Florida is the GOP's alternative to California

Goodbye, Golden State. Hello sunshine!

An elephant.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Warren Zevon's song "Desperadoes Under the Eaves" is a classic of disillusionment. Composed when memories of the Vietnam War and Watergate still hung like the haze over the Los Angeles skyline, Zevon considered the erosion of the American dream in its archetypal home. "If California slides into the ocean, like the mystics and statistics say it will," he sang, "I predict this motel will be standing until I pay my bill."

California pulled out of that slump, thriving during the 1980s defense buildup. Half a century later, though, we've entered another moment of doubt about its future. "The California Dream is Dying," writes Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic. It's Paradise Lost all over again, argues Michael Barone in Law & Liberty. Both writers lament the state's declining population, growing economic inequality, and unresponsive political institutions.

The angst is particularly intense among conservatives. Especially to populists and immigration hawks, the very word "California" evokes political, cultural, and demographic doom. But there's another prospect across the continent. For Republicans, California represents the past. The future is Florida.

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When Zevon released his eponymous album in May of 1976, California was a red wall. In just a few months, it would deliver its electoral votes to the Republican nominee for the third time since 1964. In the next contest, former governor Ronald Reagan would beat Jimmy Carter by nearly 20 points.

That's all different now. George H.W. Bush was the last Republican presidential candidate to win California. Democratic nominees have enjoyed overwhelming victories ever since. At the state level, Pete Wilson served two terms as governor in the 1990s. Since Wilson's re-election in 1994, though, Arnold Schwarzeneggar is the only Republican to win statewide office.

It's not only electoral outcomes that have changed. Since the 1960s, Southern California has been synonymous with a powerful brand of suburban conservatism. The oil patch northeast of LA, on the other hand, sustained a middle-american identity derived from Depression-era migration from Oklahoma and other Southern states. In the 1970s, country music hero Buck Owens popularized the anthem "Streets of Bakersfield", which he rerecorded for a hit with Dwight Yoakam in 1988.

Today California is most closely associated with Silicon Valley. The tech industry was supercharged by the Cold War and has a history of eccentric libertarianism. Over the last few decades, though, it has gravitated toward "woke capitalism" that combines progressive rhetoric on social issues with a relentless pursuit of shareholder value.

Finally, the state has experienced ethnic transformation. When Nixon was president, its population was more than 75 percent white. Today, the white share is less than 40 percent and headed down. Hispanics, meanwhile, have gone from a relatively small minority to a plurality. Already in 1980, SoCal punk legends Black Flag satirized fears of racial decline. "We're gonna be a white minority," howled the Puerto Rican-descended Ron Reyes. "We won't listen to the majority. We're gonna feel inferiority."

It's not surprising that these trends are not popular among groups on the losing end. What freaks out conservatives, though, is a particular theory of their cause. On this view, California's left turn was the result of the renewal of mass immigration following the the Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965. Whether legal or illegal, the argument goes, immigrants turned California blue.

This version of demographic determinism was not developed by right-wing nativists. Its most influential expression was the 2002 volume The Emerging Democratic Majority by the progressive journalist John Judis and demographer Ruy Texeira. As is often the case with policy books, the actual argument is more complicated and hedged than the title, but it was read as proof that more immigrants meant more Democratic voters. In the popularized version of the emerging majority thesis, Democrats didn't have to persuade white voters and shouldn't try. Instead, they should simply wait until a "majority-minority" population guaranteed total victory.

The 1994 ballot proposition 187 plays a central role in this narrative. Through the 1980s, Reagan and other Republicans won close to 40 percent of the California Hispanic vote. Seeking re-election during a recession and facing low approval ratings, Gov. Wilson made a proposal to refuse non-emergency services to illegal aliens his signature issue. Wilson won his election. According to emerging majority theory, though, he permanently alienated Hispanic voters, forfeiting Republicans' foothold among the fastest growing ethnic group in California — and the nation.

The argument that immigration killed the state Republican Party has become conventional wisdom. But there are reasons to doubt whether it's accurate.

For one thing, California was already trending blue. In 1988, Dukakis did better in California than any Democrat since Lyndon Johnson. In the three-way race of 1992, Bill Clinton won a plurality by 14 percent. 1994 was a Republican wave year that created the first GOP majority in the House of Representatives since Eisenhower. But it was something of an exception to an existing trend.

The decline of Republican candidates and conservative causes in state politics didn't happen overnight, either. Prop. 187 passed with close to 60 percent of the vote, outpacing Wilson's own commanding share. It was followed by Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action, in 1996, and Proposition 227, which prohibited bilingual education in 1998. In 2003, Democrats tried to damage Arnold Schwarzennegger by publicizing his support for Prop. 187 nearly a decade earlier. It didn't work, although Schwarzenegger would apologize for his earlier stand when running for re-election in 2006.

Most importantly, though, explanations of California's political change that revolve around who was coming in don't take adequate account of who was leaving. The decline of the defense industry after the end of the Cold War, adoption of burdensome regulations on business and development, and a downward spiral of rising taxes and degrading services encouraged an exodus from what Yoakam called the "late great, Golden State." Traditionally a destination for Americans seeking opportunity, since the late '90s California has been a net exporter of population.

