Florida’s coronavirus pandemic policies have accelerated the state’s shift to conservatism by emboldening Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) and turning the state into a popular destination for Americans opposed to lockdowns and public health restrictions.
Long a hot spot for retirees and those searching for a warmer climate and generally lower taxes, Florida — seen as an “open” state during the height of the pandemic — drew swaths of Americans seeking a return to the normalcy of a pre-coronavirus world.
“What happened was you had anyone who could relocate to a place that was open like Florida did,” said Sal Nuzzo, senior vice president at the Florida-based, free-market think tank The James Madison Institute. “What they found was a lifestyle and a political atmosphere and a culture that just agreed with them a lot more than where they came from.”
According to Florida’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, more than 300,000 people moved to Florida between April 2020 and April 2021. Move.org found more people moved to Florida than any other state in 2020, followed by Texas, California, and Colorado. And in 2022, Florida became the fastest-growing state for the first time since 1957, according to the Census Bureau.
Meanwhile, data suggests a good portion of these arrivals helped contribute to the state’s rightward tilt. Data vendor L2 found that 46 percent of the almost 400,000 voters who moved to Florida during the pandemic registered with the GOP. Only about 23 percent registered as Democrats.
To be sure, it’s still early to draw firm conclusions about the extent of the role the pandemic played in the state’s political transformation, and some have expressed skepticism that COVID-era migration alone was enough to have a major impact.
“My general view of this is that unless there’s a migration flow shifting in new ways for a long period of time, it doesn’t really affect the voting population that much,” said William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, noting the state’s population of more than 21 million people and 15 million eligible voters.
“We also know that new residents in general don’t vote as much as longer-term residents,” Frey said. “It takes them a while to get settled and understand the voting rules and all of those kinds of things.”
Demographers note that there has been a longer-term trend of people moving to Florida and other southern states for quite some time now. An analysis from Frey and Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program released in 2020 found that in the 50 years since the 1970 Census, the population of Sun Belt states — the name given to states in the southeast and southwest — increased from 48 percent of the nation’s population to 62 percent.
“If you look at the population changes in Florida, the numbers have been going up for many years, so it’s not really just the last couple of years,” said Stefan Rayer, population program director at the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research. “Pretty much since the Great Recession, every year, the population was increasing a little bit more each year.”
On top of that, many of the Americans who have been flocking to Florida since before the pandemic were retirees — a demographic that tends to lean conservative.
“The last generation of retirees basically came of political age during FDR and the New Deal and they were, in many cases, Democrats. But that generation has been dying off, and they’ve been replaced by a lot of baby boomer seniors that are just more conservative,” said Aubrey Jewett, an associate professor at the University of Central Florida’s School of Politics, Security and International Affairs.
‘I started feeling like I don’t belong here’
Still, at least some newly minted Floridians have cited the state’s pandemic policies as a driving reason for their move to the Sunshine State.
Justina Tedesco, a native of Bergen County, N.J., was living in the Garden State at the start of the pandemic but moved to South Florida last year. In New Jersey, she was juggling working from home with parenthood, which for many during the pandemic meant helping their children get through virtual learning.
“I was not the best mom from the whole home-schooling perspective, so that became stressful,” Tedesco told The Hill in an interview. “So that was a really big factor.”
And it wasn’t just home-schooling.
“It constantly affected us from every angle. My home life, the political aspect was getting depressing, everyone you would talk to would get super defensive about any kind of political policies,” Tedesco said. “I started feeling like I don’t belong here.”
A file photo from a DeSantis news conference held in March 2020. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)
Tedesco said that DeSantis was “absolutely” a reason she decided to move to Florida, in addition to what she said were other perks, like the tropical climate and no state income tax.
“He was a huge reason why, because all of our Republican friends in New Jersey and New York and Connecticut, they were all big advocates for DeSantis,” she said. “People moving to Florida are not the ones that you think are moving to Florida, they are people that have similar views aligned to you guys because that’s why they’re moving to Florida.”
