With the election of Donald Trump in November, Democrats were quick to Monday Morning Quarterback as to why Hillary Clinton lost, especially in the State of Florida, where polls were looking good for her. As with other states, we heard that voter turnout was down for Democrats. We also heard that rural America was voting for Trump in record numbers, which could have tilted the balance in states like Florida. However, neither of those seem to be the case in Florida. Instead, Florida has a changing political landscape.
First, let’s look at the voter turnout scenario. Many in the media have said that if we look at the election overall, that voter turnout wasn’t down compared to 2012, and they were right. But still, looking at general voter turnout doesn’t tell us the whole story. The question that needs to be asked is if turnout increased in places where Trump preformed well, but was lower in places where Hillary Clinton performed well? Using county-level data, it seems that there was no relationship between vote choice and voter turnout (with a model comparing voter turnout increases to Hillary’s percentage in a county, the R-squared was only .05). In Broward County, turnout was nearly 4% higher, while it was 2% lower in Escambia County. So looking at turnout would not explain what happened on Election Day.
The second scenario looks at rural votes. Yes, Hillary Clinton did see a drop in percentage in rural counties compared to Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. However, when combining the amount of votes cast in these rural areas with the change in Democratic Party support, the numbers do not nearly change enough to make Hillary Clinton the winner.
So, if it wasn’t voter turnout or rural voting, what happened in Florida? Pure and simple, the electoral map in Florida is changing. When you look at it with the naked eye, you rarely, if ever, see any changes. Yes, you might notice that Volusia County is now much more Republican, and that St. Lucie County was won by Trump. But it isn’t the actual counties that matter (remember, counties have no inherent electoral value), but it is the percentages in those counties, both in vote choice and voter registration.
If we look at the counties that have seem the largest drop in support for the Democratic candidates, it would be in northern Central Florida and south of Central Florida. Many want to look at north Florida and the panhandle, but that is a red herring. Looking at north Central Florida, Pasco County saw a 10.28% drop in Democratic support, Hernando 13.75%, Citrus 12.72%, Volusia 10.59%, Flagler 12.13%. South of Central Florida, we see the same changes, particularly in Charlotte County, where the swing has gone 11.13% to the Republicans.
As we can see the red places are getting redder. But it isn’t just change in votes that matter, it is also change in voter registration and voter turnout. For example, if we look at Lee County, we see that the swing toward the Republicans has been a modest 6.19%. But since 2008, over 103,000 voters have been added in Lee County. Even though voter turnout was down 7% since the 2008 election, the added votes have helped Republicans. The difference in votes in Obama’s 2008 total and Clinton’s 2016 was 5,207. The difference between McCain and Trump is 37,338. On the flip side, Orange County has seen this kind of change as well. Turnout between 2008 and 2012 in Orange was down 6%, but 172,245 voters were added. As a result, Democrats have gained 56,885 votes, while the Republicans have gained only 8,384 votes. The main difference between Lee County and Orange County is the partisan swing, with Lee County becoming more Republican while Orange County is hovering around 60% support for Democrats.
To put this into perspective, if we take the difference in votes that Republicans have gained and that Democrats have lost in Pasco, Hernando, and Citrus Counties alone, the number would show a 102,853 gain for Republicans. Trump won by a little under 113,000.
Another issue with Democrats is that they are not working in places that are seeing growth. One of the counties that Democrats have worked hard to turn blue is Pinellas County. However, Pinellas has only seen a .8% increase in voter registration numbers between 2008 and 2016. Lee County has seen a 32% increase. Republicans are going where the growth is happening, which can help then in the long run. Eventually, with growth in southwest and the rest of Central Florida, Pinellas’s clout will decrease. Trying to turn Pinellas blue helps now, but it is not a strong long-term strategy for Democrats.
Overall, the electoral map is changing in Florida. Republican-leaning counties like Sumter, Lee, Flagler, St. Johns, Nassau, Walton are starting to see strong increases in voter registration numbers. The others, such as the ones mentioned previously, we see a major change in electoral behavior, particularly in north Central Florida. Finally, larger Republican counties, like Lee County, are starting to challenge counties like Orange County when it comes to importance.