Florida has an interesting history in presidential elections. All eyes were on the state in 2000 during the Bush/Gore election as the U.S. Supreme Court was brought in to decide how to deal with the punch card ballot problem and whether to recount all of the ballots again to verify the votes. This was not the first time Americans and candidates alike paid attention to Florida, but in this case the fate of the next president lay in the hands of a few counties in the state.

Florida is always a focus of presidential elections because political experts and campaigns for years have classified it as a swing state, meaning it does not consistently vote for one political party across election cycles. Also Florida is considered a bellwether state: in nine of the last 10 elections since 1976 the state voted for the candidate that became the president.

The Population Factor

Florida’s status as a swing state is in many ways connected to its population makeup. Florida’s population is representative of the United States population with regard to race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc., according to an interview with Susan MacManus, a professor at the University of South Florida. This contributes to Florida’s bellwether state status because how the different demographic groups vote in Florida is similar to how they vote in areas spread out across the country.

MacManus said another key aspect of Florida’s population is that two-thirds of the people who live in Florida were not born in the state. According to a report from the Florida Department of Transportation, since 2002, excluding 2007 to 2010, the population growth in Florida was largely based on domestic migration. There was a break between 2007 and 2010 with international migration contributing more to the state’s population growth. This shift occurred because of the economic recession; Florida experienced a rise in unemployment similar to other states so it was not as appealing for people already living in the United States to move there. However, the domestic migration began to rise again in 2011. The report also shows that in 2012, 41 percent of the people who lived in Florida were originally from a different state.

Domestic migration impacts the way Florida votes because often times people bring their political ideology and partisanship with them when they move to Florida.

“We are a state whose politics we say are imported from everywhere else and so people bring their politics with them,” MacManus said.

For example, people who come to Florida from the Midwest or neighboring Southern states are more likely to be registered with the Republican party whereas people who migrate from the Northeast may be affiliated with the Democratic party. MacManus did acknowledge that some people do change their political affiliation when they arrive because of the neighborhood they move to and the political ideologies of the people around them, but that is not necessarily the most common trend.

International migration also contributes to Florida’s population growth.  According to the Migration Policy Institute, 20 percent of Florida’s population in 2014 was made up of people who were born in another country. Florida has the fifth largest population of foreign-born residents in the country.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, about 23 percent of the Latin American immigrants who live in Florida are Cubans. Also seven out of 10 of the Cubans who live in the United States live in Florida. The United States has a special policy with regard to naturalization and creating a path to citizenship for Cubans since the 1960s, so they also make up a key part of the Florida electorate. Cubans also tend to lean Republican in their party affiliation so that adds to the number of overall conservative voters in the state. A Pew Research study about Cuban partisanship found that in 2002 about 64 percent of registered Cuban voters affiliated with the Republican Party. According to the 2014 Pew study, 47 percent of Cuban registered voters were Republicans, so the number decreased over the course of about 10 years.

Florida is stereotypically known for being the place that people go to after they retire. However, MacManus cautioned making that assumption that all Florida voters are older.

“The big mistake that a lot of people make here is assuming that everyone in Florida is 95 years of age or older and that’s not true because half of our electorate, our registered voters, are millennials and gen xers,” MacManus said.

According to United States Census data about the citizen voting age population in Florida, about 34 percent of the electorate is 45 to 64 years old with the second largest group being 65 years and older. However, there is still a significant population of younger voters as well. As far as political party affiliation among the electorate, MacManus provided context about the generational shifts that tilt Florida. She said the older population that were loyal Democrats are starting to die and the next generation that is becoming the older population affiliates most with the Republican Party.

Party Affiliation in Florida

Similar to other swing states, Florida does not always vote for one political party. Also in particular the electorate of Florida is split almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans, which means the undecided voters are very important for presidential campaigns. According to the Florida division of elections, 35 percent of Florida voters registered Republican, 38 percent are Democrats, and 27 percent registered for a third party or with no party.

“In our state the no party affiliat[es] tend to be younger voters who aren’t really keen on the two parties that you’re seeing in this election cycle,” MacManus said before the election. “They don’t really love Hillary Clinton, they don’t really love Donald Trump either and there’s a big question mark as to whether they’re going to turn out and if they do who will they vote for.”

Voter Targeting in Florida

Presidential candidates have to target voters in each of the communities represented in Florida because they need a large majority of voters to win the state. This means they need support across the various demographic groups.