DeSantis had just completed his first year in office during the onset of the pandemic in March 2020 when he declared a state of emergency. The governor then imposed a stay-at-home order on April 1, 2020, which was considerably later than other states. According to a report from NPR released the same day that Florida’s stay-at-home order went into effect, over 30 other states had enacted lockdowns before Florida. The governor faced criticism for not implementing an order sooner or enacting more restrictions.
“I think at first, just like political leaders across the country, he was a bit unsure about how to proceed, and that’s not any criticism of him or any other political leader when you’re facing a once-in-a-hundred-year pandemic that nobody has ever faced before,” Jewett said.
But the stay-at-home order did not last long. DeSantis announced Florida could begin the reopening process on April 29.
“The path to reopening Florida must promote business operation and economic recovery while maintaining focus on core safety principles,” DeSantis’s order said. The lockdown officially ended in September.
A rightward turn
The policy was met with resounding approval from conservatives, which DeSantis quickly took note of, christening the state as “the free state of Florida.” In fact, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held its annual gathering in Florida two years in a row in 2021 and 2022.
CPAC 2022. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
DeSantis’s approval ratings went up and down as Floridians navigated the unknown nature of the coronavirus pandemic. But in hindsight, many Floridians appear to have been happy with the state’s handling of the crisis. A poll released by the University of South Florida in April 2022 found that 60 percent of Floridians said they were “very” or “somewhat satisfied” with Florida’s handling of the pandemic.
DeSantis and Florida Republicans saw their biggest victory yet in the 2022 midterms as Republican candidates across the country floundered. For the first time since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, Florida Republicans won both U.S. Senate seats, the governor’s mansion, and the entire Cabinet. On top of that, Republicans gained supermajorities in the state legislature. DeSantis was credited with much of the success.
“It worked. If you win by four-tenths of a percent your first time and then 19 points your second time around, for a politician, that’s the definitive metric,” Jewett said.
Republicans cited many factors that played in DeSantis’s favor, including his pandemic policies, taxes and quality of life in Florida.
“It opened their eyes to it,” said Florida-based GOP strategist Ford O’Connell, referring to people being attracted to Florida because of its COVID-19 policies. “It opened their eyes to it and then they learned about taxes, quality of life and the ability in a lot of cases depending on where they moved to stretch their dollar further and create a better family atmosphere.”
Democrats also attributed DeSantis’s pandemic response to Republicans’ strong performance in the state in 2022, along with a decade of poor state Democratic Party infrastructure and Latino and Hispanic voters being out of sync with Florida Democrats.
“We all talk about that dreaded storm of a hurricane that’s the 1 in 1,000 scenario. That’s what happened to Democrats,” said Christian Ulvert, a Florida-based Democratic strategist. “The danger zone for Democrats where the pandemic once again put Democrats as the protectors of institutions and government, Republicans as the fighters for freedom, people, and rights, and that carried through beyond the 2020 elections and it very much played out in 2022.”
Ulvert also points to what he said was a lower turnout for potential and Democratic-leaning voters.
“The danger for us in ‘22 was when folks started to tell me they don’t hate the governor and didn’t love the Democratic candidate. That’s a hard place to be. How do you break through and win in that environment?” he said.
Ushering in conservative policies
Since leading the post-pandemic red wave in 2022, DeSantis and the state’s Republicans have enacted a series of socially conservative policies, including the Parental Rights in Education Act, also known by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and efforts to ban diversity, equity and inclusion programs in Florida colleges and universities.
A new billboard welcoming visitors to “Florida: The Sunshine ‘Don’t Say Gay or Trans’ State.” (AP Photo/John Raoux)
“I think that from there, he just sort of felt inhibited and free, like, ‘OK, I can just do what I want, and the Republican conservative base seems to love it that I’m a fighter,’” Jewett said.
But Democrats say that, unlike the pandemic policies, they have room to hit back against Republicans in 2024 on these social issues.
“[DeSantis] doesn’t have that backdrop anymore of what people felt through the pandemic,” Ulvert said. “Whether it was health protocols, whether it was businesses having to close, whether it was visitations at a hospital or schools or learning.”
“All of that is going away,” he said.