Florida was the most prized swing state for decades. That won’t be true in 2024

For decades, Florida was an essential element of every candidate’s strategy for winning the presidency.

Its status as a swing state — with victory within reach for either party — and the enormous trove of electoral votes for the winner often made it the nation’s most hotly contested election battleground.

Candidates, for whom time is their most valuable commodity, lavished attention on Florida. Celebrity surrogates poured in to court pockets of voters from the state’s diverse communities. And enormous sums of money were spent on TV ads and field organizers.

In 2024, much of that time, energy and money will be traveling to other states — not Florida, whose voters aren’t likely to be sought after as they’ve been in most of the presidential elections since the ultra-close 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

Florida just isn’t as competitive as it once was.

“The path to the White House for Democrats now goes through Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — and not Florida,” said Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections, which provides nonpartisan campaign analysis. He is also an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.

Florida is on a longer Inside Elections list of 15 competitive states.

“Florida can still be considered a battleground state, but it’s not a swing state. Florida is only swinging between the Republicans win it by a little or win it by a lot,” Gonzales said. “We are in a different chapter of Florida than the 2000 presidential election, when it was just a few votes.”

Early sign

One sign of what’s to come.

The early, mostly symbolic, advertising launched after President Joe Biden officially announced his candidacy for reelection on Tuesday was targeted at what his campaign described as six battleground states: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Florida was not on the list.

The big Democratic super political action committee, Priorities USA, said it was launching “digital mobilization and persuasion programming” efforts aimed in same six battleground states — not including Florida — “that will be decisive in choosing the next president and hold competitive Senate races.”

State Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Miami Gardens Democrat, said people shouldn’t draw conclusions based on those initial ad buys.

Jones, who was an early supporter of Biden in 2020 — and traveled to campaign for him in the Iowa presidential caucuses — said Democrats haven’t written off the state.

“People saying the national Democrats are not going to spend time in Florida, that could not be further from the truth,” Jones said. “They are going to spend time and resources in Florida. … There is a lot of opportunity here,” said Jones, who is a member of the Democratic National Committee and founder of Operation BlackOut, an effort to encourage minority Floridians to vote by mail.

In this side-by-side file photo President Joe Biden campaigns in Coconut Creek at Broward College North and former President Donald Trump speaks during a roundtable in Doral at the Trump National Doral Miami during the 2020 campaign trail. 

Republican red

More and more, Florida is being seen as a Republican red state, instead of a purple state offering a realistic shot for the Democrats. A range of analysts said they don’t expect Biden or the eventual Republican nominee to ignore Florida, but its importance is much less than it was.

“Democrats are looking at the map and making decisions about where they’re going to spend money, and Florida’s less appealing right now based on recent trends,” said Sean Foreman, a political scientist at Barry University. “At this point it’s unclear that they will have the resources to seriously compete in 2024.”

And, Foreman added, there’s a lot of time until prime election season. “It’s too early to know how significant Florida will be in the national discussion,” he said.

Myra Adams of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, who writes frequently for conservative national publications and did media work on two Republican presidential campaigns, said Florida is too big for either side to write off.

“You have a state that has 30 electoral votes. It can never be counted out as a battleground state. It could flip back to purple status. There’s no way Democrats are going to write off Florida the way they wrote it off for the [2022] governor’s race,” Adams said.

The 30 electoral votes are one-ninth of the 270 needed to win the presidency.

Candidates in Florida

President Joe Biden’s 2020 victory showed that a Democrat can win the presidency even without Florida’s electoral votes.

And Morning Consult reported in April that its surveys conducted in the first three months of the year found 57% of Florida residents disapproved of Biden’s performance and 39% approved, a net negative of 18 percentage points. In the first quarter of 2022, he had a net negative of 12 points and the year before that a net positive of 9 points.

The frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination in 2024 is former President Donald Trump, who lives in the state and won in 2016 and 2020. The runner-up in polling is the all-but-declared Republican candidate Gov. Ron DeSantis, who also won the state twice.

“As of today, the two frontrunners on the Republican side are Florida residents. I don’t think they [the Democrats] are saying we’re going to give up the state if Trump or DeSantis is the nominee, but it will certainly make it harder for Democrats to compete if one of those guys is the Republican candidate,” Forman said.

The numbers

Numbers show the Republicans’ ascendancy.

In the years since the 2012 election, Republicans have won 16 statewide elections. Democrats won just one, for state agriculture commissioner in 2018.

In 2016, Trump won 49% of the vote in Florida, 1.2 percentage points ahead of Democrat Hillary Clinton. In 2020, the reelection-seeking president won 51.2% of the vote in Florida 3.3 percentage points ahead of Biden.

In 2018, Republican Ron DeSantis received 49.6% of the vote for governor, 0.4 percentage points ahead of Democrat Andrew Gillum. Running for reelection last year, DeSantis received 59.4% of the vote, 19.4 percentage points ahead of Democrat Charlie Crist.

In 2021, for the first time in modern Florida history, the number of registered Republicans surpassed the number of registered Democrats.

The 5.28 million people registered as Republicans for the 2022 elections was an increase of 24.3% from 2012. Florida’s 4.97 million registered Democrats last year was 3.96% higher than 10 years earlier.

“Even though the biggest 2022 races were blowouts, we can’t forget that the 2022 presidential election was still close. It was just a few points. I don’t think that Democrats can afford to give up on Florida or cede Florida to Republicans at the outset,” Gonzales said.

Inside Elections’ metric called Baseline uses election results to examine the partisanship of each state and how well a typical Democrat or Republican would perform.

After 2022, Gonzales said, a typical Republican would defeat a typical Democrat in Florida 53.9% to 45.1% — an 8.8 point GOP advantage. (In 2018, the Republican advantage was 4.5 points.)

Money available?

A central question for national Democrats is how much time and money should go toward Florida.

Because it’s such a huge state, with many high-priced television markets, it’s enormously expensive for candidates to operate and advertise in.

National strategists will be making a cold, hard calculation: Could the millions it takes to campaign in Florida be better spent in other critical close states such as Arizona or Georgia — places where the money might have a greater chance of making the difference between winning and losing.

“National Democrats seem inclined to give up on Florida and put the significant resources in other states that are more winnable,” Foreman said.

In this side-by-side file photo former President George W. Bush campaigns in Sunrise at the Office Depot Center (now knows as FLA Live Arena) and Sen. John Kerry waves during a town hall in Hollywood at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Hollywood during the 2004 campaign trail. 

It’s also possible Democrats will make some strategic investments in Florida to convince Republicans to put resources in the state so they can’t spend that cash elsewhere.

“Does the Democratic Party still spend some money here to make it appear like they’re competing so that Republicans use resources in Florida that don’t go to other states? That’s the big question. That is a chess match,” Foreman said.

That happened in 2020. Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent some $100 million to help Biden in the state, prompting Trump to spend more time and money in the state while Biden concentrated more of his efforts elsewhere.

Foreman added that there’s a limit to such attempts. “Dollars are finite. So you can’t be wasting them just to bait someone else to spend money here.”

If that’s a reason Democratic donors spend money in Florida, which would help “very, very important — vitally important” lower-level candidates with their efforts next year, that’s fine with Jones.

“Let’s make the Republicans spend more” in Florida, he said. “Let’s spend the money to make them spend the money.”

Senate race

Another factor: the U.S. Senate race. Florida Democrats don’t have a prominent potential candidate to challenge U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla.

Scott’s three statewide victories — two for governor and one for Senate — have been nail-bitingly close. But he’s on a trajectory to win reelection next year.

That means even less incentive for national Democrats to devote money to Florida — unlike, for example, Arizona, where the presidential race and the U.S. Senate race could go either way.

“Until Democrats get a formidable candidate, Rick Scott’s a favorite,” Foreman said. “Early indicators don’t even show Florida as a toss-up Senate race, so that’s less of an incentive.”

Inside Elections’ initial rating of Scott’s Senate seat is “solid Republican.”

“A ‘solid Republican’ rating is striking both because of Florida’s former swing state status, as well as Rick Scott’s three very narrow victories,” Gonzales said. “He is in solid shape initially and Democrats not only have to find a good candidate, but find a way to fund that candidate.”

(Jones, one of the people whose name has been floated as a possible U.S. Senate candidate, laughed when asked about the prospect. “There’s a lot of speculation that’s out there. Here’s what I’ll tell you. I am committed to finish my term here in the [Florida state] Senate,” Jones said. His state Senate term runs through 2026.)

South Florida

The state’s three largest counties, Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach, play a big role in determining if Republican dominance continues or Democrats make a comeback. Republicans have severely eroded the Democratic advantage in South Florida.

“Democrats have to do better in South Florida or they’re not going to win statewide. Whether that’s candidates or money, they have got to do better in South Florida,” Gonzales said.

An analysis from Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics said “the big 3 big South Florida counties were considerably less blue in 2020 than they were in 2012: Obama won the trio by 26 points, while Biden won them by 16 points. Miami-Dade has driven that shift.” Obama won the three counties by 24 points in 2012; Biden won them by 7 in 2020.

Anthony Man can be reached at aman@sunsentinel.com, on Twitter @browardpolitics and on Post.news/@browardpolitics.

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