Unknown-1Ever since the debacle of the 2000 presidential election, there are special associations between presidential politics and the state of Florida.  That year, Florida’s contingent of delegates was pivotal to the outcome of the very close race between Al Gore and George W. Bush. A virtual tie vote in the state, combined with massive mismanagement of the election in some counties, led to a notorious recount of ballots that was only stopped by the intervention of the US Supreme Court. 16 years later, some still debate whether President Bush rightfully or wrongly became president because of what happened in Florida.

Since then, Florida has presumably gotten better at running elections.  To address one common issue, the long and frustrating lines at polling places, voters can now vote in person as early as two weeks before the actual election date. A full third of the votes are likely to be cast by early voting and mail-in absentee ballots.  By March 15, the actual date of the Florida primary, much of the Florida electorate will already have voted.

This means that all the campaigning, robo-calls, and commercials that Floridians are now bombarded with are actually a bit too late for the primaries.  Or rather, they’re not just about the primaries. They are already laying groundwork for the general election in November. And to some extent they are also directed at party establishment figures and funders who are watching Florida to see how the candidates handle campaigning in this tough but crucial state.

The Primary

Florida is currently the third largest state, behind only California and Texas — which means it has lots of delegates.  On the Republican side, Florida’s is a “winner-take-all” primary, meaning that all of its 99 delegates will go to the one candidate who received the highest vote count. On the Democratic side, the delegates will be awarded proportionally to the popular vote.

Trump, who has significant real estate holdings in Florida (including the gaudy Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, where he held his victory rally after Super Tuesday) is currently projected to win Florida’s Republican primary.  Florida’s high delegate count, in turn, means that his win will be a giant step toward the Republican Party nomination. But anti-Trump forces—both Democrats and Republicans—are working hard to defeat him here.  In recent weeks, the major media markets in Florida have been inundated with anti-Trump attack advertisements.

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But this may not be enough to help Trump’s major contender, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who has staked his flagging campaign on being able to win in his delegate-rich home state. Trump is currently beating Rubio by at least 6% in the polls, but the high Republican voter turnout (as measured by early voting) is generally seen of a sign of an even bigger Trump margin. Reports have also surfaced about poorly-attended Rubio rallies, even in his home base of South Florida. On the Democratic side, Clinton is ahead in the polls, and common opinion has her winning with the state’s sizable black and Latino population.  But Sanders has made an impressive showing here, with rallies in the thousands in several locations around the state.

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Bernie Sanders at a rally in Gainesville FL; photo by Matt Stamey, Gainesville Sun

Florida’s Changing Electoral Map

Not so long ago, election watchers used to see Florida as two states. In the northern half, it was seen as a classically Southern state, like the neighboring states of Georgia or Alabama, dominated by socially conservative white voters and a smaller population of more liberal black voters.  In the subtropical South, the political scene was dominated, on the one hand, by the conservative Cuban community and by retirees from other parts of the US, especially liberal enclaves like New York, New Jersey, and Chicago. These older voters are often liberal, politically-engaged, and ready to help fund political campaigns.  Florida continues to have something of a reputation as an “ATM state” — that is, a state where candidates go to raise money.

Despite sizable pockets of liberal voters, Florida for many years favored Republican candidates in presidential elections. But Florida is changing.  With its growing population, Florida is becoming demographically younger, and even more ethnically diverse than before.

A new electoral region has emerged in the center of the state, the “I-4 corridor,” named after the I-4 highway that connects Orlando and Tampa.  Voters here are mostly middle- and working class, and  racially and ethnically diverse, including a recent influx of migrants from Puerto Rico.  This population is hard to turn out to vote, but it is considered to be more demographically representative of the US as a whole than either the northern or southern parts of the state.  It is often said that candidates who can mobilize voters in this populous area have demonstrated that they can run an effective national campaign. Just as importantly, candidates who can appeal to this section of the state have the best chance of winning this largest, and most diverse, of the swing states.

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3 Floridas: northern, southern, and the central ”I-4” corridor.

Finally, here are some Florida-related items to watch out for:
  • Florida Governor Rick Scott is apparently being talked about as a possible Trump vice presidential pick. On the one hand, it’s an implausible choice, since the uncharismatic Scott has suffered from low approval ratings for years.  On the other hand, Governor Scott controls the state functions that run Florida elections, and so he and his appointees have a significant amount of influence over voter turnout. In other words, there is more than one way to deliver a state for your candidate.
  • Will Ben Carson run for Marco Rubio’s senate seat?  When he decided to run for president, Rubio declined to run again for senate, so if he drops out of the presidential race, he will be out of a job in November.  Political operatives are apparently trying to convince former presidential candidate Ben Carson, a Florida resident, to get into this race.
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