Post-insurrection exodus from Republican Party was real, but it didn’t last

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Immediately after Donald Trump supporters went on a rampage through the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to block counting of the electoral votes that confirmed Joe Biden’s presidential victory, people responded 1,000 miles away in South Florida.

Within hours, voters began leaving the Republican Party. Within weeks, thousands of South Florida Republicans changed their voter registrations.

Voter registration data show the surge was real. But six months later, something else is clear from registration data analyzed by the South Florida Sun Sentinel: It didn’t last.

By the end of January, some 6,270 Republicans in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties left the party. Republicans left their party at more than five times the rate of Democrats.

It was even more pronounced in the immediate aftermath of the violence in Washington, D.C. In the first day and a half, more than seven times as many Republicans as Democrats changed their party registrations in Miami-Dade County. The ratio of Republican to Democratic switches was almost as high in Palm Beach County. In Broward, the most Democratic of the three counties, it wasn’t as lopsided.

By themselves, the numbers don’t show the outsized nature of the defection from the Republicans because the base of Democrats is so much larger in the three counties.

But the percentage of Republican defections was higher.

  • In the three counties combined, 0.63% of registered Republicans left the party in January; 0.12% of Democrats left that month.
  • In Broward — 0.79% of Republican voters left the party; 0.15% of Democrats left. (Broward is the state’s Democratic stronghold. Republican registration is in third place in Broward, behind no party affiliation/independent.)
  • In Palm Beach County, 0.73% of Republicans and 0.12% of Democrats left their parties in January. (Trump adopted Palm Beach as his home and relocated there when Biden became president. He left his Mar-a-Lago Club resort for the summer and is now staying at his golf club in Bedminster, N.J.)
  • In Miami-Dade County, the rate of Republican departures was much lower, at 0.46%. Miami-Dade County, 0.09% of Democrats. (Miami-Dade County was a major source of strength for Trump in 2020. Though he didn’t win the state’s largest county, he did much, much better than in 2016.)

Another 2,622 Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach county Republicans left in February, continuing to outnumber Democratic defections. By the beginning of March, whatever burst of Republicans were going to leave seem to have done so and the monthly departures declined sharply.

The number of Democrats leaving their party, which was much lower to begin with, also dipped. In March, April, May and June more Democrats than Republicans have changed party registrations in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. In Palm Beach County, Democratic departures started outpacing Republicans in April, and continued in May and June.

The number of people arrested in connection with the riot at the Capitol topped 500 by June 24, including 100 people charged with assaulting a federal law enforcement officer. Many people have moved on, said Sean Phillippi, a Broward-based Democratic campaign consultant and data scientist.

“People have short memories. Life happens. We have an insurrection in January, and people just went on in their lives. There’s just a natural default to inertia, not only with this, but with life in general,” Phillippi said.

The numbers don’t answer key questions: Did voters leave the party because they were disgusted by Trump’s actions and Republican leaders’ continued support for him after the insurrection? Or they were devoted Trump supporters and they didn’t think Republican leaders did enough to support him?

“Trump surprised me. I voted for him in ’20 — and then I regretted that,” said Jaime Mendal, who had written in Republican Mitt Romney’s name in 2016.

He said he left the Republican Party and switched his voter registration to no party affiliation after the insurrection.

“To me that was a turning point, really. We could have very easily seen a different outcome that day. It’s something that I never could have imagined that the Republican Party could be part of. As much as I’m a conservative, until Trump is out of the party, I’m not a Republican,” Mendal said. “I’m still conservative.”

Mendal isn’t the kind of voter Republicans want to lose. He’s young — 31 — and had been a Republican since he first registered to vote. Mendal works in a family company that makes and distributes pet treats. He’s a member of the Town Council in Golden Beach in northeast Miami-Dade County.

Most of his friends, who are mostly Republican or conservative, didn’t see it the same way. “None of them saw this as a turning point like I did,” Mendal said.

One Fort Lauderdale voter said she switched because “most of the people that are supposed to represent us don’t give a damn about us.”

She said she loved Trump and “will not abandon him because he is the only one that does care about ‘We the People.’ I am sure that there were others who abandoned the party did it for the exact same reason.”

The voter, age 65, didn’t agree to have her name used. Records show she changed her registration from Republican to independent.

The number of departures pales in comparison to the region’s 980,000 Republicans and 1.7 million registered Democrats. But in Florida, big, important statewide elections are often decided by exceedingly small margins.

The 2018 race for U.S. Senate, in which then Gov. Rick Scott defeated then U.S. Sen. Rick Nelson, was decided by just 10,033 votes — out of 4.2 million votes. The race for Agriculture Commissioner that year — which turned the winning candidate, Nikki Fried, into a top-tier Democratic candidate for governor in 2022 — was decided by just 6,753 votes out of more than 4 million cast in the contest.

For those who left their party homes, “the difficulty we’re having is discerning how deeply the disgust with the party goes,” said Susan MacManus, a retired university of South Florida political scientist. Does it mean people will stay home or vote Democratic in the future? Or is it rather that “some people get disgusted momentarily?”

The early 2021 surge in party switches as Trump was fighting to hold on to the presidency and Biden took over was unusual.

Political experts say it’s unusual to have a noticeable number of party switches in a non-election year. Voters generally don’t change their party registrations unless they have a reason. It sometimes happens in advance of primaries when people want a voice in who a party is going to nominate for president or another office. Sometimes it happens when people move and need to update their registrations.

From Jan. 6, the date of the insurrection, through the end of January, 3,118 people switched party registrations in Miami-Dade County. More than three out of every five, 64%, was someone leaving the Republican Party.

During the same period starting on the day the electoral votes were counted for Trump in 2017, there were 88% fewer party switches, just 380 total, in Miami-Dade County. Just one in five was someone leaving the Republican Party.

In Broward, 4,150 people switched party registrations in January. Just over half, 54%, were Republicans. In January 2017, only 853 Broward voters switched their affiliations, and just 16% of them were Republicans.

Similar data wasn’t available for Palm Beach County, election officials said, because the Supervisor of Elections Office said it changed computer systems since 2017.

Most Democrats and Republicans who left one of the two big political parties didn’t venture all the way over to the other side. Most became no party affiliation/independent voters.

“They can’t quite go the next step,” MacManus said.

In Florida, someone who wishes to remain away from a political party registers as “no party affiliation,” or NPA. The state also has an “Independent” party. Some people, confused by the name, decide they want to be independent and end up inadvertently registering in that party when their actual preference is to register as an NPA.

  • Among South Florida Republicans who left the party through June, 20% became Democrats and 78% became independent voters.
  • Among Democrats who left, 25% switched their registration to Republican and 74% went independent.

Because a larger number of Republicans than Democrats changed registration, it ended up as a net plus for Democrats. Among those who’ve changed from NPA to a party this year, more have become Democrats than Republicans in every month in each county.

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But political party insiders and analysts said people becoming independents doesn’t mean former Republicans are suddenly going to vote for Democrats or vice versa.

Richard DeNapoli, the Broward Republican state committeeman and former county party chairman, said voting data show that majority of people who left a party are likely to continue voting for their former party’s candidates. “If you have a Republican that switched to NPA, most likely they’re going to continue voting Republican.”

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