Just seven days after leaving hospital, Donald Trump touched down last Monday evening in the muggy swampland of Sanford, Florida, in the first jolt of a final defibrillation to save his presidency. Following steroid treatment for Covid-19 that would make Lance Armstrong blush, the 74-year-old strutted from Air Force One to his podium: the showman in his element. He regaled packed crowds - some of them in MAGA masks, some heeding Trump’s advice that a virus claiming the lives of 225,000 Americans is ‘nothing to fear’ - with tales of his illness and miraculous recovery. He even threatened to kiss them all. It was the typical Trump performance: an unfocused, delusional stream of consciousness which lasted over an hour and, unlike in 2016, landed few meaningful punches on his opponent. But the Floridians present, some of the President’s most enthusiastic and faithful followers, stood awestruck as ever. He left the airport tarmac to the (unauthorised) tunes of the Village People: a bizarre paean to his virility. Indeed, the spectacle of Donald Trump dancing to the gay anthem “Macho Man”, like a tipsy nan at a family wedding, would indicate that satire is dead.
Yet Trump’s mission in Florida is deadly serious. If he has any chance of (legally) extending his stay in the White House, he must keep hold of this most volatile of swing states. Home to a mixture of diehard white partisans, Hispanics, African Americans and - in huge numbers - retired voters migrated from Northern cities, Florida is a microcosm of the United States at-large. As the BBC’s North America Editor Jon Sopel reported from Sanford, the Republican candidate continues to draw support from all facets of this audience. Trump is lauded by strongly conservative, Cuban American voters in South Florida. Most importantly to his narrow 1.2% win over Hillary Clinton in 2016, he performed impressively among the retirees who make up 18% of the state’s population - and a good deal more of its actual voters. Florida is home to America’s largest retirement community, The Villages (population: 125,000), which went to the President by a margin of 69 to 30 per cent. Still, this was before 16,000 Floridians died from a novel pandemic mishandled by Trump and a GOP Governor, Ron DeSantis. Democratic challenger Joe Biden claims that they now view the vital voting bloc as ‘expendable’.
Since 1928, Florida has been an archetypal “bellwether” state, voting for the winner of every presidential election with the exception of 1960 and 1992 (see chart). It is America’s fastest growing state, a demographic soup and often the “tipping point” state electorally-speaking. Famously in 2000 - following an acrimonious 5-4 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court - Florida’s Electoral College votes were awarded to the Republican candidate George W. Bush after a month of recounts, by a margin of 537 votes over Democratic challenger Al Gore. This swung the election to Bush by the narrowest possible margin - 270 to 268 - despite his losing the national popular vote.
It is thus no coincidence that Trump flocked to Florida twice last week, and 14 times overall in 2020. It is his most visited state except Virginia, just across the Potomac River from the White House. Both campaigns have poured money into the Sunshine State; former Democratic contender and billionaire entrepreneur Mike Bloomberg pledged $100 million to the Biden campaign here. On current polling, Florida remains competitive; Biden leads by 2 to 4 points compared to 10 points in national tallies. The FiveThirtyEight tracker gives Trump a 30% chance of victory here: the same chance it gave him for winning the election outright in 2016. While the similarities of Biden’s polling advantage in 2020 belie important differences to Hillary Clinton’s much softer lead four years ago, Trump’s scramble for Florida suggests he knows where to focus if he desires the same conclusion.
I have always been fascinated by Florida - beyond the alligators, Disney World and Cape Canaveral. In fact, I have written two university theses on Florida’s demographic and political history since the 1950s: documenting its growth from swampy backwater to the tourist paradise we see today. In the 1951 Census, the Sunshine State was home to 2.7 million people; that number has expanded nearly tenfold to an estimated 21.5 million in 2019. This growth helps explain why, when geographically it is the most southern state on the mainland, the political history of Florida is distinct from the conservative and segregationist legacies of “Deep South” states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina). Florida has been fiercely contested in a region which, since the Democratic Party became the party of civil rights in the 1960s, has voted monolithically for the Republicans for four decades.
My research has been focused at the level of state representation, but helps illuminate why Florida has “swung” so much at presidential elections. My undergraduate dissertation concerned Senator George Smathers (Democrat, 1951-69): a playboy character, confidante of Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, and advocate of African-American voting rights at a time when such a position in the regional context spelled electoral suicide. Smathers did not sign the Southern Manifesto in 1957 - a regional protest against the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling to desegregate the South’s public schools - and voted for the 1965 Voting Rights Act when the vast majority of his regional colleagues were opposed. While he did not vote for the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, Smathers privately pressured President Johnson for its passage. An act to end discrimination in workplaces, public accommodations and schools, it would change the societal fabric of a region built on white supremacy. A source close to Smathers told me that he described the legislation ‘like removing a broken tooth without anaesthesia. Necessary, but painful.’
Senator Smathers’ convictions paralleled a shift in Florida’s demographics from a white, largely racist majority in the north of the state to growing diverse and liberal populations in cities like Miami, Tampa and Orlando. After 1959, hundreds of thousands of Cubans migrated from the oppressive Castro regime to Florida: a bastion of freedom just 100 miles from Havana. Many families from northern states - many traditionally Republican voters - simultaneously migrated south: pushed from cities plagued by late 60s riots or pulled by the tropical climate, low property prices and low taxes. Some of the first grassroots Republican organisations in the region emerged in suburban Orlando and Tampa. At the same time, retirees from the North East - many Jewish, many Roosevelt Democrats - settled in the vast coastal condominiums of Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, north of Miami. Miami itself hosted a roughly-balanced trio of ethnicities - white, African American and Latinx - and saw several police-motivated riots between 1968 and 1980. Such demographic developments in quick succession meant that throughout the period of civil rights protest and regional realignment - as Republican Presidents Nixon and Reagan appealed to white southerners’ racial prejudices - both parties maintained an equal stake in Florida.
