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ORLANDO, Fla. (The Hill) – Florida is starting to look like Trump country.

Long the nation’s largest – and most unpredictable – battleground state, Florida’s politics have transformed at a breakneck pace in recent years, becoming more and more conservative even as hundreds of thousands of new residents have poured into the state, often from bluer territory.

The political sea-change happening in the Sunshine State owes to a perfect storm of circumstances – including shifting demographics and a poorly organized state Democratic Party.

But some also put a heavy emphasis on the pandemic, which they link to the population shift.

“There’s one word and it’s COVID,” said Nelson Diaz, a Republican lobbyist and former chair of the Miami-Dade County GOP. “It made red states redder and blue states bluer. It gave people like [Florida Gov.] Ron DeSantis a platform to stand for freedom and it gave Democrats in Democrat states a plan to stand for mandates.” 

Diaz said that he believes that the state’s embrace of conservative policies has drawn many recent arrivals to Florida.

“They are Republicans fed up with their blue laws in their blue states or they’re just independent-minded people to begin with and they’re just fed up with these blue states and they’re enjoying the freedom that Florida has to offer,” he said.

Florida’s population growth has been staggering. Between July 2020 and July 2021, the state’s population grew by more than 211,000, a net migration surpassing every other state, according to Census Bureau estimates. Orlando and Jacksonville were among the 10 fastest-growing metropolitan areas between 2010 and 2020.

Many of Florida’s new residents also appear to be coming from more Democratic-leaning states. In 2019 alone, an estimated 28,000 people moved to the Sunshine State from California; 28,000 moved from New Jersey, while a staggering 57,000 moved from New York, according to Census Bureau data from that year.

DeSantis has seized on the pandemic as a launching point for an ultra-conservative and ambitious policy agenda that has catapulted him to stardom among Republicans nationally and turned him into a prospective contender for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination. 

Over the past two years, he has repeatedly bucked the advice of federal health officials in favor of a laissez-faire approach to the outbreak, earning him the praise of conservatives who have come to see Florida as a refuge from the pandemic-era restrictions and mandates imposed in other states.

Florida’s importance to the modern GOP has only increased since then. Now in his post-presidency, former President Donald Trump has set up shop at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, drawing Republican candidates, donors and luminaries.

Meanwhile, DeSantis has put conservative grievances and culture war issues at the center of his agenda. In March, he signed a law banning public school teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity with students through the third grade. After Disney, the state’s largest private employer, criticized the bill, state Republican lawmakers and DeSantis moved to revoke the company’s 55-year-old special tax district. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe vs. Wade, as a leaked draft document last week showed, it’s sure to be another issue that will excite conservatives, further dividing the electorate in the state.  

Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida, said that Florida’s rightward shift is also due to longer-term changes. For one, the state’s Hispanic population has grown significantly over the years and Republicans have made steep inroads among many of those voters.

At the same time, Florida’s massive population of seniors and retirees has become more conservative. More importantly, Jewett said, “they register and they vote.”

“Basically what’s happened is the older senior generation – say the New Deal generation – who were pretty loyal Democrats, they’re dying off and they’re being replaced by the Baby Boomer retirees and many of them are moving to Florida and they’re very Republican,” Jewett said. 

But Jewett noted that Florida voters often aren’t as conservative as the state’s political leaders, and suggested that the rightward lurch of Florida’s politics may be driven more by elected officials like DeSantis than by the electorate as a whole.

“I think there’s a question of how much has mass public opinion changed in Florida, or is it more elite opinion, where the Republicans who are elected are pushing more conservative policies,” Jewett said.

Still, the numbers appear to favor Republicans. A Morning Consult poll released late last month found DeSantis’s approval hitting 56 percent, putting him in a strong position as he heads into his reelection bid this year.

The results of the 2020 presidential election in Florida also reflected the GOP’s growing strength. Trump carried the state by close to 3.5 percentage points, nearly tripling his 2016 margin of victory in the Sunshine State. 

Perhaps even more notable were his gains in Miami-Dade County, a Democratic stronghold and predominantly Hispanic area. In 2016, then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won the county by nearly 30 points. Four years later, in 2020, President Biden carried it by just over 7 percentage points.

Since then, Florida’s political trajectory has only gotten bleaker for Democrats. Late last year, the number of registered Republican voters overtook the number of registered Democrats, a sharp change since former President Barack Obama won the state in 2008, when there were 700,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.

“When you look at what’s taken place from a numbers perspective, there’s tremendous reason for concern,” Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based pollster and consultant whose firm helped Obama’s campaign win the state in 2008 and 2012.

“It’s become MAGA in exile,” Amandi explained. “Florida is now the cradle for the MAGA movement. And then you have DeSantis, who is Trump’s protege or his biggest competitor. The sentiment is if you believe in the MAGA philosophy, Florida is where you want to be.” 

It’s not uncommon now, in what was once staunch-blue terrain, to see Trump or “Let’s Go Brandon” flags outside of homes and on boats cruising down the intracoastal waterways. 

“The fundamental problem is that the Democratic Party brand is completely tainted in the state of Florida,” Amandi argued. “Republicans have defined the party as the party of socialism and have said Democrats are playing footsie with communism.”

The Democratic Party, he added, needs to put in the work of rebranding and redefining now. 

“If a caretaker abandons a property, they can’t be shocked when the base of the house starts to rot from within,” he said. 

“You don’t do that in three months before an election,” he said. “That takes years, and it has to be nonstop and unrelenting.”

Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who is based in the Sunshine State and served as Florida director for Obama’s 2008 campaign, said there are a couple of problems that have led to the rise of Republicans in Florida: An above-average percentage of white voters who did not go to college and Hispanics, who have been gravitating over the past couple of cycles to the Republican Party. 

“You can see the shift in numbers,” Schale said. “Clearly Florida is more uphill than it was going back a few years…And I don’t think 2022 is going to be a great year for my party.”

“If we don’t address those two red flags, our pathway gets really narrow,” he said. 

During Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, Schale said he and his team sought to “root” their candidate in the state while consistently showcasing the issues voters care about. 

“We ran more ads talking about our vision for taxes versus their vision for taxes more than any other issue. Because why do people move to Florida? Because it’s traditionally a place that had a low-cost living and a low tax base. We pounded that message for three or four or five months.”

Democrats, he said, need to start pouring in time and investments and organizing efforts on the ground, including registering voters on a year-round basis, not just a few months before an election, telegraphing a strong message and running to candidates “that can speak to voters who don’t necessarily always agree with Democrats.”

“This is all about moving 3, 4, 5 percent of voters,” he said. “It’s all about the margins….And if we do all that there’s no reason we can’t win.”

But the problems don’t just reside in Florida, Schale said. 

“There are definite challenges but those challenges aren’t unique to my state,” he said.