Florida: America’s ‘microcosm’ state is make-or-break in 2020 vote

Sunshine state delivers surprise results on nail-biting election nights thanks to diverse and fragmented electorate

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Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden summed up Florida’s make-or-break status in Tuesday’s election with a simple six-word phrase at a recent drive-in rally in the sunshine state.

“If Florida goes blue, it’s over,” said Mr Biden, referring to the Democratic Party’s colour.

The point was not lost on supporters at a university campus in Coconut Creek.

Florida is worth 29 Electoral College votes, making it the most valuable of the states that could plausibly swing either way on November 3.

Other battleground states, such as Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia, are important.

But by most analyses, President Donald Trump must win Florida if he wants to stay in the White House for another four years.

This is one of the reasons Ernest Rinaldi, 77, a former engineer who cast an early vote for Mr Trump, likes living in The Villages, a sprawling retirement community in central Florida.

"If you're a Republican who lives in California or New York, you might as well stay home on election day," Mr Rinaldi told The National.

“Most people here in Florida have a sense that it's very important to get out and vote just for that reason.

"I’m concerned about the country going in the wrong direction. I’m going to be glued to the TV on election night.”

Portrait of Ernest Rinaldi. Credit: James Reinl
Ernest Rinaldi, a retired resident of central Florida, cast an early vote for Donald Trump. James Reinl

Florida is an unpredictable melting pot state of 21.5 million people and has a track record of delivering surprises on nail-biting election nights thanks to its diverse and fragmented electorate.

In 2016, polls suggested that Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate at the time, was destined for the White House.

Florida was the first flashing sign that she was in trouble. Mr Trump carried the state with 113,000 votes.

In the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats made gains in a national blue wave of congressional wins, but Florida bucked the trend, awarding the position of governor and a Democratic incumbent’s Senate seat to Republicans.

The most painful Florida memory for Democrats is the recount saga of 2000, when Republican George W Bush was declared the winner in the state by 537 votes after the intervention of the US Supreme Court.

“We’re really in the thick of things,” said Eduardo Gamarra, a professor of political science at Florida International University.

“The most recent poll that I've done suggests that it's going to be very, very close.

"We're going to have an intense night on November 3 and we may still be weighing things for a few days afterwards.”

How the Electoral College system works

How the Electoral College system works

On Saturday, an average of opinion polls by Real Clear Politics gave Mr Biden a 1.2 percentage point lead over Mr Trump in Florida.

The president is closing the gap and the vote on Tuesday could easily go either way.

“It's exciting here but it can also be embarrassing,” Mr Gamarra said.

He described the tongue-in-cheek “Florida Man” meme of humorous newspaper headlines, such as “Florida man arrested for tossing 'gator into Wendy’s” or “Florida man claims wife was kidnapped by holograms”.

“It’s not just Florida Man; it’s Florida elections too,” Mr Gamarra said.

Millions of votes are already locked in. A record 8.2 million Florida residents, or 59 per cent of registered voters, have used mail-in ballots or visited early-voting stations.

Many people wanted to avoid long queues and crowds because of the coronavirus pandemic.

So far, registered Democrats have voted in slightly greater numbers than registered Republicans.

The campaigns are focused on high-value Florida.

Mr Trump will hold his final Florida rally on Sunday night in a Cuban-American enclave.

Last year, he changed his residency from New York to Florida, where he owns the oceanfront Mar-a-Lago resort.

Mr Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris held three events across Florida on Saturday.

Ms Harris urged black and Latino residents to vote and said a “path to victory runs through Florida”.

Former president Barack Obama will campaign for Mr Biden in the state on Monday.

Susan MacManus, a political analyst and former professor at the University of South Florida, said the state was unpredictable in elections because people migrated there from across the US and Latin America, bringing their politics with them.

“We're a microcosm of the country. Around two thirds of our people weren't born here,” said Ms MacManus, who lives in Tampa.

Florida’s north-western panhandle is a Republican stronghold thanks to its conservative-leaning military personnel and veterans, and its closeness to the reliably Republican states of Mississippi and Alabama.

North of Orlando is The Villages, the largest retirement community in the US, traditionally where elderly, conservative Midwesterners enjoy year-round sunshine, but where liberal north-easterners now also move.

Portrait of Craig Pereira. Credit: James Reinl
Trump supporter Craig Pereira, 74, says The Villages retirement community where he lives used to be mainly Republican but now has a lot of Democrats. James Reinl

“When I moved here 14 years ago everyone was Republican,” said Craig Pereira, 74, a Trump supporter in The Villages.

“But people are retiring earlier, there’s more diversity and you’re getting more Democrats nowadays.”

Miami and other parts of southern Florida are home to millions of Latinos.

The biggest groups are Cuban Americans, who lean towards the Republicans in part because of memories of the communist revolution in Cuba in the 1950s, and Democratic-leaning Puerto Ricans.
"We have rural-urban and suburban splits and generational divides between younger and older voters," Ms MacManus said.

“A key issue this year is a schism within Florida’s Latino vote that has emerged and hardened.

"People with ties to Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Colombia, even Honduras, are leaning heavily towards Trump due to an anti-socialism viewpoint.”

Memories of the 2000 election hang heavy over the state. Mr Bush defeated Al Gore, the Democratic vice president, after a recount, because voting machines had not fully punched holes in ballots and left “hanging chads”, among other problems.

Biden and Trumps make last-ditch appeals in crucial state of Florida

Biden and Trumps make last-ditch appeals in crucial state of Florida

Florida election officials said the computer punch-card ballots that fuelled the meltdown in 2000 were scrapped long ago and they expect the system to run smoothly in the nation’s largest swing state, even during the pandemic.

Florida may give one of the first signs of the election result.

Millions of votes have been cast early and, unlike Pennsylvania and some other swing states, they are already being counted and are set to be released when polls close on Tuesday night.

But there are fears about last-minute lawsuits to change election rules, militias gathering at polling stations to scare voters, computer meltdowns and Mr Trump prematurely claiming a win or accusing opponents of widespread election fraud.

“I don’t think we’ll see a battle over hanging chads because we don't have those any more,” Ms MacManus said.

“But if it's close, you’re going to have legal battles. Both sides have lawyered up, as they say.”