The narrative that implies is the one we have seen time and time again in special elections since the 2016 presidential election: the Democrats doing unexpectedly well against a faltering Republican Party. The blue wave, and all that.
But that is not what is happening in Florida.
On Tuesday night, the parties split two contests, with each holding seats it already held. More important, though, it was the Republicans who saw improved performance, relative to 2016; in most races since that year, it has been the Democrats who have seen gains.
In fact, Florida is one of only a few states where the average shift relative to the 2016 presidential result in the district has been in the Republicans’ favor. (The data here are from DailyKos’s running tally of special-election results.)
In most states where the average has been a shift to the Republicans, Hillary Clinton won in 2016. States like Connecticut, Massachusetts and Washington were voting on Donald Trump as a presidential candidate but, generally, on more moderate Republicans in the special elections. It is no surprise, therefore, that those Republicans are doing better than Trump did.
But Trump won Utah and Florida, two states where the special election results also move to the right. Utah has had only one special election, but it was also the red state that shifted the most away from the Republican candidate between 2012 and 2016 (a function of loving Mitt Romney and being deeply skeptical of Trump). Florida, then, is an outlier.
Why? Why is Florida the state that is bucking the blue-wave trend? We spoke with the chair of the University of Florida’s political science department, Daniel Smith.
“We are an old electorate,” Smith pointed out. “Older voters turn out in Florida at very high rates — much higher rates than in other states.” And older voters are more conservative voters. The electorate in Florida’s special elections has looked a lot like the electorate in a midterm election, he said.
Smith said Florida has also been less likely to embrace the movements that have activated liberal and moderate voters in other parts of the country.
“Floridians have not been as swayed as those in other states when it comes to the MeToo movement, the Never Again movement, the Black Lives Matter movement,” he said. “Yes, they’re all present” — the Never Again movement for new gun regulation began after the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla. — “but I don’t think that the level of engagement is nearly as high in this state as we’ve seen in other purple states, much less blue states. … On all of those movements that we’re seeing across the country, we are behind, and I think that it’s because we’re an older electorate.”
Those movements have led to surges in newly registered voters in some places. Even there, Smith said, Florida is an exception. In most states, new voters are young people, 18- and 19-year-olds who have not voted before and are suddenly empowered to. In Florida, many newly registered voters are much older. “Our new voters are 78-year-old white Republicans moving to Sarasota County,” he said.
Those older voters, many of them retirees, are also more likely to be enjoying the fruits of the booming stock market.
“Many Floridians are doing quite well with respect to their 401ks,” he said. “If you look at the retirees in Florida, inflation is very low. The stock market is at an all-time high. … Their savings are doing quite well.” That is not the sort of thing that prompts electoral rebellion against the president.
The temptation is frequently to read into special election results as a way of predicting what will happen in November. In this case, the lesson seems to be Florida will continue to be Florida.
Update: Matthew Isbell, a Florida-based political consultant, pointed out an additional factor.
“Three of the special elections have been in the Hispanic portion Miami-Dade County,” he wrote. “These are Cuban voters, who while normally a solid GOP voting group, gave Trump the worst showing of any Presidential Republican candidate in decades. Clinton’s margins in Miami-Dade were record-breaking for a Democrat. However, at the same time, many of these districts voted solidly for Republican Marco Rubio and Republican state legislative candidates.”
“Miami-Dade’s ticket splitting rivals what the south used to do, where Republicans won President but Democrats won down-ballot; only the parties are reversed,” he said. “Comparing the specials to the Presidential election in Miami-Dade is a problem because of this ticket splitting phenomenon, which has almost gone extinct in most other parts of the nation.”