“This is a highly competitive state and, because of that, every group can legitimately say if you don’t appeal to us or if you don’t target your message to us or if you don’t come visit this area or you don’t run ads that have us in them you will lose, and every group is pretty much right when you’ve got that kind of contested state,” MacManus said.

According to CNN, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton visited Florida a combined 67 times throughout the election. The Trump campaign had 23 field offices located in various areas across the state.

The campaigns also focused on communities in the I-4 corridor, which includes six counties: Hillsborough, Polk, Osceola, Orange, Seminole and Volusia. According to MacManus, 44 percent of the voting population in Florida lives within that corridor so often times candidates focus their campaigning efforts there by holding rallies, buying commercial advertisements and sending out mail pieces.

Changes in the Electorate

In this election we saw a shift in the electorate as a lot of working class whites who typically vote for the Democrat candidate actually voted for Donald Trump. Throughout this election Donald Trump presented a message of fixing the economy, which resonated with many of these people who worked in the manufacturing industry and have seen the jobs they could always count on disappear. Although the big impact of this demographic getting out to vote was seen in the fact that Donald Trump won Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, this phenomenon also affected Florida.

According to the USF-Nielsen Sunshine State Survey, the economy and jobs were the most important issues to surveyed Floridians. The survey results also showed that participants felt the top three threats to the state’s economy were the lack of well-paying jobs (28 percent); government waste, taxes and regulations (24 percent); and illegal immigration (18 percent). Together, these three issues encompassed 70 percent of all responses to that question.

MacManus described this group of voters as the soft spots in the traditional party base. They support the party, but they also care about how the party’s policies affect them personally and could be persuaded to vote another way.

“The blue collar workers who are very upset about the Democrats positions on international trade and so forth on the loss of manufacturing jobs they blame on the Democratic administration, so you’ve got soft spots,” said MacManus.

Another soft spot for Democrats are millennial voters, which is evident in their support for Bernie Sanders who was not a traditional Democratic candidate, MacManus said.

Florida Goes Red and So Does the Country

Throughout the general election campaign season a question that political analysts and experts alike had was whether or not people were going to get out to vote. Although in the end many polling predictions of who would win the election ended up being wrong, few could be certain leading up to election day because voter turnout was not guaranteed.

MacManus referred to the fact that before the election “ a big debate within the two parties here in Florida [was about] should we spend a bit little less on tv ads and a little more on get out the vote hiring people to go door to door and hiring people to take people to the polls and things like that.”

On November 8, Donald Trump won Florida with 49 percent of the vote compared to Hillary Clinton’s 47.7 percent of the vote. He also won the general election becoming the next President-elect. Donald Trump seemed to excite a new group of voters that voted for Democrats in past elections. According to a Pew Research Center study based on data from exit polls, two-thirds of non-college educated whites backed Trump, compared with just 28 percent who supported Clinton. In Hillary Clinton’s case she was not able to get the widespread support from millennials, a major demographic in the Democratic Party base, that President Obama did in 2008. The same Pew Research study found that young adults (18-29 years old) preferred Clinton over Trump by a 55 percent to 37 percent margin whereas they gave President Obama a 60 percent to 36 percent advantage over Romney in 2012.

Graphic from Politico 2016 Presidential Election Results in Florida

With regard to the I-4 Corridor, there was also a split in the way those six counties voted:

  • Osceola County: Clinton with about 61 percent and Trump about 36 percent.Turnout: 73 percent.
  • Orange County: Clinton with 60 percent and Trump about 36 percent. Turnout: 71 percent.
  • Polk County: Trump about 55 percent and Clinton about 41 percent. Turnout: 71 percent.
  • Volusia County: Trump about 54 percent and Clinton about 41 percent. Turnout: 72 percent.
  • Hillsborough County: Clinton about 52 percent and Trump about 45 percent. Turnout: 71 percent.
  • Seminole County: Trump about 18 percent and Clinton about 46 percent. Turnout: 78 percent.

This election overall showed the soft spots in the Democratic Party in particular with regard to non-college educated white voters. However, it also showed how a campaign message that really resonates with voters can bring changes in the electorate and how loyal voters are to their party. Again Florida was a bellwether state voting for the next president, which is also evidence of how the mix of demographic groups of the state are representative of the country as a whole.

–Jocelyn Porter


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(S. MacManus, personal communication, October, 30,2016).