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The Swing State Where the GOP Desperately Needs Hispanics

Opponents of immigration reform are right about one thing: Hispanics aren’t enough for Republicans to win back the White House. But that doesn’t mean that the GOP can sacrifice Hispanics without big consequences for their chances. That’s already happened in New Mexico and Nevada, where the Hispanic vote has flipped two states from red to blue. The GOP’s route to the presidency has survived the loss of those two small states—they’re worth just 11 electoral votes. But it’s a whole different story if Florida suffers the same fate as Nevada, as it very well might if Republicans can’t improve among Hispanics.

Florida’s Hispanic population has exploded over the last decade, growing by 57 percent between 2000 and 2010. As a result, the Hispanic share of eligible voters surged from 12.5 percent to 16.8 percent between 2004 and 2012, while non-Hispanic whites dropped from 72.2 to 65.8 percent. Those new Hispanic voters aren’t Republican-leaning Cubans, either. They’re a mix of heavily-Democratic Puerto Ricans who surged to Orlando-Kissimmee and a mix of Hispanics from elsewhere in Central and South America. As a result, Cubans now represent just 32 percent of Florida’s voting eligible Hispanics. The new Cuban voters aren’t as Republican, either: Younger third generation Cubans have little memory of the Cold War and don’t associate Democrats with Soviets, like their parents and grandparents.

The combination of Democratic gains among Hispanics nationally and an influx of more Democratic-friendly Hispanics has flipped the state’s Hispanic vote. In 2004, Florida’s Latinos voted for Bush by 12 points, 56-44. Just eight years later, Obama won Latinos by a decisive 21 points, 60-39. This huge shift has upended Florida’s well-known political geography. Orange and Osceloa Counties, home to Orlando and Kissimmee, were once the country’s premier swing counties at the heart of the country’s premier swing region, the I-4 corridor. They voted for Bush by just .07 percent and 3669 votes in 2004. But in 2012, Obama won these two counties by a massive 19 point and 111,723 vote margin. Miami-Dade County used to only lean slightly toward Democrats: it voted for Kerry by 6 points, or 48,637 votes. Now it’s a rout for Democrats. In 2012, Obama won by 24 points and 208,459 votes.

Despite these extremely favorable trends, Obama still only won Florida by less than 1 percent or 74,000 votes. That might seem to make Florida the perfect candidate for the GOP to win with additional gains among white voters—they wouldn’t need to do so much better to win, just one more point. But the “more whites” strategy might not work in Florida.

Florida was so close because the GOP has already made huge gains among white voters—bigger than any other battleground state. Obama lost Florida’s whites by 24 points, 10 points worse than Kerry’s more modest, 14 point defeat in 2004. The following map shows where Obama performed better or worse than Kerry. In the red areas (yes this is a counter-intuitive color scheme), like the diversifying I-4 corridor and Miami, Obama did much better than Kerry. The blue areas, like the Panhandle or the retirement communities along the Gold Coast, are where Kerry did better than Obama.

There's a long list of reasons why Obama was a bad fit for Florida's whites; a worse fit than other Democrats. Obama did not perform well among culturally Southern whites, including in northern and central Florida. Obama was weak among white seniors, who represent 28 percent of Florida’s eligible white voters, and probably an even larger share of the electorate. At the same time, the departure of the heavily Democratic “Greatest Generation” probably hurt Obama among whites—seniors voted for Bush by just 3 or 4 points against Kerry and Gore. Obama always seemed to do best among young, well-educated white voters in post-industrial metropolitan areas—Raleigh, Denver-Boulder, or northern Virginia—but there are few similar areas in the Sunshine State. If Democrats have a base among Florida’s whites, it’s the state’s heavily Democratic Jewish population. But that was never one of the President’s strengths, either. 

That raises the possibility that Republicans are close to maximizing their share of the white vote in Florida. Certainly, they’re closer to maximizing it in Florida than they are in other states, like Colorado or Wisconsin, where Obama seemed to have appeal and where Republicans have done better in recent memory. It seems quite possible that the Democrats could nominate a candidate who stems the bleeding, or even does better among Florida’s whites. It’s worth noting that Bill Nelson and Alex Sink both did much better among white voters than Obama did last November. Early polls show Hillary Clinton crushing in Florida by a double-digit margin because she’s doing far, better among whites than Obama—about as well as Gore. Those tallies would have been a deadheat a decade ago, but now result in a comfortable Democratic win.

