Florida in the Election

A French version of this article appears in L’Express.

Former mayor Mike Bloomberg has announced that he would spend as much as $100 million of his own money to help Vice-President Biden prevail in Florida on Election Day. This underscores once again the importance of Florida in this and every presidential contest.

Florida has a good track record of picking the winner in a presidential election. With the messy 2000 contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore, the state gained prominence as the ultimate prize and must-win battleground. To be sure, it is not a perfect track record, given that Florida favored George H. W. Bush in 1992 and Richard Nixon in 1960 over winners Bill Clinton and John Kennedy. If you go to earlier times, you also find that Floridians misfired with John Davis and James Cox in 1924 and 1920, two unknowns today except among aficionados of electoral history. But in sum, four misses out of 25 elections over a century can indeed be called a strong track record.

The stakes are high in 2020 given the state’s 29 Electoral College votes and the tightness of the race according to the polls. Vice President Biden is now nominally ahead by 1 to 3%, an insignificant gap that can easily close or widen in the remaining days of the campaign, depending on a slew of factors, not least the performance of each candidate in the upcoming debates.

In 2016, candidate Trump won the state by a plurality of 48.6% to Hillary Clinton’s 47.4%, a lead so slim that it would not be deemed meaningful in a poll today. In the same pattern seen across other states, Clinton carried the large urbanized counties encompassing the Miami-West Palm Beach corridor, Orlando, Gainesville (home to the University of Florida), Tampa and Tallahassee while Trump swept all rural states and also managed to prevail in some smaller cities such as St Petersburg, Fort Myers and Jacksonville. In 2008 and 2012, Obama won Florida by margins of 2.5% over John McCain and 0.9% over Mitt Romney, with roughly the same urban-rural divide as in 2016. There is little doubt that the map will look the same in 2020, with some variances that may or may not in the aggregate tip the state to the Democrats.

2020 vs. 2016

The questions then are what has changed since 2016 and are these changes important enough to overcome other factors?

ONE, the population of Florida has grown by about 5% from 20.6 million in 2016 to an estimated 21.6 million in 2020, with over 90% of this growth coming from migration from other states and from foreign immigration. Owing to the large number of older people, Florida’s natural growth rate (births minus deaths) only adds about 20,000 to the population annually. The overall population growth is neutral or marginally positive for Biden as most migration originates from blue Northeastern states or from Puerto Rico and Latin America.

It is estimated that over 100,000 Puerto Ricans relocated to Florida (and many more to other states) after hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017. Assuming that they vote, they could make a difference for Biden in a close election, given that not all are pleased with President Trump’s handling of Puerto Rico in the days after Maria. More broadly in other US states, the Hispanic vote would favor Democrats but the case of Florida is complicated by a large contingent of Cuban-Americans who generally prefer the harder line Republican stance towards the Cuban regime.

TWO, the number of people aged 64 and over has grown faster than other age groups, which means that Florida has gotten older since 2016 and will continue to get older. In theory, this would benefit the President because he usually polls better with older age groups but the change does not seem significant enough to neutralize the margin of error or other factors. Still, it can be considered a net plus for Trump on the margin. And in Florida, everything on the margin can make a difference.

THREE, the number of people declaring no party affiliation has continued to grow, an indication that independents could weigh more in this and future elections. They tend to make up their minds in the final weeks of the campaign in October and early November, a delay that increases the possibility of earlier polls being wide off the mark. This is of no particular advantage to either candidate but adds uncertainty to the current polls.

New Factors

Among non-demographic factors is of course the coronavirus pandemic. It hit Florida severely in the summer and has caused nearly 13,000 deaths so far. Because the state sees over 200,000 deaths in a typical year, these excess pandemic deaths add 6 to 7% to the total, an incidence that is tragic for the next of kin but that can go largely unnoticed by the vast majority of people whose families were untouched. In addition, a sizable segment of Trump supporters see the pandemic as a hoax or at least an exaggeration, a stance that binds them to the President whom they see as a bulwark against the spread of conspiracies by the nefarious (in their view) elite media. In the end, the pandemic is likely to prove neutral for both candidates, with each constituency looking at it through its own political lens.

