What blue wave?
While it’s notched four consecutive wins in local bellwether races, Florida’s Democratic Party has lost a share of its registered voters in Florida since 2016 and the percentage of Democrats casting vote-by-mail absentee ballots this month trails those mailed in by Republicans, according to new figures from the state’s elections division.
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A Democratic blue wave might still come. But so could a Republican red tide.
After all, this is purple Florida, the nation’s biggest swing state, where hard-to-predict elections are won on the margins and a 2-point win for a top-of-the-ticket candidate can look like a landslide.
“If a blue wave is forming, it certainly hasn’t crested. Maybe there’s a red tide coming in and affecting the blue wave?” said Daniel A. Smith, a University of Florida political science professor who studies the state’s voter rolls and trends.
So far, there’s enough data to show that some of Democrats’ hoped-for advantages — concerning Hispanic voters, Democratic voter registrations, Democratic ballots cast or young voters — haven’t clearly materialized heading into the Aug. 28 primary. With close Senate and gubernatorial races, Florida is one of the most important states for both parties in the 2018 midterms.
For this election, the percentage of active registered Democrats is down by nearly 2 percentage points compared with 2016, according to Florida Division of Elections data published Sunday for the primary. Because Florida doesn’t allow last-minute voter registration, the figures are final.
Some Democrats are worried, but they won’t say so publicly. They haven’t occupied the governor’s mansion in 20 years, and the only statewide elected Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson, who is seeking reelection, is slightly trailing Gov. Rick Scott in recent polls as the Republican has unloaded on him in a broad TV ad campaign.
“None of us will admit this publicly, but we’re worried. Where’s the blue wave?” a Democratic consultant tied to a major Florida campaign said about Florida‘s 2018 election. “The party has no money. The Republicans do. … But, thankfully, Republicans have Trump, and he’s a disaster when the elections are close. And this election will be close.”
President Donald Trump‘s approval rating is about what it was when he won Florida in 2016. Trump’s unexpected win in 2016 in Florida also unsettled some Democrats who thought they had a better handle on the pulse of the electorate. Trump has been a major factor in the Republican gubernatorial primary, all but catapulting Rep. Ron DeSantis to a commanding lead over Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who had been the clear front-runner.
And though voters have a tendency to punish the party of the president in power in a midterm, the last time a Republican sat in the White House in a midterm, in 2006, Democrats won only two statewide races: Nelson’s contest against a weak Republican opponent and Alex Sink’s single win for chief financial officer. In 2002, Democrats were crushed at the polls, as they were during former President Barack Obama’s 2010 and 2014 midterms.
Democrats now account for 37 percent of the rolls, compared with 35 percent for Republicans, who have not lost any proportional ground since 2016. The share of third-party voters has marginally increased, and no-party-affiliation voters, nicknamed NPAs, have increased their ranks by 3 points in Florida.
In all, Florida has more than 13 million active registered voters eligible to cast ballots in the primary.
Despite tens of thousands of Hurricane Maria evacuees flocking to Florida after the storm pummeled Puerto Rico, the overall proportion of active Hispanic voters — 16 percent — on the voter rolls has remained nearly the same since the 2016 general election.
Though the elections data show registration by race and ethnicity, they don’t indicate place of origin of voters. So it’s unclear just how many are of Puerto Rican descent or who have roots in other Latin American countries.
About 17 percent of the Democratic Party’s voter rolls are now Hispanic, a roughly 1-percentage-point increase since 2016. But the percentage of black voters registered as Democrats, 28 percent, is down about a point. Overall, Hispanics prefer to register as NPAs, accounting for 22 percent of the rolls.
The Democratic Party is also becoming a majority nonwhite party, with 48 percent of its registered voters in Florida identified as non-Hispanic white.
The Republican Party, meanwhile, is disproportionately white — 83 percent — when compared with the state overall or its voter rolls. Republican voters also tend to be older. And white, older voters have the highest turnout rates in Florida, especially during midterms. Their numbers are being replenished at high rates by conservative retirees flocking to communities like The Villages.
Then there are vote-by-mail absentee ballots that are already being cast.
As of Monday morning, 572,000 absentee ballots had been mailed in, 47 percent from Republicans and 39 percent from Democrats. The 8-point margin in Republicans’ favor this midterm compares with a 6-point Republican advantage over ballots cast by Democrats 15 days from the 2014 midterm primary.
Republicans’ total early ballot lead is expected by many to shrink as in-person early voting gets underway in select counties, especially large, Democratic-leaning urban counties. Also, the Republican race for governor, involving just two candidates, is a far more stable race than the Democrats’ primary, involving five major candidates, which could be giving Democrats more pause before they mail in their ballots.
Matt Isbell, one of the Democrats’ top data analysts, said all the numbers indicate it’s just going to be another close election in November.
“There’s nothing I can say other than this is going be a dogfight,” he said.
The voter registration numbers could also change drastically in the coming months now that political groups, campaigns and the public are more engaged. Voter registration drives should begin in earnest. The November elections also include far more voters than Florida’s closed primaries, which are limited to registered members of the major political parties. About 28 percent of the voters in the state are neither Republican nor Democrat, and many are viewed, as a result, as more persuadable independents. So the swing voters of the swing state will play a large, but harder-to-determine, role in selecting the winner.
Isbell noted that some of the decline in Democratic voter registrations, relative to 2016, is part of a natural progression of Dixiecrats dying off and turning to the GOP after Trump. “It’s a rebalancing,” he said.
Nor does Isbell see a significant boom in voter registrations by young people after the students from Parkland captured the nation’s attention following the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
According to an analysis last month, performed for POLITICO by Smith, the University of Florida professor, and the Republican-leaning Associated Industries of Florida, the net growth in voters ages 18-29 since the Parkland massacre was 5 percent, while the overall voter registration rolls grew 10 percent. A spokesman for the students said they had no numbers concerning how many voters they registered on their recent bus tour in Florida.
AIF’s vice president of political operations, Ryan Tyson, closely tracks early vote returns and polls and said that, so far, the midterm election resembles others. And that’s good for Republicans, who tend to vote in higher numbers in midterms. As a result, the past 21 of 25 midterm races in Florida have been won by GOP candidates. Three of those elections lost by the GOP have been at the hand of one Democrat: Nelson.