This is the second in a 10-part weekly series by Real Clear Politics on states that will decide the election.
In 2012, President Obama won nearly every contested swing state, including Florida, which he carried by less than one percentage point. With 29 electoral votes, Florida was the most coveted battleground, a calculation that hasn’t changed in four years. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump don’t see eye to eye on much, but they agree that if Republicans lose the Sunshine State, Trump has no realistic chance of moving into the White House next January.
Yet four years can be a long time in presidential politics—and the past four have been especially eventful in Florida.
The state’s economy has been rapidly diversifying since 2012, with the unemployment rate dropping from 8 percent, slightly higher than the rest of the nation, to 4.7 percent, which is slightly lower.
Mirroring the rest of the country, the percentage of white voters has also declined. Most noteworthy, perhaps, an estimated 500,000 Puerto Ricans have moved to Florida in recent years, most of them registering as Democrats, pushing the share of eligible Hispanic voters to 25 percent of the state’s electorate.
Terrorism hit home in Florida, in the form of a shocking, Islamic State-inspired attack at a gay Orlando nightclub that claimed 49 lives. Violence has increased overall as well. Long known for its weird crime news, Florida now has the dubious distinction of being home to 11 of America’s 100 most dangerous cities.
The overall quality of life has suffered, too, particularly in South Florida. An analysis by Nerd Wallet that ignores the number of beach days and the success of Florida’s sports teams—but which does crunch the numbers on poverty, access to social services, and work-life balance—ranked Miami as the least livable city among the 100 ranked, with neighboring Hialeah coming in third to last.
The rapidly spreading Zika virus has panicked residents of South Florida as well as those who depend on the tourist industry. Disney World had a shock of another kind: a fatal alligator attack on a Nebraska toddler. After housing data company RealtyTrac ranked Florida second for natural disasters, behind only California, Hurricane Hermine swept through the state, wreaking havoc.
In politics, Gov. Rick Scott won reelection in 2014, defeating Charlie Crist, who seems to run every cycle—he’s running for Congress in 2016—while Jeb Bush’s career came crashing down.
Once the state’s most powerful and popular politician, Bush helped raised some $100 million for his own presidential race, but after a string of losses, he wasn’t able to sustain his campaign long enough to make it to the starting gate in the Florida primary. Sen. Marco Rubio, Bush’s protégé-turned-frenemy, did make it that far, but no farther. Rubio ended his presidential campaign in Miami after finishing a poor second, having previously announced his retirement from the U.S. Senate.
The results of the March 15 primary, at least on the Republican side, heralded the biggest change in Florida’s civic life in the past four years—bigger than everything else put together. Asked what was new in the state’s politics, University of Florida political science professor Daniel Smith gave a succinct answer.
“Donald Trump,” he said with a wry chuckle. “That’s the main thing.”
The Trump Effect
“I think that’s partially right,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat who has supported Bill and Hillary Clinton in Florida since 1991. In an interview with RealClearPolitics, he added two other influences: the state’s changing demographics and the Democrats’ relatively newfound talent for political organization. These are the factors that will determine the winner on Nov. 8.
Right now the race is close. Although Clinton still holds a slight lead in the RCP polling average, that lead is shrinking. The former first lady, New York senator, and secretary of state led the New York businessman and reality show tycoon by seven points in April. Trump, who owns resorts in Florida, including a luxury getaway, Mar-a-Lago, along Florida’s Atlantic coast, now trails her by only two.
Clinton outpaces Trump among Florida Democrats, women, African-Americans and Latinos, but Trump closes the gap among Republicans, independents, men, and non-Hispanic white voters, according to a Mason-Dixon survey conducted among 625 registered Florida voters.
“With sharp geographic and demographic splits across the state, the outcome—at least right now—appears to hinge on turnout,” the pollsters wrote.
Traditionally, party professionals view statewide elections in Florida as almost three separate contests in different parts of the state: liberal and heavily Hispanic and Jewish South Florida; conservative and largely white North Florida; and the key I-4 corridor from Orlando to Tampa being the determinative territory. The old saying in Florida was the farther north you go, the farther south you get.
This was always overbroad—it ignored the Florida Panhandle, for one thing—but even with Orlando’s burgeoning growth and the influx of non-Cuban Hispanics, it’s still a pretty good rule of thumb.
A televised debate featuring the four Republicans running for an open House seat in the state’s conservative Fourth Congressional District underscored this phenomenon. Richard A. Mullaney, director of Jacksonville University’s Public Policy Institute, posed a series questions to the candidates.
Do you endorse Donald Trump? (Yes, they said.) Do you favor the deportation of 11 million illegal immigrants? (All answered that they do.) If you were in Congress would you vote to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership? (No way, they said.) Do you favor banning Muslims from emigrating to the United States, at least temporarily? (They talked around this, but none of them denounced the idea).
These are not traditional Republican positions. But in North Florida, at least, they are now. “I call this ‘the Trump effect’ on policy positions,” Mullaney told RCP. “It’s new and it’s pretty pronounced—at least in that district.”
Coming “Home” to Hillary
If Donald Trump has galvanized Florida conservatives who couldn’t get excited about Mitt Romney, as well as independents previously disaffected with both parties, he’s also motivated liberals, Muslims, and minorities to vote against him.
