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Florida Reemerges as the Country’s Ultimate Swing State

Joe Biden and Donald Trump's repeated visits to Florida illustrate the importance of the country’s largest swing state, as most experts agree Trump must win the state’s 29 electoral votes for reelection.

TAMPA, Fla. (CN) — Five days before the presidential election, the campaigns of President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival Joe Biden converged in Tampa, a metropolitan area long seen as a bellwether for presidential politics.

The candidates’ rallies, held just hours apart, could not have been more different.

Trump and his supporters, largely maskless, railed against the “socialist” Democratic nominee in a football stadium parking lot, close enough to an early voting polling place that the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections put out a statement warning potential voters of traffic concerns.

Across town at the state fairgrounds, Biden held a socially distanced drive-in rally in which the vice president, wearing a mask, blamed the president for “spreading more than just the coronavirus.”

“He’s spreading division and discord,” the former vice president said to a chorus of honks.

The candidates’ repeated visits to Florida illustrate the importance of the country’s largest swing state. Most experts agree Trump must win the state’s 29 electoral votes for reelection.

Polls in the run-up to the election show Trump and Biden in a dead heat with very few undecided voters. That’s led to repeated trips by both campaigns to this eternally purple state that elected Trump with less than 1% of the vote in 2016.

Biden and surrogates like Barack Obama have largely focused on South Florida, a Democratic stronghold home to the majority of the state’s Hispanic community, and cities along the decisive I-4 corridor like Tampa.

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence held rallies in the state’s largest age-restricted community, The Villages, and the usually reliably red Panhandle region with a large concentration of military families.  

“I think the Biden campaign views all the time the Trump campaign is having to spend in Florida as a bonus, because they have other paths to 270 [electoral votes] and Trump does not,” said political analyst Matthew Corrigan, the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Jacksonville University. “So keeping the state really, really close and competitive has forced a lot of time and energy among Republicans to keep the state.”

“This close, this late is probably a win for Biden, even if he doesn't win the state, because he's making Trump use his resources here,” he added.

But ginning up each parties’ base may not tip the balance. Roughly 26% of registered voters have no party affiliation, according to the Florida Department of Elections.

“Democrats are going to bring everybody out, or most people out, and Republicans are going to bring most people out,” Corrigan said. “What are the NPAs doing? If the NPAs break heavily for either candidate, that's the ballgame.”

No party affiliation (NPA) voters chose Trump four years ago because of his “outsider” status, Corrigan said, and Hillary Clinton’s negative image. But those same voters may have buyer’s remorse.

“Now, they've seen some of the policies and the way [the president] handled the pandemic and I think there's concerns,” he said.

Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, or lack thereof, could also eat into his previous support among Florida’s most active voting bloc: seniors.

The senior vote

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a drive-in rally at Broward College, Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020, in Coconut Creek, Fla. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Located just north of Orlando, The Villages is a sprawling age-restricted community of 120,000. “Florida’s Friendliest Hometown” is a frequent stop for candidates running for state or federal office and boasts one of the largest concentrations of Republican voters in the state.

The community went for Trump by 70% in 2016.

At a recent rally, thousands of enthusiastic attendees drove their golf carts to The Villages Polo Club to hear the president speak.

“I love everything he has done,” said one of the rally goers, 72-year-old Sherry Canger. “I can’t think of anything I don’t like.”

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But support for Trump may be waning in the community.

Chris Stanley, chair of The Villages Democratic Club, spends several hours every day at a small office greeting those who come through the door.

“They come in and they say, ‘You know, I’m a Republican and I’m staying a Republican, but how can I help you get rid of Trump,’” Stanley recalls. “They feel their party left them.”

“I’ve heard over and over, ‘I thought he would tone down his behavior. I thought it was an act,’” she added. “So those people who didn’t want to vote for Hillary, and then voted for Trump — expecting something different, something new — they are coming over to the Biden camp.”

An NBC News/Marist poll released this week found Biden leading among Florida’s seniors 53% to 46%. The candidates were tied among those 65 and older in the pollster’s September survey.

Seniors account for about a quarter of the electorate in Florida.

“The bottom line is Biden is leading in the senior vote and that’s clearly coming from the way the president has handled the coronavirus,” said Corrigan. “There’s just a huge disconnect between his view of the coronavirus and what seniors are dealing with.”

The early vote smashes records

On a recent afternoon, Mhariel Summers chatted passersby near a community center parking lot in the predominantly Black southside of St. Petersburg. The 30-year-old community activist attempted to persuade residents to board a shuttle bus bound for an early voting site.

“This is going to be an influential district,” Summers said, echoing national pundits who have put Pinellas County, the state’s most densely populated county that has gone for the eventual winner in every presidential contest since 1980, with the exception of the contentious 2000 election, as another bellwether.

Just 20 minutes across the bridge that connects the county to Tampa, the Hillsborough County seat, voters have solidly picked the winner since 1960 — except for 2016 when the electorate chose Clinton and the rest of the state sided with Trump.

Those caveats in a state breaking records for newcomers — from northerners buying homes in rapidly expanding suburbs to millennials drawn to artistic havens like St. Petersburg — have put entrenched residents in historically minority neighborhoods facing gentrification on the defensive.

“There are generational problems,” Summers noted, and that has led many in this community to believe their vote does not matter. We’re trying to tell them that the system is not against you. We can change elections. We have the numbers. Once we realize that, people will start showing up.”

Activists from both parties have focused on early voting due to worries about lines and low voter turnout on Election Day. While Democrats have led in mail-in ballots, more Republicans have cast their ballots at early voting sites.

As of Oct. 30, 7.8 million Floridians cast mail-in ballots or voted early. Democrats lead with 3.1 million votes compared to 2.8 million Republicans.

In all, Florida voters have already cast more than 80 percent of the total votes counted in the 2016 general election, according to an analysis by the U.S. Elections Project.

“We’re really impressed by the numbers,” said Dustin Chase, deputy supervisor of elections for Pinellas County. “Already, we’ve received back 71% of all the mail ballots we sent. And that's incredible.”

Chase said despite the increase in mail-in voting, his office has not seen many ballots deemed invalid due to problems with a voter’s signature.

Democratic Congressman Charlie Crist greets residents in St. Petersburg at an early voting event. (Courthouse News photo / Alex Pickett)

“In fact, we've seen a decrease in the number of voters who have made mistakes,” he said. “We partially attribute that to the large amount of media surrounding this particular issue. And voters have been very diligent. They're coming in, they're checking to make sure that their signature currently matches what we have on file for them.”

Pursuant to Florida law, county elections offices began tallying mail-in ballots on Oct. 14. Early voting totals will be released at 8 p.m. eastern after all Florida counties close voting.

Chase said he does not expect a delay in counting the votes on election day, though counties have 10 days to certify the results.

By law, all Florida counties must keep early voting sites open through Oct. 31, though counties can choose to stay open until Nov. 1.

Late Friday, as Floridians stood in lines at early voting sites, another poll showed Biden with a slight lead on Trump in the Sunshine State. The survey by YouGov and the Institute of Politics at Florida State University found 48% of likely voters prefer the former vice president and 46% indicated a vote for the president, with 3% margin of error.

“It looks like all eyes will be on Florida again,” said Hans Hassell, the institute’s director and FSU professor of political science. “This is an important state, and the presidential race in Florida remains close just as it always seems to be.”

Follow @alexbpickett
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