More important are the economic consequences of the pandemic. Florida was hurt by the shuttering of several sectors, not least travel and hospitality, two of the pillars of the state economy. But here again, some people will blame the President for mishandling the crisis while others will blame alarmist elements of the media and elites for encouraging a lockdown in this or other parts of the country. The notion that the lockdowns were more damaging to the economy than the pandemic has many adherents in Florida and other states, including among some well-heeled researchers and academics. Because Trump is blamed by some for the mishandling of the pandemic and Biden is seen by others as more likely to impose future lockdowns, the impact of the pandemic economy on electoral choices is likely a wash.

Taxation policy may shave some points off the Biden appeal since Florida is known as a state where people go not only to retire but also to save on their tax bill. The Democrats’ proposals to raise income tax rates and in particular their plan to make capital gains tax rates equal to those on earned income will not make many fans among older Floridians living off their investment portfolios. Tax policy is a likely negative for candidate Biden.

County by county

Looking at 2016 for more granularity, we find that racial identity was significantly correlated with a county’s results, tempered in a few cases by the county’s percent of college graduates. In 2016, the percentage of non-Hispanic whites correlated with the county’s vote: if it was over 55%, the county went to Trump; under 55%, it went to Clinton. In the table below therefore, the red line is the 55% demarcation. In theory, all counties above the line would have gone to Clinton and all below to Trump.

There were 10 exceptions that did not conform with this rule however. In 9 of them, there was another important correlation and it was to education. Trump won seven of these counties (yellow in the table), or where the percentage of college graduates is well below Florida’s average. Whether by instinct or through campaign analytics, Trump was right to “love the poorly educated” as he had said in Nevada in 2016. Meanwhile, Clinton won the two counties (green in the table) where that percentage is well above the state average. The remaining one exception (blue in the table) is Duval county (city of Jacksonville) where a concentration of military bases and of veterans helped Trump prevail by a thin margin.

(click on the table to enlarge).

Projecting these results on 2020, we can assume that the percentage of non-Hispanic whites in any given county will again correlate strongly with that county’s results. Whether the demarcating number will still be 55% depends on whether Trump’s appeal has gained or lost ground among this group since 2016. If this dividing number turns out to be closer to 60% this time around, Trump would lose many voters in populous counties such as St. Lucie, Leon, Polk and Collier. On the other hand, if the demarcation is closer to 50%, Trump’s lead would end up higher in 2020 than in 2016 in particular by reducing the Democrat lead in Palm Beach county.

Further, in 2016, the poorest counties all went for Trump. Of all counties where the poverty rate is higher than 20%, Hillary Clinton won only Leon where the percentage of college graduates is very high at 45.7% and Gadsden where the percentage of African-Americans at 56% is the highest of any county in the state. Biden’s brand of politics is more populist and working-class than Clinton’s and it will likely reduce Trump’s margin in the poorest counties.

It is unlikely that the counties marked in yellow and green in the table will switch parties from 2016 because Trump’s and Clinton’s margins of victory in these counties were significant. However, it is likely that Trump’s margins will erode in the yellow counties, owing to Biden’s greater appeal to the working class compared to Hillary Clinton’s. Trump’s margin in Duval county was thin in 2016 and his comments about the military (whether true or not) may switch enough votes to turn Duval into a Biden county.

Using the table above on Election night, we can try to make an early call on the Florida result by looking at the ratio of Trump to Biden votes in each county and comparing it to the Trump/Clinton ratio shown in the right hand column. Higher ratios in any county would mean that Trump is doing better than in 2016 and vice-versa. This straight math assumes that third party candidates garner roughly the same percentages.

All in, Florida has many moving parts and the outcome hinges on independents making their decisions in the final few weeks. Biden’s appeal is in theory broader across the various demographics than Clinton’s was. But Trump’s may be deeper in the places where it counts.

More on the demographics of Florida in this table. Click to enlarge.

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One thought on “Florida in the Election

  • Since this detailed and thorough article was written, the White House did announce plans for up to $13b in aid for Puerto Rico, and Hurricane Sally has caused damage / dislocation in Florida. There are also national events like RBG’s passing. It will be interesting to see how voting behaviour among certain constituents is impacted by the 2 FL-specific events – and potentially other FL specific events in the next month. Do events like this potentially change voting behaviour disproportionately more than the national debates?

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