We all know that it all comes down to Florida, but why? Since at least 1996, Florida’s Republican/Democrat split has been within six points, most infamously in 2000 when Bush won the election though Gore won the popular vote. Over the last ten elections, Florida voted with the winner nine times. This year promises to be no different, as it is the opinion of most political scholars that Trump cannot win the presidency without Florida. Given the state’s deep segmentation, embattled districts and diverse populations, that may be more difficult than ever.
In order to qualify as a swinger, a state must have a demographic makeup similar to the nation as a whole, have been a predictor of success in previous elections, receive widespread media attention, and have close statewide opinion polls. Florida has each of those characteristics in spades, along with Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“It’s a very, very competitive state,” said Susan MacManus, professor of political science at the University of South Florida. “According to recent registration stats, there’s only a difference of 256,000 between Republicans and Democrats. You also have to look at the emergence of the NPAs (No Party Affiliation) and minor parties, as well as the political rise of the millennial generations.”
In fact, 18- to 34-year-olds comprise the largest generation in the workforce and the largest contingency of general election voters. Most of them are registered NPA and do not like either of the traditional candidates on the ballot this year.
“There’s this notion that Florida is a retiree state, so when you come here, you just talk about Social Security,” said MacManus. “That’s not true anymore.”
It was not always this way, of course. Florida used to be just another state that went red or blue. Mostly Democratic after Reconstruction, demographics shifted slightly to give Republicans the edge in the 1950s. At the same time, its population grew rapidly from eight electoral votes during WWII to 29 today, an increase unmatched by any other state except Texas. Add in Cubans, retirees and tourism service workers, and you have an economically and politically diverse state. Whenever it appears one party may have a tenuous hold, another population statistic will shift to throw the balance.
MacManus pointed to the increase in the number of Hispanics, blacks and new registrants as evidence that Florida’s population makeup is changing, and with it, messaging within the state must change as well. Most of these individuals, especially Puerto Ricans who left their own country because of economic collapse, do not feel party loyalty like many American natives do, and so these individuals are up for grabs. Both Democrats and Republicans are working hard to court that demographic who primarily live along the I-4 corridor, a section of the state which accounts for 44 percent of Florida’s voting population.
It is also no longer true that Cubans are a majority of the Hispanic electorate. There has been a massive generational shift in recent years with younger and more diverse Hispanics making up a majority of that minority’s population. Younger Cubans are more Democratic, and while you may think that blacks always go to the Democrats as well, there has been some friction recently between native blacks and South American blacks.
“We have more diversity than ever, even within our various subgroups,” said MacManus.
Asians are also a growing segment of the population, now at 2 percent. Most of these individuals can be found living near military bases and other areas of high-tech concentrations. This emergence of Asians is most likely to register independent though vote Democratic.
It seems like a great many of these minorities are in the Democrats’ back pocket, or at least easily courted by them. While that may be true, Republicans have a firm hold on what may turn out to be a secret weapon this election: working class white voters, alienated from Washington, who have never voted before or perhaps are not even registered. Trump’s game plan has always been to win by expanding the electorate and turning out previously “low-energy” voters. And while longer-term demographic changes may more handily ensure Democratic victory, there are currently a lot of disenchanted white voters in the North, Northwest and Southwest.
“Down there in Naples and Sarasota is where you’ll find a huge number of high-turnout, older Republican voters,” said MacManus. “They’ve typically been very dependable, though this election there will be an unknown proportion who don’t vote, as well as some traditionally Republican women who cross over. By the same token, there are some Democrats—especially white males—who can’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton, and they will cross over the other way.”
This leaves both candidates in the unenviable position of capturing new populations while trying to ensure their dependable base remains intact. This is where the pivot we often hear so much about comes into play. In political science, a pivot is what occurs when a candidate will risk alienating a small portion of their voters in order to capture a larger contingency of previously off-limits voters. In Florida, a successful pivot cannot happen without visiting almost the entire state, including the oft-ignored Northeast.
“Florida has the most electoral votes of any swing state,” said MacManus. “It’s a huge predictor of success. No state looks more like America than Florida. A Republican cannot win without Florida—and cannot win Florida without visiting each of its regions. You cannot ignore the Panhandle, because they’re high turnout, but Tampa is the biggest media market, and of course Orlando is a third of registered voters. A lot of candidates will ignore Jacksonville, but that’s crucial and could send one candidate or another over the slim margin of victory.”
So who does MacManus think has the best shot?
“The polls right now are slightly favorable to Clinton, and registration trends give her a 0.9 percent edge, but so many crucial things haven’t unfolded yet,” said MacManus. “Typically, presidential debates, for example, will move Floridians more than most other states. A misstep at the debate could really change everything.”
There’s too much that’s unpredictable right now, according to experts, and Florida is within the margin of error within most polls. While an aggregate of polls puts Clinton at about 75 percent of winning the Sunshine State and Trump at 25 percent, it should be noted that those odds were inverted just a month ago.
Until November, we will continue to see the state play a massive role in the conversation around politics and political forecasting. Expect to see lots of media ad buys and frequent visits, and keep a close ear out for speeches that try to cater to everyone while alienating no one.