This made for distinctive electioneering and policy positioning by Floridian politicians since the 1970s, in part the subject of my Master’s dissertation. Political scientist V.O. Key wrote in 1949 of the power of personality in Florida politics: of the importance of regional factors over more national and party-political concerns. In lieu of strong party identifications as voters flooded into the state, this trend of ‘every candidate for himself’ still endured 50 years on. Senator Lawton Chiles (D) was famous as “Walkin’ Lawton” for traversing every mile of the state from Pensacola to Key West on his 1970 election campaign, so as to ensure a personal connection to voters (and horrible blisters, no doubt). It also helped that he came to hold the congressional pursestrings as chairman of the Senate Budget Committee in the late 1980s. In a similar vein, Governor and then Senator Bob Graham (D) completed over 100 “Workdays” - where he spent days in ordinary jobs from lobster fisherman to sandwich salesman - and amassed over 4,000 notebooks filled with reflections on daily routines, voter concerns and policy developments. The “Workday” concept was successfully copied by a Republican Governor and now Senator, Rick Scott, in 2010.
Perhaps in a warning to President Trump, Floridian voters have a good memory at the ballot box when it comes to political aloofness and mismanagement. Senator Richard Stone (D) was ejected from office after one term in 1980, having voting to give away American control of the Panama Canal; Floridians opposed this by 2 to 1. His successor, Paula Hawkins (R), was viewed as an extreme and uncompromising conservative who snubbed her popular co-Senator, Lawton Chiles; she was defeated by the meticulous Bob Graham in 1986.
In terms of policy, Florida has been characterised by fiscal conservatism tempered with moderation on certain social issues, even as Trump’s Republican Party darts ever further to the right. While proclaiming the necessity of low taxes and balanced budgets, Florida’s GOP politicians have sought to reform - not slash - Medicare and Social Security expenditure. It is clear how much retired voters inform this consensus. In his 2018 Senate campaign, won by just 10,033 votes over Democrat Bill Nelson, Rick Scott proclaimed his efforts to expand Medicare provisions as Governor. Furthermore, current Senator Marco Rubio has been described by the New York Times as a ‘virtual secretary of state for Latin America’ - like George Smathers in the 1950s - and was a member of the 2013 bipartisan “Gang of Eight” Senators working for comprehensive immigration reform. The Cuban-American Rubio fell to Trump in the 2016 GOP primaries, failing to win his home state. However, he easily won Miami-Dade County with its Cuban, Venezuelan, Puerto Rican and Mexican immigrant populations. Alongside white voters, polling suggests that such blocs will keep Trump competitive in Florida on November 3rd.
Florida has grown more in common with the “Sunbelt” states of the South West - like California, Nevada and Arizona - than its closest neighbours. One quarter of the state’s population is of Hispanic origin, 17% are African-American and one fifth of residents speak Spanish as a first language. Only the northern Panhandle can now be considered “Southern”: characterised by a strong conservatism, militarism (there are large installations around Pensacola and Jacksonville) and large majorities for the Republican party. Today, it is possible to crudely split the state politically along the route of the Tampa-Orlando-Daytona highway, Interstate 4. Above this line, the state is largely Republican; below, and especially to the southeast, it is more Democratic. The exceptions are university cities like Tallahassee and Gainesville in the north, and retirement sprawls like Naples and Cape Coral in the southwestern quarter. Like Arizona, Florida can be considered slightly more Republican than a true “purple” state; in 2018, it elected a Republican Governor and Senator on the smallest margins amid a “blue wave” that flipped the House of Representatives. Commentators contend that the wave was a reaction to Trump by suburban white women; potentially this was offset in Florida by the preponderance of retired and Latinx voters. Will the delicate GOP alliance hold in 2020?
Map of Florida from gisgeography.com
Turnout will determine the result of this election in Florida. Democratic organisers believe that enthusiasm against Trump, if not for Biden, is much higher after four years’ experience. Significant mail-in voting adds another unknown into the mix: will this motivate older and more left-leaning voters, worried about in-person polling as Covid-19 cases climb steadily? The Guardian’s ballot tracker suggests that 16% of registered voters in Florida have already cast ballots, of which only 30% are registered Republicans. Of course, we can’t read too much into this, given that Republican voters have expressed an overwhelming preference to vote in person on election day. Even while Democrats are competitive in races in Georgia, Texas, Kansas, South Carolina and Alaska (!), Joe Biden claims he will take nothing for granted. He is focusing on the must-win, tipping-point states; Florida holds 29 Electoral College votes after all.
Until the 1930s, it was a maxim in U.S. politics that the New England state of Maine was the most reliable bellwether to predict the outcome of the presidential election: ‘As Maine goes, so goes the nation’. This reputation was quickly dashed in 1936, when Republican candidate Alf Landon won just two states - Maine and Vermont - against Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s blue landslide. ‘As Maine goes, so goes Vermont', journalists quipped.
Florida is not quite the best bellwether today - Ohio has only “missed” the winning presidential candidate twice since 1896. Yet with Ohio leaning Republican, projections suggest that Florida’s record is the more likely to be protected on November 3rd. And if we’re looking for clarity on an election night which is unlikely to yield a definitive result, Florida’s deadline for receipt of all ballots is 7pm. In many other swing states, votes could be counted days later as long as ballots are postmarked on Election Day. Florida will probably issue a result on the night; the lessons of demography and history indicate that this is the strongest indication we need. As Florida goes, so crawls the nation?