Carlson greeted the governor with a now-common refrain on the right.
“Governor, thanks so much for coming on,” he began. “It’s kind of hard to imagine. I was just thinking the other day, all of these people moving to Florida, they’re probably going to try and take out DeSantis pretty soon. It didn’t take them long, did it?”
DeSantis, ever a skilled politician, pivoted to his (robust) defense of the “60 Minutes” allegations.
That initial framing from Carlson, though, is interesting. DeSantis has become a human proxy for the default Republican approach to the pandemic. Over the course of the past year, Florida has generally had a less strict approach to the virus, allowing for more business activity and in-person schooling without seeing significant worse health effects. The idea that people have been flocking to the state is a bit of data commonly offered to show how DeSantis has been successful where others haven’t.
But that bit of data isn’t exactly what it seems.
Last month, the Wall Street Journal reported on some of those new Floridians, finding various immigrants who quickly became emigrants. It pointed to data from the state’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research to suggest that the population-growth story didn’t hold up — to argue, as the headline stated, that “Homebuyers Are Heading to Florida During Covid, but Nearly as Many Are Moving Out.”
“Between April 2019 and April 2020, the state’s population increased by 1.83%, or 387,479 people,” the Journal reported. “Between April 2020 and April 2021, however, the population is expected to grow by 1.38%, or 297,851 people.”
That is itself misleading, as the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson reported a few weeks later. Thompson spoke with a demographer from the University of Florida, who said the headline summary was “not an accurate description” of what the research showed.
“We think hundreds of thousands more Americans migrated to Florida last year than moved out,” Stefan Rayer told Thompson.
The data to which the Journal was referring does make that clear. Between April 2020 and April 2021, it’s estimated that net migration to Florida will be just over 345,000 — meaning that 345,000 more people moved to the state than moved away.
That defense aside, Thompson’s assessment of DeSantis’s handling of the pandemic was not that it was exceptionally good. But even on this question of migration, things aren’t what that top-line number would suggest.
If the estimate is correct and 345,000 more people moved to Florida from last April to this one, that’s actually lower than the net migration in the preceding 12-month period. It’s lower, in fact, than any period since April 2016 to April 2017, well before DeSantis was governor.
It seems very fair to assume that part of that decline was itself a function of the pandemic. Most people were not up and moving between states last year, for obvious reasons. But it also means that any anecdotal reports about people surging into Florida are, for now, hard to substantiate as reflecting a broad embrace of DeSantis’s policies.
The more interesting aspect of the Journal’s numbers is that the state’s population growth is expected to slow down, according to the most recent state data. But that’s because of an unusual increase in the number of deaths in the state.
Data on population shifts in Florida go back to the early 1950s. For decades, the natural population change in the state — that is, births and deaths — was net-positive, meaning more people were being born than died. But that has been trending downward in recent years and, in the period from April 2019 to April 2020, dipped negative for the first time. In the 2020-to-2021 period, it’s estimated that almost 22,000 more Floridians will have died than been born, itself probably, to some extent, a reflection of the pandemic.
As you can see, that negative trend is expected to continue. Florida is one of the country’s oldest states, thanks in large part to that migration from other parts of the country. But it means that the natural population change will continue to drop lower over time.
The state also predicts that migration itself will drop, having hit a high in that 2019-2020 period. It’s predicted that the number of people moving to the state each year will hover around 255,000 beginning in about a decade, even as 40,000 more Floridians die than are born.
By that point, the state will be growing less than 1 percent each year.
All of this is broadly beside the point at hand. That point? That citing migration to Florida as evidence of the success of DeSantis’s coronavirus policies carries with it a number of asterisks, and migration won’t make up for the downward trajectory of population growth that will accompany the aging of Florida’s population.
For many Republicans, DeSantis is what they hoped Trump would be: a leader whose handling of the pandemic shows that Democrats overreacted and that stringent containment measures were not as important as alleged. The Atlantic’s Thompson and others have adjudicated that elsewhere. But using “look at all the people moving to Florida!” as evidence to support such a conclusion is itself incomplete.