‘Demoralizing:’ Voters are fleeing the Florida Democratic Party. Can it be fixed?

Democrats continue to lose voters while the Republican Party gains voters

Supporters of Democratic candidate for governor Charlie Crist march past a supporter of Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, as they arrive at the Sunrise Theatre ahead of a debate between DeSantis and Crist, in Fort Pierce, Fla., Monday, Oct. 24, 2022.(AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell) (Rebecca Blackwell, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Jackie U. says when she first saw polls saying Democrat Charlie Crist was 15 points behind Republican Ron DeSantis in the 2022 election, she decided it was time to go.

“I told my husband he needed to find another job anywhere but in Florida,” she recalled. “He asked where he should look and I told him ‘New Zealand.’ He said it was too far.”

Deonna N., who has lived in Florida going on 3 years, said she had always been supportive of the Democratic Party, ever since she was able to vote at 18. After the 2020 election, she became a no-party-affiliate voter.

So did David B.

All three voters exemplify the biggest problem facing the Democratic Party in Florida — a lack of faith among voters, causing them to lose support where it’s needed most — at the ballot box.

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Many have changed parties. Some have left the state.

Using Florida’s publicly-available voter rolls, News 6 reached out to dozens of former Democrats who left the party between 2020 and 2022 to ask why. Many declined to be interviewed. Those who did asked that their full names not be used.

The party is taking on new leadership and promising to make changes. But with a conservative super-majority in the Florida House and Senate and a governor aggressively reforming the state across the board, the question is can the party turn its fortunes around?

Hemorrhaging voters

A News 6 analysis of publicly-available Florida voter data by the Florida Division of Elections showed the Democratic Party lost hundreds of thousands of voters between 2020 and 2022, at a time when the state’s population grew and so did many of the other parties.

Florida’s Republican Party has more voters now.

“This is the first time in over 150 years that Republican registration has passed Democratic registration,” said News 6 political analyst Dr. Jim Clark, a professor at the University of Central Florida. “And the showing in the (2022) gubernatorial race was the worst since 1916 for the Democrats.”

News 6 compared the voter registration data from the book closings (the official voter registration count before an election) released in October 2020 and October 2022.

  • The Republican Party in Florida gained 108,382 voters
  • No party affiliate voters in Florida increased by 239,699 voters
  • The Democratic Party in Florida lost 331,810 voters

The loss occurs across all major ethnicities as well.

As of the latest voter registration report by the Division of Elections, Florida Dems have 4,882,042 registered voters — down from 4,971,444 registered voters at the October book closing.

News 6 and sister station WJXT in Jacksonville then took the state’s voter rolls compiled in October 2020 and November 2022 and tried to answer the big question – where did those Democrats go?

By comparing the unique voter identification numbers assigned to every registered voter, we determined:

  • 156,734 Democrats became no-party-affiliate voters
  • 102,356 Democrats became Republican voters
  • 16,294 Democrats joined a minor political party

Other voters are no longer in the voter rolls. They may have moved out of state. They may have died.

Hover over the counties in the map to see data from 2020 and 2022. Use the drop-down menu under the map to see data for individual counties.

“Give us better options, give us better support”

Deonna N., 31, calls Orange County home, a Democratic Party stronghold, but she can’t remember ever seeing much activity from Democrats in the last election.

“I don’t think they were very active in this community,” Deonna said.

Deonna said she became an NPA voter because she didn’t feel Democrats, who had control of the federal government between 2021 and 2022, were doing enough.

“I wasn’t seeing any changes. And the situation wasn’t getting any better for families,” Deonna said. “They’re helping out other countries, but the support isn’t there for our people.”

Deonna did not vote in 2022, feeling the same apathy.

“All of our votes count, but at the same time, what changes will be in place? Are they going to be beneficial to us or to who we’re electing?” she said.

And while she admits to not knowing much about state and local politics, she says people she talked to felt the same way about those candidates – not thrilled.

Deonna said Democrats need to do more to make voters feel like Dems will actually be there for their voters.

“Give us better options, give us better support, help us feel like yes, this is who we want to support us locally or statewide,” Deonna said. “Trusting them to do the right thing, though they may not always be able to do it, but be there across the board.”

“Dangerous group think”

For David B., it was the COVID-19 response. The 32-year-old former Miami-Dade County Democrat became an NPA voter between 2020 and 2022 because he felt Democrats attacked DeSantis’ approach to COVID, not because the policies were dangerous, but because he was “the enemy.”

“I was very happy with Ron DeSantis’ well-rounded approach of protecting the elderly, rolling out the vaccine quickly so it was available to all who wanted it, and making sure that society keeps on functioning,” he said. “I was honestly outraged by the national dialogue on Ron DeSantis’ and his approach, and the push from the left to get my state to impose harsh restrictions.”

David says the COVID debate was a rude awakening of “group think identity politics on the left.” He said the issue, coupled with “wokeism” made him leave.

“I really dislike people trying to prove how “pure” they are,” David said. “Everyone is flawed. And that’s ok! I don’t believe that outcasting or exiling anyone who disagrees with your views is the right approach.”

He specifically criticized the Democrats’ full-throated support for the trans community.

“I believe they should be able to live a happy life and be respected in our society, but that the line is drawn for me the moment we have to redefine what a woman is,” David said.

“If I’d stayed in Florida I would’ve changed my party”

Jacquelin U. and her family left Hillsborough County in December and relocated to Washington State. Her husband got a job, but the housing market means the stay-at-home mom of three will have to find a job too.

Still, she doesn’t regret the move.

