August 8, 2023 - 6:00pm

A potential face-off on Fox TV between Florida’s Ron DeSantis and California’s Gavin Newsom may not remind anyone of Lincoln versus Douglas, or even Kennedy and Nixon. But it would mark a huge improvement to a political campaign dominated by two old men who are losing touch with reality.

If not too overwhelmed by cultural issues like parental rights, transgender policy, abortion and censorship, the DeSantis-Newsom debate could provide a useful discussion of America’s national future. Indeed, it could provide a debate over two models of governance: one focused on elite industry dominated by a progressive cultural agenda, and one more amenable to grassroots capitalism coupled with an allegiance to the traditional values of the middle class.

In recent years, the relationship between California and Florida has changed dramatically. For the past century, the Golden State has been the clear winner in cutting-edge industries like technology and entertainment, as well as agriculture and aerospace. In comparison, Florida seemed like a giant nursing home, known for the kind of mindlessness so well portrayed in Carl Hiaasen’s novels.

But Florida is no longer just a joke. Despite DeSantis’s attempt to run as Grand Inquisitor of the “woke”, the on-the-ground reality suggests that Florida makes a more compelling economic model than California. The contrast in performance is truly stunning. Florida is generating many more jobs than its rival state and gaining momentum in tech and other fields. Over the past five years, Florida ranked fifth in job growth and California 37th.  US News recently ranked the state 29th in economic strength, behind Florida’s #7 ranking.

Considering that California was once seen as a national exemplar, Newsom should also be made to defend how his state spent billions on green investments, transit, education, and promoting dense development, but ended up with America’s highest poverty rate and a stunning lack of upward mobility.

More important still may be demographic changes. For years, the best, brightest and most energetic headed to California for good reason — great universities, ideal weather, and spectacular scenery. But over the past decade, and even more so after the pandemic, the migration patterns have changed, with Florida — along with Texas, Tennessee, the Carolinas and Arizona — making big gains. Between 2020 and 2022, Florida gained 600,000 migrants, the most of any state, while California haemorrhaged over 800,000 — once again the leader, albeit in the wrong direction.  

To a remarkable extent, California could be turning from a dynamic locale to an also-ran state, with a now rapidly ageing population, a diminished birthrate and loss of young people. After projecting huge growth in the coming decades, the state department of finance now estimates that California will actually stagnate, and even lose, population between now and 2060. Los Angeles alone is expected to have 1.7 million fewer residents. Even long-time California policy gurus like Bill Fulton now admit the state has lost its “superpower” status; his role model for the future seems to be New York, which has shrunk from its status as the Empire State to something resembling a stagnant and depopulating European state, living off past glories.

If DeSantis can focus not on his anti-woke crusade, which appeals primarily to hardliners unlikely to reject Trump, but instead on his solid record in sparking Florida’s economic resurgence, he could score numerous points. Unfortunately, so far in this campaign, he has lived up to the moniker of the “stupid party”, emphasising the wrong issues to appeal to voters to the Right of the party. If he continues in this vein, the debate will be won by Newsom, despite his awful record.

Joel Kotkin is the Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and author, most recently, of The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class (Encounter)