Orlando, Florida, United States – Florida, the nation’s largest swing state, is once again living up to its reputation as a bitterly fierce electoral battleground where neither presidential candidate enjoys a clear advantage heading into Election Day.
Given the makeup of the national electoral map, a win for Democrat Joe Biden here would almost certainly be an early knock-out punch, while victory for Republican Donald Trump will give his campaign a chance to fight it out in other battlegrounds as results come in from around the country later in the night.
If anything, the race has only tightened during the past month. Biden has watched his state polling advantage shrink from a 4.5 percentage point lead over Trump in early October to just one percentage point in November, according to polling averages compiled by RealClearPolitics.
Statewide, more than 8.9 million Floridians have already cast their ballots, either through mail or in-person during the state’s early voting period. The turnout shattered 2016’s early voting numbers by more than two million ballots. Four years ago, about 9.5 million people in Florida voted, total, and participation this cycle is on track to surpass that.
The final tally of early voting shows Democrats with just a slight edge over Republicans, but not enough to allow Biden to rest easy. As of Monday, 39.2 percent of the early vote came from registered Democrats, compared with 38.1 percent for Republicans. Florida is a bona fide toss-up, and neither candidate can take victory for granted.
Since 1996, the presidential candidate who has won Florida has gone on to win the presidency, making Florida a key piece of the electoral puzzle. Given Trump’s dwindling available paths to victory, the state is a must-win for his campaign. But with Biden enjoying a polling lead in several other battleground states and appearing to make gains in traditionally Republican strongholds like Georgia, Arizona and Texas, his fate may not be as tied to Florida as was the case for past candidates.
“I think there’s a really good chance Trump wins Florida and loses the election overall,” said Richard Mullaney, director of the Public Policy Institute at Jacksonville University. “That could very easily happen.”
Trump and Biden visited the state last week, a testament to how important it is to each campaign, and a sign that both consider Florida winnable.
Biden visited Broward County in the state’s southeast, where it is crucial for his campaign to boost turnout, and then Tampa on the state’s west coast.
“You hold the power. If Florida goes blue, it’s over,” Biden told supporters on his visit.
The same day, Trump visited Tampa, where he appeared before a crowd with his wife, Melania, and repeatedly referred to Florida as “his home state”.
Trump returned to Florida again late Sunday night for a final rally in Miami-Dade County, where his campaign hopes to cut into Biden’s support in the region, particularly among Cuban Americans.
“We win Florida,” Trump said, “we win the whole thing.”
Twenty years ago, Florida’s voting system faced disaster when election officials struggled to count ballots during an incredibly tight presidential election in 2000. The nation looked on as Florida, the state that ultimately decided the outcome, painstakingly re-counted contested ballots. In the end, the presidency was decided by just 537 votes.
Since then, state officials have overhauled Florida’s election infrastructure, and enacted reforms that allow ballots to be counted rapidly. Unlike many states that must wait until election day to start counting ballots, Florida can count them as they come in by mail or during early voting periods in the weeks before Election Day, which increases the likelihood that results from the state could be announced early on election night.
These rapid-counting abilities, combined with its role as one of the nation’s biggest electoral prizes, make Florida a must-watch state.
For Biden, strong turnout in Florida’s highly Democratic and well-populated southeast corner – Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties – will be crucial for him to overtake Trump’s lead throughout other parts of the state.
“If Biden is going to win, he needs big margins in Broward and Palm Beach,” said Kevin Wagner, a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. “If he doesn’t get that, then the rest is not going to matter.”
Four years ago, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton beat Trump in those counties by 678,424 votes, but it was not nearly enough to beat him statewide. Trump won Florida by about 113,000 votes that year, a 1.2 percentage point margin.
Trump’s strongest support comes from Florida’s northern counties and from solid backing among Florida’s elderly voters. Sumter County, home to a sprawling retirement development called The Villages, will be crucial for him. Four years ago, Trump carried the county by nearly 40 percentage points, a number he will need to match or surpass to carry the state.
“Trump likely needs at least a two-to-one margin in Sumter to have a chance of keeping Florida in his column,” noted David Wasserman, an editor at the Cook Political Report, in a Florida election analysis for NBC News.
While Trump is expected to win Sumter, Biden has an opportunity to cut into his lead. Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has led elderly voters to reconsider their support for him, national polling suggests, sparking a “gray revolt” against the president.
Turnout in Sumter is expected to be high. Last week, Sumter became the first county in the state for early votes to surpass total votes counted in 2016.
Statewide campaigns in Florida are won and lost in the centre, both geographically and ideologically. The counties that stretch from Florida’s central east coast near Tampa and St Petersburg eastward along Interstate 4 towards Orlando and Daytona will likely determine the outcome on election night.
Among these, Pinellas County is the one to watch. Located on a western peninsula that juts into the Gulf of Mexico, Pinellas’ voters – now at approximately 713,000 people – are consistent only in their unpredictability. The county supported Democrat Al Gore in 2000, Republican George W Bush in 2004, and then swung back to Democrat Barack Obama two cycles in a row. It went red again in 2016, supporting Trump by razor-slim margins. In 2018, the most recent statewide election, Pinellas supported Democrats for Senate and for governor.
Closer to metropolitan Orlando, Florida’s growing non-Cuban Latino population serves as another potential crucial vote, particularly in Orange and Osceola counties, where the Latino population is growing.
Central Florida has seen an explosion of newcomers, particularly Puerto Ricans who have left the American territory to settle in central Florida after years of financial crisis and a devastating hurricane that struck the island in 2017.
Puerto Ricans who live on the island are not eligible to vote in general elections, but they can vote if they establish residency in an American state. Both parties see opportunities in these new voters and have made efforts to woo them.
While Latinos – who come from diverse ethnic and national backgrounds – traditionally support Democrats in higher numbers, they are not a monolithic voting bloc. Trump’s ability to win in Florida will, in part, rely on his ability to narrow margins of support among this population.
While Florida may not play absolute kingmaker this election cycle to the extent it has in the past, it remains one of the most volatile and unpredictable behemoths of American politics. Given its size and ability to count ballots quickly, it is the first state to watch for clues about how the national election is likely to turn out when East Coast polling stations close Tuesday night.