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School Choice Moms

Ron DeSantis
photo of Ron DeSantis by Gage Skidmore

Now that the dust has cleared, Florida’s election results may have something to teach national Republicans – especially the results propelling Rick Scott to the U.S. Senate and Ron DeSantis to the governor’s mansion.

Based on the available data, both Scott and DeSantis owe their recent victories not to the white Floridians who backed them, but to members of the state’s minority communities who crossed party lines to offer their support. For Scott, this meant African-American and Latino men; for DeSantis, even more dramatically, it meant African-American women.

Exit polls, while imperfect, allow us to take a more granular look at who voted for each candidate. Most major news outlets, with the exceptions of Fox News and The Associated Press, use polling company Edison Research to conduct these studies, which means we can compare data across outlets. For the numbers in this post, I used CBS to provide percentages of how each demographic broke for governor and the Senate race; I referred to CNN for the percentage of the total electorate that each demographic section represented. By applying that percentage to the total votes cast, I could compute roughly how many votes a percentage point of a demographic represented.

First, let’s consider DeSantis’ victory. African-American women gave DeSantis 18 percent of their vote, according to the exit poll – twice the share they gave Rick Scott. If you apply the exit poll numbers to the actual vote totals, and set aside the polls’ margin of error, that translates to 58,916 extra votes for DeSantis. DeSantis defeated Andrew Gillum, Tallahassee’s Democratic mayor, by 34,573 votes. Without those extra votes from African-American women going to DeSantis, Gillum would now be preparing to take office as Florida’s first black governor.

Many observers thought that Gillum could expect a wave of enthusiasm for his historic run. In reality, he received a lower percentage of the African-American vote than Bill Nelson, Scott’s Senate race opponent. What happened?

Andrew Gillum, meet the “school choice mom.”

Although voters make their choices for a variety of reasons, it seems perfectly reasonable that DeSantis’ outspoken support for charter schools and other school choice initiatives, and Gillum’s opposition to those choices in concert with the public education industry, explain a lot of the difference. Gillum campaigned on closing down the tax-credit scholarship program enacted during Jeb Bush’s term as governor. DeSantis pledged to defend and even expand that program, which allows parents to use earmarked funds to send their children to private or charter schools.

The Wall Street Journal reported that more than 100,000 low-income students currently participate in the program. Most of them are not white, and most of their mothers who vote are probably registered Democrats. By threatening their ability to choose where their children attend school, Gillum lost the support of a significant number of them. This should not be surprising. Moms in any demographic want whatever is best for their kids. In this case, that desire seems to have clearly overpowered what we can assume is a near-universal distaste in this demographic for President Trump, with whom DeSantis closely aligned himself during his campaign.

DeSantis only polled 8 percent among African-American men. Even that modest showing, however, is an improvement over the GOP’s performance when Barack Obama was on the ballot. In 2012, exit polls estimated that 95 percent of Florida African-Americans backed Obama.

In contrast to DeSantis, Scott polled better among minority men than with women (as is more typical with GOP candidates). He got 12 percent of the African-American male vote, and actually led Nelson among Latino men, 51 to 49 percent, which is a little better than his overall statewide tally of 50.1 to 49.9 percent. Those “excess” votes from African-American and Latino men compute to 19,683 and 9,819 respectively – more than accounting for the total of 10,072 votes by which Scott turned the incumbent Nelson out of office.

Scott might have done even better among African-Americans if he had not been the most visible defender of the state’s system of stripping voting rights from nearly all convicted felons, except those who endured a lengthy and unpredictable process to appeal for restoration of their civil rights. We changed our state constitution handily, with 65 percent of the total vote, to eliminate that system and restore voting rights to most convicted felons after they complete their sentences and parole.

Even so, Scott’s relative overperformance was critical to his victory. My guess is that he did well in the Latino community because of the smooth way the state welcomed huge numbers of displaced Puerto Ricans following the 2017 hurricanes, including the strong economy that provided many of them with job opportunities they would never have had on the island. Those jobs, particularly in male-heavy industries like construction, benefit the African-American community too. That’s not enough to make most black Floridians support Scott – or any Republican, for that matter – but it probably helped him attract enough votes to win.

I’m not sure even DeSantis’ strong showing with “school choice moms” qualifies as a Republican breakthrough. But it does point to a way that Republicans can make progress with Florida’s growing minority population. It is no big secret: Show up. Fight for policies that actually benefit residents, and especially family heads, who tend to be more politically engaged. Explain how what you are doing can make lives better for these voters and their children. Either get out in front on civil rights issues like voting rights, or at least stay out of the way, as DeSantis did.

If a Republican presidential candidate can match DeSantis’ showing with minority voters in 2020, Florida’s electoral votes are likely to stay with the GOP. That would be handsome payback for a modest investment that Republicans should be making anyway.

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