt


The summer of 2023 was, according to Democrats, going to begin to reverse the trend.

At a big Florida Democratic Party gala in Miami Beach in July, Fried proclaimed it was a new era, with Democrats finally having the resolve to compete with the Republican registration juggernaut.

Fried, who as state agriculture commissioner was the only statewide elected Democrat from 2019 to 2023, was chosen by party leaders to take over in February.

At the July event, Fried announced the first round of voting for county-level efforts, involving data-driven targeting of potential voters. “We cannot just be standing outside of Publixes and hope that we get voter registrations,” she declared.

Less than three weeks later, state Democrats announced they were devoting $1 million to voter registration efforts through the end of 2023, part of an effort to stem the growing Republican advantage that has contributed to widespread Democratic defeats and a diminished presence even in the party’s longtime strongholds in Florida.

Fried then embarked on a statewide tour aimed at mobilizing Democratic activists to aid the party’s efforts, and generate publicity for Democratic priorities and attack Republicans and the party hired a voter registration director.

Broadly speaking, the efforts are aimed at the November 2024 elections, and beyond.

“Our goal is to reduce the Republican advantage by 35 percent by the 2024 election. Your Florida Democratic Party and your Florida Democrats are fired up, out in force, and ready to do the work on the ground,” she said in mid-September. “We are already seeing that energy come to fruition on voter registration.”

Still, from the end of July through the end of August, the Republican advantage over the Democrats continued to grow.

Republicans grew their advantage over the Democrats by 20,879 voters from July 31 to Aug. 31, registration numbers released this week showed.

Ziegler mocked the Democrats’ efforts as “fraud” on the party’s donors. “They did a whole bus tour, a statewide tour, for voter registration. It doesn’t look like it’s having any impact.”

The trendlines aren’t a new phenomenon, and Democrats have vowed to change them before.

In February 2022, then-state Democratic Chairman Manny Diaz acknowledged the party’s voter registration efforts lagged. “We have let our guard down, especially during off years,” he said. “That’s not going to happen anymore. We’re changing the paradigm.”

Party leaders promised a $2.5 million voyager registration effort they said would be better-funded and more far reaching than anything they’d ever done before. In 2019, the state Democratic Party chairwoman announced a similar effort that didn’t produce results.

In 2019, Terrie Rizzo, then the state Democratic Party chairwoman, announced a “monumental” investment of $2 million on technology, data, and hiring field organizers to register voters. COVID hit the year after, and the effort didn’t produce results.

Importance


The number of registered voters isn’t the only factor in which party wins and loses. Efforts to energize and turn out voters make a difference.

But as the nation has grown more polarized, DeNapoli, Ziegler and Wagner said voter registration is a better indicator of how people vote than it once was. In other words, registered Democrats are less likely to occasionally vote for Republicans, and Republicans are less likely to vote for Democrats.

“The party that we identify with, that we pick on our registration, is a significant predictor of our vote choice,” Wagner said. “Identity politics has become increasingly significant. And so you see less willingness of people to consider politicians and politics outside their party identity. You also see a certain amount of self selection as to who people socialize with, the kinds of media they consume, and even where they choose to live.”

The result, Ziegler said: more of each party’s registered voters are more likely to go straight down the Republican or Democratic column, so the signups are important.

“The voter registration for us is a head start. It’s like a race,” he said.

Challenges


Democrats face multiple challenges in attempting to pull themselves back into contention.

Voter registration and other programs to mobilize people are expensive. Without evidence that the efforts pay off by increasing the chances for election victories, it’s harder to convince donors to spend money in Florida instead of in states where it might have more impact.

It’s a chicken-and-egg situation: Without the money, it’s harder to do the organizing work that will produce the results that will generate more contributions.

Koch, the Palm Beach County Democratic chair, said the party would try to register as many voters as it can until the deadline a month before the November 2024 election.

“This is so important,” Koch said. “We’re going to be moving forward and registering as many people as we can between now and next Oct. 4. We have lots of time to catch up — but we shouldn’t be in a catch-up phase.”

Another challenge: It’s more difficult to register voters than it once was.

State Sen. Bobby Powell, a Palm Beach County Democrat, said at a National Voter Registration Day news conference that new registration rules and new rules for vote-by-mail ballots enacted by the Republican Legislature and DeSantis are “repressive and supressive policies of preventing people from voting. … 100 percent of their changes are aimed at preventing Democrats from registering and voters.”

Joel Davidson, a former Tamarac resident who currently lives west of Delray Beach, has long been active in the Democratic Party, including voter-registration efforts.

He said his current effort, which puts him at a table outside the Hagen Ranch Road Library in Palm Beach County two, and sometimes three, days a week is less effective than past pushes.

Davidson supplies voter-registration forms to people who say they aren’t registered — but unlike the old system, he doesn’t help people complete them, and doesn’t collect them.

Instead, he tells people they can fill out the forms and turn them in to a library employee inside.

He also provides people information on how to renew their vote-by-mail requests; all mail ballot requests were canceled by the state after last year’s election. That means voters who don’t take steps to sign up again won’t get mail ballots for any of the 2024 contests: presidential primaries, later primaries for state and local offices, or the November presidential election. Davidson said he thinks providing that information will ultimately prove more helpful to the Democratic Party.

Davidson said he encourages people to register, even though once they’re out of sight he doesn’t know what they do.

“I give them the form,” Davidson said. “Maybe they mail it in. Maybe they take it home and throw it in the trash.”



©2023 South Florida Sun Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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