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US election swing states: The Florida Factor

Why the Sunshine State is facing a typically mixed election forecast ahead of November.

 

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Since 1964, the presidential candidate who has won Florida and its 29 electoral college votes has also won the White House in every election except 1992. In that time, the constant has not been whether Florida goes for Republicans or Democrats – both parties have been in power in the past three decades – but that the vote has been close.

In 2016, Donald Trump won with 48.6 per cent of the vote compared to Hillary Clinton’s 47.4 percent. In 2008, Barack Obama had 51 percent, compared to John McCain’s 48.2. And no one, of course, can forget the 2000 election, which came down to 537 votes out of six million cast (and a Supreme Court decision that eventually left George W Bush the winner).

But why does the White House tend to swing in the same direction as this state? And why is the vote always so tight? What is it that, every four years, keeps our anxious eyes pointed towards the Sunshine State?

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The short answer is that Florida is diverse, and that its diversity contains multitudes and unpredictabilities.

“It’s diverse in terms of race and ethnicity and also ideology,” said Sharon Austin, a professor of political science at the University of Florida. “Regardless of your position, you're bound to offend someone.”

She goes through the different people and places: there’s a large Hispanic population, but in South Florida, where it’s largely Cuban, it’s more conservative than some might expect, even though South Florida is generally the most liberal part of the state. There is the more liberal-leaning Puerto Rican population around Orlando. There’s north-east Florida, with Duval County and Jacksonville, which tends to be Republican but also includes college towns like Tallahassee and Gainesville.

In a state of 67 counties and around 21 million people, demographics are always changing – but they aren’t changing in one particular direction. You have black Americans whose families left the south during the Great Migration of the early 20th century but are now moving back, Austin said. The Hispanic population is also increasing, as are the number of young voters. But older people, who tend to vote for Republicans, continue to retire to Florida and vote at a higher rate than the young.

 

 

 

“The complexity and the diversity of the state cannot be overstated,” said Andrea Mercado of New Florida Majority, a group that works to expand democratic rights in traditionally marginalised communities. Because this is the other thing about Florida: all of that diversity and change exists in a state that is, historically, repressive.

People may think of Miami when they think of Florida, Mercado said, but the state was very much part of the confederacy, and then part of the Jim Crow South. She notes that Florida had more lynchings per capita than any other state, and that the people who live in Florida today are living with institutions that were shaped by generations of voter suppression, mass incarceration and codified disenfranchisement.

So while the state may swing in presidential contests, the reality remains that Republicans have largely controlled its inner workings for the past two decades, allowing them to pass, for example, signature no-match laws, under which votes with ballot signatures that don’t match the signatures on file would be thrown out.

 

 

 

 

That historical context needs to be taken into account when considering certain narratives about Florida – and about who exercises the right to vote in it.

For example, in 2018, Republican Rick Scott defeated Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson for a US Senate seat. It was another close election year in Florida (Democrat Andrew Gillum lost the governor’s race by under 33,000 votes to Republican Ron DeSantis), and when Nelson eventually conceded defeat, some said the Hispanic population was to blame.

People “think that Hispanics don't vote” said Cristina Robinson, communications director at Alianza, which aims to engage and organise the Latino and particularly Puerto Rican communities in Florida. When Rick Scott won, there was a narrative that he won because Hispanics didn't turn out – but this was false, she explained. "We've seen time and time again: Hispanics are voting. They're voting in large numbers. In every election cycle, we're seeing that that number is growing.”

The statistics back up Robinson's point; in 2004, roughly 11 percent of Florida voters identified as Hispanic. In 2016, that number went up to 18 percent.

Voting is, however, only one part of elections; the other part is how the votes are counted. In May, Alianza was one of a number of groups that sued the state of Florida, arguing in part that the postage required for mail-in ballots in Florida was akin to “an unconstitutional poll tax”.

As Robinson said, “It comes down to, is my vote going to be counted?”

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Crucially, this isn’t also just another close presidential election in Florida. It’s happening during a pandemic in which, particularly in Florida, the death toll is still rising at time of writing.

The need many will have to vote safely by mail therefore adds a logistical component to the concern about voter representation. “How many people are going to mail their ballot the day before?” Robinson asked, noting that her group is working to let people know that they need to get their votes in on time. “There could be a lot of ballots that aren't counted.”

Trump has generally tried to discredit mail-in voting, but tweeted that mail-in voting was safe in Florida, perhaps recognising that he needs the votes of Florida’s ageing population.

To Fernand Amandi, managing partner at leading multi-ethnic and multi-lingual public opinion research firm Bendixen & Amandi, Trump's narrative that mail-in voting is illegitimate is the reason that, this time, Democrats will carry the state. “Like cult members, a lot of [Trump] supporters have said we're not going to vote by mail,” Amandi said. “Just because Republicans aren't going to vote by mail doesn't mean millions of Democrats and independents aren't going to do it.”

Amandi also said that Trump – the president on whose watch hundreds of Floridians are dying every day – is “the greatest organiser” in the Florida Democratic Party’s history. The state has been “catastrophically besieged by the pandemic”, he said, and anger about its mishandling could push voters in the Democrats' direction.

Not all agree that Covid-19 will have a negative impact on Trump’s performance in the state, however. Professor Sharon Austin noted how the president has an established residence in Florida and good relations with the governor and if, on Election Day, there are record numbers of cases and deaths in Florida, “a lot of people who probably had intended to vote won't because they'll be afraid to”.

 

Hispanics are a rapidly growing voting group in Florida

Black voters as a share of voting Floridians fell in 2016

 

Still, Austin warned, “turnout determines who wins”, so it will be difficult for either side to be confident. Not least since who turns out varies from year to year.

“The one constant of Florida elections is understanding that the Florida electorate is a constant reinvention and constantly in flux,” Amandi said. And while there are some constants – black Floridians will probably support the Democrats, white voters will probably go for the Republicans, and the Hispanic vote “can shift here or there for one party or the other” – the only real given is that the vote is close because the population is diverse and evolving.

“You never want to fight the new war with the plans of the last war,” Amandi said. “In Florida, that's always the reality we see when it comes to these campaigns.”

And that’s the thing about Florida: you can never quite say ahead of time what that year’s definitive thing about it will be.

[see also: US election swing states: Virginia is for… Democrats?]

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor