Florida. Florida. Florida.
The largest battleground state in the country — by a lot.
The tightest battleground state in the country since 2000.
Has been won by every GOP President since Coolidge.
10 media markets — many big enough to be battleground states
20 million residents
9 million voters.
So what makes it work? What is its story? Or more simply, what is it?
Every few years, I get the same question from national media: Explain Florida to me in a nutshell, and what is the one thing that is key to winning?
If only it was that simple.
I’ll get more in to the math and some of the more interesting markets later this month, but this piece is designed to paint a picture of the place I call home, and the funky odd state that picks Presidents.
Let’s start with one key thing: Florida is a state, not a place.
Most states are places. Think about Texas, or even a state like Iowa, there is a sense of place to it, a commonality of experience — or as marketers might say, almost a brand. Most states have it. Florida really doesn’t.
Florida isn’t a place in the same sense. It is a political circle, drawing 20 million people from vast, and I mean vast experiences and cultures into one spot. And almost everyone here has come from somewhere else.
Florida is the new Ellis Island, except our ships come as cars and planes, from inside the borders of the country, and outside.
Over the next 15 years, we might add as many as 5 million more residents, grow to as much as 30% Hispanic, with a total population of well more than 50% coming from what are typically considered ethnic minorities.
The old saying about Florida is you go north to go south. North Florida feels like the traditional south, large rural areas, conservative towns like Jacksonville and Pensacola, liberal college towns, etc., while the rest of the state feels like wherever it came from. Go to Tampa, or most anywhere on the west coast, and there is more of a Midwestern feel — as most who got there, came down the I-75 corridor. The east coast can feel more northeastern in attitude, homage to the I-95 corridor that brought them here.
There is also a coastal/interior split. Stay to the coastal side of the interstate, and the place is busy, almost one continuous city that goes on for hundreds of miles up and down the coastline. Go to the interior of the interstates, and with the exception of Orlando — which is its own unique culture, the place is still very much Old Florida, with large expanses of agriculture and open space.
Then there is Miami-Dade, easily one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world. 85% of the population is non-white, and that number is growing rapidly. It is really its own city-state, much more like a Hong Kong, or a Singapore, than it is a city within a state.
Florida as a 5 state commonwealth
People look at Florida different ways — I’ve more or less settled on it being home to 5 states.
Home to 3.5 million residents, or 17% of the vote, think of North Florida as the I-10 corridor, running from Jacksonville to Pensacola. It has the lowest Hispanic and highest African American percentages, but is over 2/3rds white. The region is slightly bigger in population than Iowa.
The distance between Pensacola and Jacksonville is roughly 360 miles, along a fairly sparse I-10, home to America’s #1 truck stop, the Busy Bee at the Live Oak halfway point. Rural north Florida feels much more like Georgia or Alabama than the Florida that most people think of. Population is growing fairly rapidly on the coasts, creating red counties that are just getting more red. That being said, there are still literally hundreds of miles of rural coastline in this part of the state, mostly through the Big Bend area.
Florida’s two dry counties are located here, as are two of its largest universities, as well as the seat of state government. In addition, the region is bookended by two of the oldest cities in America: St. Augustine and Pensacola. Both ends of north Florida have a large military presence, as well as significant acres of state and national forests.
It is also by far the most conservative part of the state. Mitt Romney won just shy of 60% of the 1.6 million votes cast in 2012, a margin that is north of 300,000 votes. To give a sense of scale, that is almost 100,000 more votes than Obama carried Miami-Dade in 2012. Outside of the two college towns: Gainesville and Tallahassee, there are very few places for Democrats to do well.
Trump will look to grow here, particularly in the Jacksonville media market. The Bush campaign in 2004 won Duval County, home to Jacksonville, by 61.000 votes, a margin that Obama cut to 8,000 in 2008, and about 15,000 in 2012. He will also look to take advantage of population growth in places like St. Johns County, and some of the Panhandle communities between Pensacola and Panama City. For Trump to win Florida, given the changes happening down south, I would suspect he would need to carry this part of the state by about 400,000 votes, stretching Romney’s win in upstate to over 62% of the vote. For Clinton to win, anything between Obama 2012 (40%) and Obama 2008 (42%) would make it difficult for Trump to find the necessary votes elsewhere.
Home to just over 4 million residents, or 20% of the state’s population, Orlando — in this case, defined as the Orlando media market, is the fastest growing market in the state. It is also arguably the place that has seen the most change over the last 25 years. The third largest market in Florida, would alone be the 27th largest state — roughly the size of Oregon.
Just to provide some perspective, Orlando added about 350,000 new residents between 2010 and 2015, and over 50% of them were Hispanic, largely due to the migration of Puerto Rican families to Central Florida, as well as the growth of existing families. Hispanics have grown from 18.6% of the population to 21.4 of the population — in just five years. Almost all of this is happening in two counties: Orange and Osceola, or more simply, metro Orlando, which sets up some interesting politics in the region.
There is a lot going on here. Drive south from Jacksonville, and you enter the market in Flagler County, a county which boomed in the 90s with a ton of retirement migration from the New York area, then just bottomed out. Volusia to the south, home of NASCAR, and Brevard south of that, home to the Space Coast, both longtime manufacturing economies, have been hit hard over the last decade and a half. Both moved redder in 2012, with Volusia going Republican for the first time since 1988. Not surprisingly, Trump did very well in all three.
Move down I-4 from Daytona into metro Orlando, and you see a different story. The economy is humming along, growth has returned, though there is still real income pressure. You also in these counties can see just how much the demographic changes have impacted the politics. Consider this, Bush won the three metro Orlando counties by 9,000 votes in 2000 and 35,000 in 2004, while President Obama won both times by about 100,000 votes. To put that further in perspective, about 20% of the total change in margin between Bush’s 2004 win and Obama’s 2008 win happened in just these three counties.
But it isn’t all great news for Dems, further north is the Villages, a fast growing heavily Republican retirement community, largely of retired Midwesterners, and Ocala, which is home to Florida’s horse country. And what is interesting, when you combine the “Villages metro area” with the old manufacturing counties on the east coast, you find the Republican trends there almost balancing out the Democratic trends in the metro Orlando area. In fact, since 2000, Republicans have increased their margins in these counties by nearly 75,000 votes — and the change between 2008 and 2012 allowed Romney to sneak a small win the market in 2012.
To win the state, Trump needs to continue to grow those margins in the counties to the north and east of Orlando, and hope that the Clinton margins in the metro Orlando area don’t grow. Realistically, he would need to get to at least 52% of the two-way vote to meet a Florida win goal, or carry a margin of 75,000 votes or so. For her to win, the opposite needs to happen — run up the score — drive the margins in metro Orlando up closer to 125,000 or even higher, and stem the tide outside of the area, hence Tim Kaine’s first stop being in aforementioned Volusia County, with the goal of breaking even in the market. She does that, and there is almost no math for Trump to win.
Tampa and SW Florida
The biggest “state” in Florida, almost 30%, or 6 million residents live in Tampa and SW Florida. The Tampa media market alone is the size of Louisiana, but when combined with the SW Florida counties, you are looking at a region the population of Missouri, equal to 10 electoral votes.
Drive down coastal US 19 and 41 from Citrus County in the north to Naples at the far south, and with very few exceptions, it is one now one urban area stretching well over 200 miles. Interstate 75 runs through here, and thus, there is a distinctly Midwestern feel. In fact, 25–30 years ago, before the area really earned its own identity, if you went to a Tampa Bay football game against then division rivals Green Bay or Chicago, and it felt like a home game for the away team. It is not quite as bad today, but you will still see large contingents in their hometown garb.
The region is as “white” as North Florida, and has the smallest African American population in the state. There is a fast growing Hispanic population, which is starting to impact politics, particularly in Hillsborough County (Tampa), but outside of the traditional Cuban population in urban Tampa, the Hispanic population here is much more “Latin” (particularly Mexican) than the eastern and central part of the state, which meant a larger delta between Hispanic residency and voting. However, that is changing. Since 2008, of 43% of the voter registration growth has been Hispanic, though that trails the state overall of 53%. Also by comparison, 33% of the registration growth here has been white, compared to 18% statewide.
