October 23, 2016
There is little doubt that Florida is one of the key swing state battlegrounds on the electoral map. Over the course of the last four presidential elections—twice won by a Republican candidate, George W. Bush, and twice won by a Democrat, Barack Obama—a total of more than 30.5 million votes were tallied. The total vote differential between the two parties in those four contests: some 71,000 votes. That’s less than one quarter of one percent of the cumulative ballots cast in those four presidential elections. According to Steve Schale, a well-regarded Democratic political consultant and government relations strategist, by that metric, no other state in the union was tighter battleground.
Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump easily won their parties’ respective presidential primaries in Florida in March. Clinton overwhelmed her rival for the Democratic nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders by roughly 64-to-33 percent. Trump beat home state Sen. Marco Rubio, 45-to-27 percent in the GOP presidential primary. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz finished third and Ohio Gov. John Kasich finished fourth.
Both Clinton and Trump are vigorously competing for the votes of Floridians in the general election. Indeed, Florida, with 29 Electoral College votes, the same number as New York, is easily the biggest swing state in the country. The only two states with more Electoral College votes are California, a Democratic bastion, and Texas, which has voted reliably Republican in the past. While the Empire State is home to both Clinton and Trump, it is very likely to adhere to its tradition of voting Democrat for president this year.
There were some 12,655,286 voters registered in the state at the end of September divided fairly evenly between the two major parties: almost 36 percent registered Republican, 38 percent Democratic, 24 percent declared no party affiliation and almost three percent were aligned with minor parties.
The Republican stronghold in Florida is the state’s northern counties and panhandle region. With the exception of Leon County (Tallahassee, the state capitol and home to Florida State University) and Alachua (Gainesville, home of to the University of Florida) the region votes more Republican than the rest of the state. And there’s quite a bit of stability to that advantage. In 2000, Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore won just over 40 percent of the major party vote in this region, which equalled the level that President Obama scored in his successful 2012 re-election bid.
The main Democratic turf in the state is its Gold Coast, the four counties at the southeastern tip of the state that include the major metropolitan areas of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Broward County (Ft. Lauderdale) owns the biggest Democratic registration advantage in the state, 332,779 voters. Obama captured roughly 62 percent of the vote in these counties (Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach) in 2012. In 2000, Gore won some 60 percent of the vote here. In a close race, Democratic presidential candidates generally need to win at least 62 percent in this region. Likewise, a GOP contender needs to win at least 60 percent in the north-panhandle territory to have a chance for victory in Florida.
The rest of the state tends to be evenly divided in a close race, but that doesn’t mean all of those counties are up for grabs. Ten of the state’s 67 counties have voted Democratic in all four of the past presidential elections (by order of Democratic margin in the 2012 election): Broward, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach, Orange, Leon, Alachua, St. Lucie, Gadsden, Monroe and Jefferson. Osceola and Pinellas have voted Democratic in three of last four presidential races, 2000, 2008 and 2012. Volusia voted Democratic in 2000, 2004 and 2008. Two counties have voted Democratic two out of four elections: Hillsborough (2012 and 2008) and Flagler (2008 and 2000). Hernando and Pasco last voted Democratic in 2000. The other 50 counties in the state have voted Republican in every one of the last four presidential elections.
The candidate who is going to capture Florida this year is likely to be the one who is able to boost turnout in their respective bases. Clinton will do well by getting a big vote out of those 10 counties that have gone Democratic in the last four elections. Her main task in that regard could well be boosting Democratic turnout in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Counties. That was her strongest area in the Democratic presidential primary. She could also use a bump in turnout in Orange County (Orlando) where there’s a relatively large Latino population.
Trump could prevail in Florida if he can boost the GOP turnout in those 50 counties that went 4-0 Republican in the last four presidential elections. His focus should be spurring turnout in the counties that produce relatively large GOP vote margins: Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Escambia and Bay (Pensacola and Panama City metros); Collier and Lee (the Gulf Coast retirement area around Fort Myers); Clay and St. Johns (Jacksonville metro) and Brevard County on the central Atlantic coast.
If there is a bell weather county in Florida, it’s Hillsborough, which has gone with the presidential winner in each of the last four presidential elections. The county, which is dominated by Tampa, gave Obama a 36,000-vote advantage in both of his winning races in Florida. Should Hillsborough flip back into the Republican column it would be a sign of a Trump tide in the state and probably a victory for the GOP nominee. Another county to watch is Volusia (Daytona Beach). Volusia was once a Democratic county in presidential elections, but swung to the Republicans in 2012, when Mitt Romney narrowly carried it by about 2,700 votes. If Trump can build on the recent GOP trend in that county that would be a sign that his candidacy is increasing the Republican appeal to blue collar voters who once backed Democrats. If it snaps back into the Democratic fold, that’s an indication that Clinton is likely to carry Florida.
It’s quite possible that when the television networks call Florida on Election Night—or perhaps early next morning—they’ll wind up calling the presidential election. It could be the over-the-top point for either Clinton or Trump. But as noted in the 2016 Almanac of American Politics, none of the networks rushed to call Florida in 2012, mindful of the major mistake they made in prematurely calling the race there in 2000. Indeed, since Obama had won enough Electoral Votes to claim a victory, none of the networks called the state on Election Night 2012, preferring to wait a few days for Florida officials to count nearly all of the state’s ballots. That’s a reflection of how closely contested the Sunshine State is in presidential elections.
James A. Barnes is a senior writer for Ballotpedia and co-author of the 2016 edition of the Almanac of American Politics.