Even if Democrats did nominate another poor fit, it’s not a state where Republicans can expect to perpetually run up the score among white voters. Florida is not Alabama. It’s a diverse state with a white population that’s vaguely representative of the country, and therefore includes plenty of Democratic-leaning moderates or even liberals. Twenty-five percent of the state’s white voters were Jewish or non-Christian. Most of the domestic migration to Florida has been from the northeast and especially the New York area, which continues today. So unless Republicans are expecting to start breaking through among these types of white voters, there’s probably a floor for Democrats here. At the very least, it’s not a state where the GOP can continuously make huge gains among white voters without making huge gains among white voters nationally.

And if the GOP doesn’t keep making huge gains among white voters—bigger gains than they’re making nationally—Florida’s going to go the same way as Nevada. The pace of demographic change in Florida should alarm Republicans. Think about it like this: Kerry lost Florida by 5 points in 2004. Then, Obama did 10 points worse among whites. All of this was countered and overwhelmed by demographic change and an improved showing among non-whites. Kerry’s performance among white voters would have yielded a 7-point win in 2012—12 points better than his 5 point defeat in 2004.

If the trends of the last eight years continue, the white share of eligible voters will drop again, down to something like 63 percent of eligible voters. Some 300,000 new Hispanics will get registered to vote, and they’ll break overwhelmingly for Democrats. If turnout patterns stayed the same, Republicans would need to win whites by 28 points to overcome demographic changes.

Could Republicans do four points among Florida whites in 2016, let alone keep increasing at that rate in future elections? Perhaps. But what a gamble! Surely even a GOP optimist would concede the serious possibility that they cannot improve by so much. Not after doing so well among Southern whites, not after running up the score against a candidate who was such a poor fit for the state. Not in a state where white voters are reminiscent of whites nationally.

Could a decline in black turnout help Florida Republicans? Perhaps, but not much. Black turnout only increased by 5 percent between 2004 and 2012, according to the Census. More importantly, Florida is a state where the black share of eligible voters is increasing at a steady rate: According to the Census, the state’s black population increased by 22 percent over the last decade. The black share of eligible voters increased from 13 to 14.4 percent between 2004 and 2012. If that trend continues, it would cancel out almost all of the decline in black turnout. And if black turnout doesn’t decline by as much as Republicans hope, the black share of the electorate could increase in 2016.

What about the missing white voters? They’re not so helpful, either. According to the Census, there were about 300,000 missing white voters in Florida. If they all turned out and voted for Republicans by 24 points, it would basically cancel out the demographic changes between 2012 and 2016, still leaving Republicans behind by about a point. Of course, whether the GOP can get all those voters back out is another question. And if the GOP narrowly wins by recapturing missing whites in 2016, they won’t be able to count on another wave of missing whites to bail them out in 2020.

None of this means that the GOP couldn’t win Florida in 2016. But there should be serious doubts about whether there’s room for another round of big, additional gains among Florida whites. And once those doubts are raised, the GOP route to victory in Florida looks tough. They’d need a lot to break right in order to squeak out a victory in 2016, let alone afterward. There's the scary possibility that Florida goes the way of Nevada: the next Democrat would win Florida by 9 points if they merely did as well as Kerry among Florida's white voters.

Republicans probably can’t return to Bush’s performance among Hispanics, now that there are so many more Democratic-leaning Hispanics in Florida. But immigration reform would probably help. A Latino Decisions survey found that 39 percent of Florida Hispanics would be more likely to support a Republican who voted for immigration reform, higher than the 31 percent nationally. And although Florida Hispanics are less connected to the immigration debate than their southwestern counterparts, more than 40 percent say they know an illegal immigrant. But even if the GOP would only make slight gains among Florida Hispanics, the pace of demographic change is so great that Republicans just can’t afford to forfeit opportunities to improve in Florida. The stakes are too high. Florida is all but a must-win state for Republicans.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the Florida map showing where Obama performed better and worse than Kerry.