Political scientists often refer to Latinos, millennials, low-income men and women, and especially low-income single women, as “low-propensity” voters. African-Americans, at least in the days before Obama topped the Democratic ticket, were not sure bets to cast ballots in presidential years. These voters, collectively, may spurn Trump, but if Clinton expects to win them, she must mobilize their enthusiasm and their participation.
Latinos, African-American voters, young people and women turned out in force for Obama in Florida in 2008 and again in 2012, when he defeated Romney by just 74,000 votes. Doing so again will not be automatic.
“I think that was in part because of Barack Obama as a candidate, as well as the ground game,” said professor Daniel Smith. “I think the ground game is still going to be there. What they don’t have is a candidate.”
“Clearly there’s work to be done. I think the polls would tell you that,” conceded Mayor Buckhorn. “I think to some degree what is missing versus the ’08 election and the 2012 election is the aspirational component of this, particularly for African-Americans.”
The mayor admitted he’d initially assumed “the same aspirational component to elect the first woman president of the United States,” but he has learned what establishment Republicans learned the hard way this election cycle: the 2016 electorate is more jaded than it was eight years ago.
“Unlike President Obama, who burst onto the public scene unfettered, untarnished, unscarred, Secretary Clinton is a woman who has been in the public arena and involved in public battles for 30 years,” he said. “It’s a different environment. But I think when it’s all said and done, particularly positioned against a Donald Trump, those voters are going to come home, and they’re going to be enthused to come home.”
Is there any reason to believe that Trump could mitigate the damage he’s done to himself with Florida Hispanics? Right now, only 27 percent of Latinos in Florida say they are backing Trump. This may not be enough for him to win the state—Romney got 39 percent in 2012 and John McCain got 42 percent in 2008—and both of them came up short. But Trump has an unlikely ally who may provide some cover for him: Marco Rubio.
The last time Trump and Rubio were doing business they were calling each other names and questioning each other’s manhood. (Senator Rubio was “Little Marco” in Trump’s telling. The senator responded by remarking snidely on the size of Trump’s “hands.”)
That’s all forgotten now, or at least ignored. Rubio reconsidered his retirement, won his primary, and is now in a general election race to hold a Senate seat Republicans desperately want to keep. The erstwhile rivals need each other, and perhaps can assist each other, in the view of Florida grassroots conservative Javier Manjarres.
“Rubio should win his race,” Manjarres told RCP. “But he needs Trump to help him with those he lost because of immigration reform. Trump needs him to deliver Hispanic votes in Miami-Dade County.”
Roger Stone, the Florida-based political consultant who serves as an unofficial Trump adviser, pointed to a recent Florida Chamber of Commerce poll showing Trump leading Clinton, even with “an anemic showing” among Hispanic voters. “No question that he has to improve his standing,” Stone said in an interview. “The key to that is more discussion of his job creation program, his tax reform plan—very dynamic and pro-growth. The Hispanic community in Florida is job sensitive and opportunity sensitive.
“I’ve had very prominent Democratic consultants ask me why Trump is not talking about that more. I hope he will do so.”
“The one thing I have learned over the last three cycles is that data matters, organization matters, turnout matters, and these two campaigns—the Obama campaign and the Clinton campaign—do it better than anybody has ever done it before,” Mayor Buckhorn said. “They know who the voters are, they’re going to go find them, they’re going to go turn them out to the polls by whatever means are necessary, and I think when it’s all said and done, the numbers are going to be just fine.”
A slew of statistics bolster that contention:
— As an indicator of ground organization, Clinton’s campaign had 51 open offices in Florida as of Wednesday. Trump’s Florida team, which boasts of relying on recreational vehicles to be mobile and using social media to organize, has two—in Sarasota and Winter Park. Trump’s team announced openings in Pensacola and Fort Lauderdale starting Saturday and vows to have 25 offices around the state next week.
— Financial disclosure forms reveal that 640 Florida Republicans who gave money to Rubio’s presidential campaign have contributed to Trump’s coffers since the primary, while only 113 Jeb Bush donors opened their wallets for Trump since Bush withdrew from the race.
Even more telling, some of them—including Bush’s top donor—are giving to Clinton. That GOP stalwart, Mike Fernandez, recently wrote a blistering Miami Herald op-ed attacking Trump’s fitness for office. “As a Republican who has contributed millions of dollars to the party’s causes, I ask: Why has our party not sought a psychological evaluation of its nominee?”
— One prominent member of South Florida’s Republican congressional delegation has taken to criticizing Trump in the newspapers for not providing answers on a “huge number of issues.”
— Trump only recently began to purchase TV ad time in battleground states, while Clinton has been spending heavily for months, especially in Florida, where she outspent Trump by more than four times ($29.7 million vs. $7.7 million) as of Sept. 3, according to ABC News and CMAG/Kantar Media.
— Clinton’s campaign reported raising a total of $143 million in August, shared with the Democratic National Committee and state party entities. For her own campaign she had $68 million on hand at the beginning of September. By contrast, Trump and the affiliated GOP entities reported raising $90 million in August, but did not voluntarily disclose how much of that has been spent, which the campaign must report to the Federal Election Commission in mid-September.
Perhaps the “Trump Effect” will be enough to counter all that. Or maybe the Democrats’ organizational advantages will translate into a successful get-out-the-vote mobilization effort that leaves Republicans wondering how they lost Florida for the third straight election and, with it, any chance of keeping the Clintons out of their old home at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.