“I do know that Florida is gonna get a healthy dose of fascism - so I guess we will see how that fits the people? I know I’m gravely concerned for my friends and my kids’ friends who still live there,” she said.

Jacquelin said changes to civics education this past year were the biggest inkling that she did not like where DeSantis’ policies were heading.

“I knew, I knew, in my heart of hearts, if DeSantis was re-elected he would completely rob my kids of any educational advantages that would benefit their ability to one, go to a competitive college and two, be competitive in their future job markets; and he would also compromise their ability to accept and value their friends,” Jacquelin said.

Jacquelin, who says she worked with local campaigns, felt the Democrats were not present in the community in the last election, and need to do more to support candidates at all levels.

“Assisting with grassroots campaigns with volunteers, partnering caucuses with local non-profit groups who have the same legislative goals, setting up an obscene amount of canvassers and new voter registrations, especially in the underserved communities -- which have been completely blown off by (Florida Democrats),” she said.

Other voters we talked to shared David B.’s criticism of “woke politics” and how the Democrats handled DeSantis’ COVID response. Others also agreed with Deonna N. that the Democrats were not out and active enough.

One viewer, who didn’t want to be identified, questioned why anyone would vote for Democratic candidates in Florida.

“The Democrats have lost their voice and I will not lose my vote… I will not give it up by sticking with one party that can’t get its act together.”

[RELATED: Watch Justin Warmoth and Dr. Jim Clark discuss the results of the 2022 election]

“FDP is starved”

“I don’t know anyone that’s happy with the state of the Democratic Party,” said Sean Shaw, a party leader who ran for Florida attorney general in 2018. “And that’s the thing all wings agree on is we’ve got to get our act together.”

Dysfunction for the Democratic Party in Florida seems to start at the top. That was the message from Manny Diaz, the former chairman of the Florida Democratic Party who resigned in January after pressure from different groups.

Diaz did not go quietly though. In a scathing letter to party members, Diaz listed problems with every aspect of party infrastructure, and said the establishment made it difficult to fix problems from party fundraising to candidate recruiting to voter registration.

“I found obstacles to securing the resources and a long-standing, systemic and deeply entrenched culture resistant to change; one where individual agendas are more important than team; where self-interest dominates and bureaucracies focus on self-preservation,” Diaz wrote.

Diaz said the fact that Democrats have not held power in Florida since the 90s, combined with the unleashing of soft money with the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision has “starved” the Florida Democratic Party of resources that are going to groups and not the party.

Volunteers are difficult to recruit, not least because the party would not make recruitment a priority. He accused the party of not nurturing homegrown talent.

“We have plenty of social media activists, not roll-up-your-sleeves volunteers. We communicate virtually, not personally,” Diaz wrote.

Diaz also blamed the national party for hindering financing and micromanaging the functions of the state party.

Shaw said he though Diaz’s resignation letter had some valid concerns.

“I thought Manny was dealt a bad hand,” Shaw said. “A lot of the national financial money just pulled out of Florida, and the financial disparity was huge.

“But there were other things that can’t be explained away by that financial disparity,” Shaw said, though he didn’t elaborate.

“You better be loud”

State Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said she agreed with the bulk of Diaz’s points. However, they weren’t new problems, and she said he had committed to solving those problems.

“Florida Democrats are always shooting themselves in the foot,” Eskamani said. “Too many egos, personalities, and people who want to insert themselves as the ‘chosen one’ versus working together to build infrastructure. The lack of infrastructure and heavy reliance on corporate money and consultants have also eroded the party’s once closely-held focus on community organizing and instead has become a home for grift.”

Eskamani said Democrats need to get back to the grassroots basics – community organizing. She is building her own voter registration and empowerment organization called People Power Florida.

“I move a lot faster compared to the bureaucracy of the party and want to be able to deliver results quickly versus wait for the party to keep up,” Eskamani said.

Eskamani says she uses the same philosophy in her legislative office.

It’s what Drew T., 37, likes about her.

Drew, who lives in Eskamani’s district, switched before the 2022 election – from an NPA to a Democrat.

Drew said he doesn’t like DeSantis’ policies, but Democrats are not showing up.

“For every thing I feel that DeSantis does wrong, I feel like there could be more outspokenness from the Democrats. They’re just kind of letting things go wild as far as Republicans go,” Drew said.

He believes Democrats need to be more like her.

Shaw believes the state party should be looking to other states that have found themselves in similar situations.

“Michigan, Arizona and Wisconsin are parties that have done very well under bad circumstances and were able to turn things around and win a lot and get a lot of money, and we need to ask them what they did,” Shaw said.

But these are not problems that will be solved overnight, and not without help.

“You have to be out in your community, and you have to be visible, and you have to be fighting. If you are a Democrat in Florida now you better be loud,” Shaw said. “Because it is ridiculous what is happening in this state. That’s what gets people excited. People expect you to fight for your ideals.

“I think that is what so demoralizing to some people,” he added. “They just didn’t see the Democratic Party in the fight.”

On Feb. 25, the Florida Democratic Party elected Nikki Fried, former agricultural commissioner, as the party’s new chairperson.

“Today, we were reminded once again that we are a big tent party, and that together we can reclaim that fundamental truth -- that out of many, we are one. Now is our time to rebuild and to do it together,” Fried tweeted that day.

On the same day, Christian Ziegler, chairman of the Florida Republican Party, had a message of his own – he and the party wanted every Democrat out of office.

“We are doing just fine not giving Democrats a seat at the table in Florida,” he tweeted.

News 6 reporter Mike DeForest and WJXT producer Eric Wallace contributed to this report.

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Christie joined the ClickOrlando team in November 2021.