How Florida came to be so politically important
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Florida seems to have a knack for being right in the middle of the political moment.
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SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Former President Donald Trump is in federal custody.
MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: The Walt Disney Company has filed a First Amendment lawsuit against Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Uncertainty reigns in Florida.
CARL KASSELL, BYLINE: The nation awaits the Florida recount.
SHAPIRO: That recount in 2000 changed the course of the American presidency. Another recount in 2018 left a Senate seat in the balance. And, of course, culture wars, dramatic political swings and now the federal indictment of former President Trump - all in Florida, but why Florida? To help explain how the Sunshine State ended up in the center of the political universe here in the U.S., NPR's Kelsey Snell and Greg Allen have this report.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Florida's place in politics isn't just a fluke. Analysts explain that's because it's one of the most consistently changing and closely divided states in the country.
JOE GELLER: Florida is the future because Florida is a microcosm of what America will be because Florida is incredibly diverse.
SNELL: That's Joe Geller. He is a former state representative and a former chair of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. He was also an attorney for Al Gore during the 2000 recount. Geller says the state is actually broken down into sections with completely different political identities. The northern section votes a lot like the rest of the South. Parts of central Florida vote more like the Midwest, and areas around Miami - they are another story entirely. And Florida isn't just politically diverse.
GREGORY KOGER: Somewhere around 2,040 non-Hispanic whites will make up a minority of the population of the country. Florida is probably there or almost there already.
SNELL: That's Gregory Koger. He's the director of the Hanley Democracy Center at the University of Miami. He says only about a third of the population is born and raised in Florida. The rest of the state keeps changing.
KOGER: And there's rapid transition. A lot of people come here to retire and then pass away, and then someone else moves in. And so the voters who elected a candidate in one year might not be around the next time.
SNELL: People flow in and out of Florida for other reasons, too - immigration, jobs, family.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: For more than a century, Florida was a Democratic stronghold, and it looked like it would stay that way. Migration, both of retirees from the Northeast and of Cuban Americans fleeing communism, made for a diverse population that supported Democrats. But in 1983, a visit by a Republican president had a big impact.
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RONALD REAGAN: Cuba, si. Castro, no.
ALLEN: Ronald Reagan's address at the Dade County Auditorium helped galvanize Republican support among Cuban Americans - a fast-growing and influential population in South Florida. Democrats have made inroads over the decades, but Cuban American support helped Donald Trump carry Miami-Dade County in 2020 and win Florida while losing nationally. Two years later, Governor Ron DeSantis resoundingly won his reelection bid by the largest margin of any Republican since Reconstruction. It's part of a political shift in Florida that's reflected in voter registration figures. Five years ago, there were a quarter million more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state. The head of Florida's Republican Party, Christian Ziegler, says that's no longer the case.
CHRISTIAN ZIEGLER: We now have almost 500,000 more Republicans than Democrats, so it's really been a 750,000 voter registration swing towards the Republicans.
ALLEN: The shift to the Republican Party has been reflected in recent elections. The governor's mansion, both chambers of the legislature, both U.S. Senate seats and every position elected statewide in Florida are now controlled by Republicans. It's a trend that once again has been fueled by migration, this time not from Cuba but from the U.S.
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DONALD TRUMP: And hello, Florida. Hello, Florida. It's great to be with you and back at The Villages. I like The Villages.
ALLEN: The Villages is just one of a host of developments in central and southwest Florida that have attracted retirees - many from Ohio, Michigan and other states in the upper Midwest. Matthew Isbell is a data consultant who analyzes voting trends for Democrats.
MATTHEW ISBELL: Back in the old days of Florida, those communities used to be very Democratic because they were more Jewish retirees from certain parts of the country, and now we have retirees that are more just conservative Protestants or Catholics.
SNELL: Democrats also lost ground because of COVID, and they don't dispute that. Joe Geller, who was a state representative at the time, said Democrats chose to take precautions seriously in 2020 and well into 2022.
GELLER: We protected our people. We said, no, don't go out there. Don't knock on doors 'cause it's not safe.
SNELL: Democrats and Republicans agree that those choices gave Republicans an edge.
GELLER: Did it hurt us electorally? Did it hurt our voter registration numbers? Absolutely.
SNELL: Geller is unapologetic about that choice, but doing so did give DeSantis an opening to capture the narrative in Florida. And it emboldened Republicans who wanted to make the state a haven for rejecting COVID restrictions and embracing increasingly hard-line conservative policies.
ALLEN: With their dominance in Florida, Republicans now have a big advantage over Democrats in political fundraising. They've used their majorities to draw legislative and congressional districts favorable to Republicans, and their majorities have gotten bigger. State party Chair Christian Ziegler says the state has become a model for Republicans nationwide.
ZIEGLER: I mean, if Florida can go from a president winning by a couple hundred votes to 20 years later just crushing the Democrat Party and becoming a hard-right state - if we can do that in Florida, why can't other states do it?
ALLEN: For Democrats nationally, the only good thing about what's happened in Florida is that they don't need the state to win the presidency. Democratic strategist Steve Schale says that's not the case for Republicans.
STEVE SCHALE: The last Republican to win the White House without winning Florida was Calvin Coolidge in 1924. Their electoral math requires going through Florida.
ALLEN: Schale says the challenge he and other Democrats will have in 2024 is convincing big donors and the national party not to give up on Florida.
SCHALE: If you don't invest here, you're essentially giving whoever the Republican nominee is, you know, $200 million to go spend wherever else they want, and to me, that doesn't feel like a very smart chess move.
ALLEN: After his big reelection win, Governor DeSantis doubled down on policies that appeal to social conservatives. He signed laws limiting how race, sexual orientation and gender identity can be discussed in the schools. He's allowed book bans as part of his push for parental rights. He's targeted transgender health care and attacked Disney as a woke corporation. It's all now part of his national presidential campaign, one that's been dubbed Make America Florida.
SNELL: But Gregory Koger from University of Miami says making America into Florida isn't quite as easy as DeSantis says.
KOGER: For the most part, if he wanted something passed, he just had to tell them, hey, I want this passed, and it would happen.
SNELL: Those Republican supermajorities DeSantis has, they don't exist in Congress right now. Plus, many analysts say that the partisan advantage at the state level may not apply when it comes to this next presidential election. Jackie Lee is a consultant for Democrats. She ran President Biden's Florida operation in 2020.
JACKIE LEE: The pendulum is going to swing because of the demographics - because of our large independent population here as well.
SNELL: If making America Florida won't work, Democrats are hoping that they can tie the Republican Party's identity entirely to Florida. That could be a huge problem for independent voters like Adam Ferguson in Miami.
ADAM FERGUSON: I'm not a culture warrior voter. Like, it just doesn't appeal to me at all. It turns me off.
SNELL: That's why Democrats think they have a chance to really energize voters against those policies DeSantis has passed, regardless of whether he's the Republican nominee.
SHAPIRO: That's NPR political correspondent Kelsey Snell and national correspondent Greg Allen reporting.
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