By Jim Saunders, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Florida elections officials last week released voter-registration numbers for the Nov. 3 general election. Here are seven takeaways as Florida is again a key state in the battle for the White House:
— THE BIG PICTURE: Democrats have traditionally led in voter registration in Florida, but Republicans are inching closer — while many voters don’t want to be identified with either party. In all, 14,441,869 people are registered to vote in November, with 36.7 percent registered as Democrats, 35.8 percent registered as Republicans and 26 percent registered with no party affiliation (the remaining voters are registered with third parties). Compare that to the 2016 general election, when Florida had 12,863,773 registered voters. Democrats made up 37.9 percent, while Republicans made up 35.4 percent and unaffiliated voters made up 24 percent. Of course, registration numbers don’t tell the whole story: Republicans have dominated state politics since the late 1990s.
— WHERE THE PEOPLE ARE: While Democrats lead in voter registration statewide, they top Republicans in only 19 of the 67 counties. But Democrats are buoyed by having more registered voters in all seven of the most heavily populated counties: Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Orange, Pinellas and Duval. Combined, those counties have 2,969,896 registered Democrats, or 56 percent of the party’s statewide total. Meanwhile, those counties have 1,992,914 registered Republicans, or 38.6 percent of the GOP’s statewide total. Pinellas is the most evenly divided large county, with registered Democrats outnumbering Republicans by 5,034 voters. In Broward, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 364,352 voters.
— RURAL DEMOCRATS NO MORE: When Republican President George W. Bush was elected in 2000, Florida had 20 counties where the GOP held registration leads over Democrats. But during the past two decades, Republicans have systematically gained the registration advantage in rural counties in much of the state, drawing people who traditionally had been conservative Southern Democrats. Take, for example, Baker County in Northeast Florida. In 2000, Democrats made up 83 percent of the county’s registered voters. This year, Republicans make up 61.4 percent. Similarly, Democrats made up 83.4 percent of the voters in Northwest Florida’s Holmes County in 2000. This year, Republicans make up 64.2 percent.
— NO PARTY, NO PROBLEM: As the race between Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden enters its final two weeks, a couple of things are clear: Republican and Democratic voters are polarized, and Florida is a key battleground. That could make the steadily growing number of unaffiliated voters particularly important. The number of people registered without party affiliation increased from 3,089,929 in 2016 to 3,753,286 this year. And while registering without party affiliation shuts voters out of primary elections, the percentage of voters walking away from parties has soared during the past two decades. In 2000, 15.5 percent of voters were registered without affiliation, compared to the 26 percent this year.
— RACIAL DIVIDE: The new registration numbers show a dramatic difference in the racial makeups of the two major parties. The state lists 1,526,297 registered Democrats as “Black, not Hispanic,” or about 28.8 percent of the Democrats’ overall total. Meanwhile, it lists 2,432,098 Democrats as “white, not Hispanic,” or about 45.9 percent of the Democrats’ overall total. Meanwhile, the numbers show 68,383 Republicans as “Black, not Hispanic,” or about 1.3 percent of registered Republicans statewide. The numbers list 4,212,474 Republicans as “white, not Hispanic,” or nearly 81.5 percent of the overall registered GOP voters.
— IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FIGHT: Central Florida is like a magnet for candidates, operatives and reporters during major elections, as they try to divine which way the legendary Interstate 4 corridor will go. The new registration numbers reflect how Orange and Osceola counties have become Democratic strongholds, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans by 152,788 voters in Orange County and 45,265 voters in Osceola County. But Republicans dominate in registration in other areas of Central Florida, including Brevard and Lake counties. And Republicans make up 56.6 percent of the voters in Sumter County, which is a regular stop for GOP candidates because of The Villages retirement community.
— CORNERING THE MARKETS: While Democrats might dominate in major urban areas, the GOP runs up huge voter-registration margins in Northwest Florida, Northeast Florida and Southwest Florida. Consider Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton and Bay counties in Northwest Florida: Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by 201,081 votes in those five counties. And while Duval County has more registered Democrats than Republicans, consider the four counties that surround it: Nassau, Baker, Clay and St. Johns. Registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by 144,789 voters in those counties, which include a mixture of suburban, beachfront and rural areas. In Southwest Florida’s Lee and Collier counties, meanwhile, Republicans outnumber Democrats by 138,480 voters.