Many of the people who left California over the last quarter century were middle and working class whites who had been reliable Republican voters. The smaller number of Americans who continued moving West, moreover, tended to be more educated, wealthier, and more progressive. What turned California blue, journalist Jason Willick argues, was this change in domestic migration patterns combined with immigration. Neither explanation was sufficient on its own.

Based on the 2020 Census, this process of trading the native-born middle and working classes for new immigrants and affluent citizens will cost a California congressional seat for the first time. A relatively shrinking California means the end of an epoch. For almost two hundred years, California stood for the promise of democratic abundance. Compared to the homeless encampments that dominate the news today, though, the slummy motel where Zevon's alcoholic narrator sleeps sounds like paradise.

Despite its affinity with progressive triumphalism and the dubious political analysis on which it relies, the idea that California points toward the nation's destiny has captivated elements of the right. The transformation of California from sort of American arcadia into a "failed state" seems to prove that progressive policies and mass immigration create a self-reinforcing cycle leading to disaster. According to Tucker Carlson, "the signature lesson of the state of California" is that immigration guarantees Democratic success. "No Republican ever will win California, not in our lifetimes."

California may be a lost cause. But what if the California nightmare is not the national model? Reversing the grand narrative that sees America's inevitable future in the West, the East Coast offers a different possibility. The Republican Party may be dying in California. But it's thriving in Florida.

On paper, the state has few of the qualities, such as ethnic homogeneity, decaying industrial base, or dispersed settlement patterns, that are assumed to create a modern GOP bastion. To the contrary, Florida looks a lot like California. It is among the most ethnically diverse states, has one of the largest foreign-born populations, and is among the highest population densities. Agriculture is important, but Florida's economy relies on high-tech and service industries. Although these matters are hard to quantify, it's probably not very religious either.

According to determinist theories, these conditions suggest that Florida should be getting ever-bluer. But the opposite seems to be the case. Although some outcomes have been close, Republicans have won every 21st-century presidential election there when Barack Obama was not on the ballot. In fact, Florida was the only state where Donald Trump increased his margin of victory from 2016 to 2020.

It's not just presidential elections, either. The last Democrat to win election as Florida's governor took office in 1990. Before the 1980s, Florida sent mostly Democrats to Washington. Since 1989, though, it has always had at least one Republican senator and currently has two.

There are other states where the GOP can boast similar success. The unusual thing about Florida is that it's getting more Republican while also growing in population, wealth, and diversity.

To be sure, Florida has unique features that help explain these developments. For one thing, the state is a magnet for retirees thanks to warm weather, cheap housing, and low taxes. Older Americans are whiter, richer, and less likely to have college degrees, all factors correlated with voting Republican.

Like California, Florida's population has been heavily affected by Hispanic immigration. That immigration has different sources, though. Hispanics in California are predominantly of Mexican descent. Like members of all large groups, Mexican-Americans hold a wide range of opinions and identities, including the distinctive Tejano culture of Texas. In California, though, they've historically been associated with the political left and the Democratic Party.

The situation is different in Florida. Cuban-Americans are a longstanding bloc of Republican voters. But Venezuelans and other Latinos who have fled socialist regimes and may be attracted to conservative messages. Donald Trump's strong showing with these voters (as well as with Tejanos) suggests that Republicans don't have an insurmountable problem with Hispanic voters or immigrants as such.

Finally, Florida's friendliness to Republicans doesn't seem a response to Trump in particular. Gov. Ron DeSantis won in 2018 while emphasizing deregulation, school choice, and immigration enforcement. He has remained popular despite controversy about his handling of the pandemic. DeSantis' success in a state that's more demographically, economically, and culturally representative of the country than, say, Missouri, is one reason he's the presumptive frontrunner for the 2024 nomination if Trump does not run.

Republicans' past success in Florida is no guarantee that it will continue in the future. The state is subject to many of the same trends that buoy Democrats elsewhere. As in Georgia and Arizona, for example, domestic migration of highly educated professionals could be a pyrrhic victory if Democratic-leaning voters turn against the business and development-friendly policies that attracted them in the first place.

At minimum, though, Republicans' prospects in Florida should relieve the pessimism that characterizes some conservatives' attitudes toward immigration and cultural pluralism. Florida not only shows that Republicans can win non-white voters, but that they can do so without merely echoing Democrats' positions. That includes immigration, where generalizations about "non-white" or Hispanic voters are not very useful. Distinctions among groups matter, which is why DeSantis has combined support for a crackdown at the Mexican border with sympathy for refugees from Cuba.

Despite sometimes apocalyptic rhetoric, the party's leading populists seem to agree. During the 2020 campaign, Trump released a catchy Spanish-language song in the Miami market; after leaving the White House, he declared Florida his official residence. Last year, Carlson sold his house in Washington, D.C.; seeking less swampy environs he bought property in the Sunshine State.

California Dreaming is old news. Floridays are here.

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Samuel Goldman

Samuel Goldman is a national correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is also an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, where he is executive director of the John L. Loeb, Jr. Institute for Religious Freedom and director of the Politics & Values Program. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard and was a postdoctoral fellow in Religion, Ethics, & Politics at Princeton University. His books include God's Country: Christian Zionism in America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018) and After Nationalism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021). In addition to academic research, Goldman's writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications.