By Zac Anderson, Sarasota Herald-Tribune – Polls show close race between Trump and Biden in Florida, America’s largest swing state. Here are four of the state’s battlegrounds that could tip the 2020 race.
hen polls throughout the summer showed Democrat Joe Biden with a commanding lead in Florida over President Donald Trump, many political analysts were skeptical.
Blowouts just don’t happen in Florida politics.
Since 1996, the average margin of victory for presidential candidates here is just 2.6 percentage points, by far the lowest of any state.
George W. Bush famously carried Florida in 2000 by just 537 votes after a recount.
So it’s not surprising that recent Florida polling has shown a tighter race, setting up a blockbuster final stretch that could tip the entire presidential contest. Biden still holds an advantage, one that has expanded since Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis. But Hillary Clinton also led in Florida at this stage in 2016, and Democrats are cautious after seeing Trump overtake her and win the state by 1.2 percentage points.
The Real Clear Politics average has Biden up:
Biden’s average polling lead here has increased since Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis but still is significantly less than the mid-summer high point. A Suffolk University/USA TODAY poll released on Oct. 6 had the race tied in Florida, while a New York Times/Siena College poll from early October had Biden up 5 points.
Trump won by 1.2 percentage points, or 112,911 votes.
Over the past six presidential election cycles, no state has been a better bellwether of who will prevail in presidential elections, with only Florida and Ohio going for the eventual winner every time.
“We are not a deep blue or deep red state — we really are a purple state,” said University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett, who compared Florida’s average margin of victory and record of voting for the eventual winner to other states in a 2017 paper titled “The Importance of Florida in Presidential Elections.”
Jewett’s conclusion: “Over the past several decades, Florida has become the most important state in U.S. presidential elections.”
In blending the political cultures of the Deep South, Midwest, East Coast and Latin American transplants, America’s third-most populous state is the perfect stew of presidential competitiveness.
The battle lines in Florida are well defined. Democrats have their stronghold in the region from Miami to Palm Beach, while Republicans dominate in the north and southwest portions of the state.
Both parties work to turn out their bases while competing for swing voters along the Interstate 4 corridor.
The overall strategy for winning Florida hasn’t changed much, although the 2020 cycle is creating some new wrinkles, including Biden’s weakness with Hispanic voters and Trump’s slide with seniors.
Polling average at this stage in 2016
Here are four top Florida battlegrounds and how they could factor into the final vote tally:
The Interstate 4 corridor
Florida’s most famous political battleground and a fertile area for swing voters, the region loosely defined by the path of Interstate 4 stretches across Central Florida from Tampa Bay to Daytona Beach.
The I-4 corridor’s political battlefield includes 19 counties contained within two media markets – Tampa and Orlando – that always are near the top for presidential ad spending.
Trump did well along I-4 in 2016, flipping Pinellas County, which former President Barack Obama won twice. In the Tampa Bay area, he performed better than former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in GOP-leaning counties.
But Democrats made gains in the 2018 governor’s race, winning Pinellas back and taking suburban Orlando’s Seminole County, which went for Trump and Romney.
This region exemplifies the political trends nationwide – from Trump’s strength with blue-collar white voters in Daytona Beach, to his narrow victories in swing areas, the qualms college-educated voters have with him in suburbia, and the dominance Democrats show in cities such as Tampa and Orlando, where the party has tapped into a large community of Puerto Rican transplants.
Pinellas may be the ultimate Florida bellwether county. Trump’s appeal to white voters likely put him over the top there and helped him win by big margins in other heavily white parts of the I-4 corridor, such as Volusia County (Daytona Beach).
When discussing Florida’s premier political battleground, “you’re really looking at the I-4 corridor; I know it’s a boring answer,” said Melissa Stone, a Republican strategist who ran former Gov. Rick Scott’s 2014 reelection campaign.
Florida’s largest county is heavily Democratic, but with a significant population of Republican-leaning Cuban Americans.
Hillary Clinton won Miami-Dade by 30 points, which was six points better than Obama in 2012, and she still lost Florida, showing the limitations of a strategy focused on turning out the urban base.
But Democrats have little hope of winning Florida without a big win in Miami-Dade, and that’s a concern for the party in 2020.
Clinton won Florida’s Hispanic vote by 27 percentage points, but an August poll by the Democratic firm Equis Research showed Biden up by just 16 points with these voters.
In heavily Hispanic Miami-Dade, Biden is doing significantly worse than Clinton did in 2016. An October poll by Bendixen & Amandi International and the Miami Herald found Biden up by just 20 points over Trump in Miami-Dade, a slight improvement from his 17-point lead in September.
Trump may have improved his standing in Miami by rolling back Obama’s efforts to restore relations with Cuba. The GOP also is making a strong play for Venezuelan Americans and other immigrants who have fled repressive regimes, by hammering on socialism.
Miami-Dade also is part of the broader South Florida metropolitan region that includes Broward County (Fort Lauderdale) and Palm Beach County, which combined are an important base of support for Democrats.
“The traditional analysis is that Democrats have to run up a big margin in South Florida,” Jewett said.
Fort Myers media market
Strongly Republican, this region includes three counties – Lee, Collier and Charlotte – that are among the oldest in the nation and are known for attracting conservative Midwestern retirees.
Southwest Florida is a key part of the GOP’s turnout strategy and was critical to Trump’s Florida win in 2016. But the region’s conservative tilt obscures the fact that there are pockets of swing voters.
“I would say the areas of focus, from my experience, would be Orlando, Tampa and I would throw Southwest Florida as well in there, which is the Fort Myers market,” Stone said. “You have a lot of gettable voters there who probably have voted both ways.”
More than a quarter of the voters in Lee, Collier and Charlotte are independents. Biden has been advertising in the Fort Myers market as polls show Trump lagging behind where he was in 2016 with older Florida voters, possibly because of coronavirus-related health concerns.
“Republicans, they really need to work and hope that group stays with them,” Jewett said of Florida’s senior vote. “For Democrats, they have to hope to have some inroads.”
Spanning 400 miles from the Alabama/Florida border to the Atlantic Ocean, the North Florida region encompasses four media markets – Pensacola, Panama City, Tallahassee and Jacksonville – and a wide range of communities. Those include popular beach towns, peanut farms, military bases, college campuses, the state Capitol and one of the largest cities in the south.
This region is culturally more like Alabama than Miami. It is heavily Republican, with a few blue pockets. It also is heavily white, but with a significant Black population. It’s the anchor for any statewide win by Republicans.
While Trump is certain to win North Florida, Biden is hoping to improve on Clinton’s performance in this region. A Military Times poll released in September found just 38% of active-duty troops have a favorable view of the president, down from 46% at the start of his presidency. Biden was leading Trump by 4 points with active duty troops in the poll.
Recent reports saying that Trump called American war casualties “losers” and “suckers” could erode his standing with the troops. There are five military bases from Jacksonville to Pensacola.
Biden has been running an ad in North Florida that emphasizes his support for the troops. He also is hoping to boost Black voter turnout in the region. A drop in Black turnout hurt Clinton in Florida. Nearly a quarter of Florida’s Black residents live between Pensacola and Jacksonville.
“I think Duval will come back and we’ll do real well,” Gruters said.
Gruters is bullish on Trump’s chances in Florida, but he acknowledged the state is a toss-up.
“It’s A 50/50 state, regardless of what the polls say,” Gruters said. “It’s a purple state; it can go either way.”
Shift in 2018: Democrats came closer than they did against Trump in the two biggest statewide races on the ballot in 2018 but fell short by extremely narrow margins. They did win one statewide race, though: Florida Agriculture Commissioner. Republican Ron DeSantis won the governor’s race by a margin of 0.4 percentage points.
About this series:
Six states above all others have emerged as the top electoral prizes in the 2020 race for president: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida and North Carolina.
They represent 101 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. These aren’t the only battlegrounds in 2020, but their size and competitiveness has made them the states most likely to decide the presidency.
In this series, the USA TODAY Network offers a closer look at the battlegrounds within the battlegrounds – the keys to the political map in the states that are likely to choose the next president.