As you move south from Tampa towards Sarasota and beyond, it gets more Republican and you see more wealth. Sarasota is a funky political place, quite Republican in registration, but culturally more progressive. Obama nearly won the county in 2008, something that hasn’t been done since FDR. But in all of these counties, life out by the interstate is quite different than life close to the Gulf. Take Lee County, home to Fort Myers, and during the financial crisis, home to the largest foreclosure crisis in the country — with many communities still underwater. Travel further south into Collier County, and out east of the interstate, you will encounter massive Hispanic populations, including the neat community of Immokalee, a place that feels like almost no place else in the state.
Romney won this “state” by about 5%, driven by a robust performance in the Fort Myers market, where his win margin matched Bush’s in 2004. Hillsborough is the traditional bellwether here, though in recent years, demographics have moved into more of a base blue county. To win Florida, Trump will need to really drive up numbers, which in a perfect world would be doable. The population is older, and more white, and tends to come from many of the same states where Trump hopes to expand the map. But thankfully for my side, Trump has been a complete mess. Realistically, to make up for what he is going to lose in SE Florida, Trump would need to win the region by 3% more than Romney, taking Romney’s 150,000 vote margin and pushing it well over 200,000.
For Clinton, the task is pretty basic: Just keep it where it was for Obama, and try to ride a more Democratic Tampa to a win in the Tampa media market, and a slightly smaller loss than overall region. And trust me, they understand it, as she has made two trips to the Tampa media market in just over two weeks.
Keep an eye on this on election night. Pasco County, a large bedroom community north of Tampa, reports its early and absentee returns right at 7:00PM EST on the Supervisor’s website. If Clinton is ahead, or only behind by a few thousand votes, I think you can call Florida for her. If she is down more than few thousand, then hang on for a close one.
State four — moving back east across the state to the Palm Beach and Broward county areas, we find a region as big as Orlando, home to almost 4 million voters (20% of the state), and actually a slightly bigger voter block (about 21% of the statewide vote). Like Orlando, think Oregon when describing this size of this market. This state is defined as the Palm Beach County media market, as well as Broward County. I’ve always tended to find Broward more aligned with Palm Beach than it is with Dade, with whom it shares a media market. However, that might not be the case for long, as Broward’s demographics change before our eyes. More on that later.
This is the hub of the traditional Democratic base in Florida. Before Miami burst onto the scene in 2008 as a place where Democrats could run up the score, Democratic wins were defined by how you did in this area. In Bush v Gore, Gore won this area by over 300,000 votes. The only other region he won was Miami, by just under 50,000. He lost everywhere else. Today’s vote model for Democrats is more balanced with Dade, but it is still critical to do well here.
The region, for all purposes, is basically one big city, at least east of Interstate 95. While there are some less dense areas in Martin County and Indian River, if you drive down US #1 from Melbourne to Homestead in Miami-Dade, you probably aren’t going to go more than a mile or two without passing a gas station, and it might take you three days with all the traffic lights. Certainly from the Palm Beach County line, it is just one continuous city all the way to the Keys. That being said, out west in the Palm Beach County market, things get pretty rural. There are still large areas dedicated to agriculture, and when you get out towards Lake Okeechobee, you’ll find communities that are as different from the town of Palm Beach as we are to Mars.
At the southern end of the area, Broward County is pretty close to built out. Growth here runs right up to the Everglades. For many years, it was called the 6th Borough of New York, and for good reason, literally everyone you met came from the northeast — moving right down I-95. It is home to the state’s largest Jewish population, and Democratic wins here were based on a coalition of liberal Jewish voters and African Americans. Not anymore. Broward is exploding with diversity, driven by both forward leaning Hispanic and Caribbean Black populations. In fact, in just five years, Broward County has actually seen a decrease in the white population of nearly 40,000, with Hispanics growing by 93,000 and Blacks (both African American and Caribbean American) growing by nearly 70,000. In Palm Beach County, the story isn’t much different, with the white population growing by less than 10,000 over the last five years, with the bulk of the growth among the Hispanic and Black populations.
This trend is what is bad news for Donald Trump. Broward County is actually getting more Democratic as it gets more diverse, driving opportunities for larger margins. Where he has room to grow upstate and on the Gulf Coast side, he has to hold on here. Obama carried this region with 58% of the vote. Given Trump’s absolute struggles in the Black and Hispanic communities, not to mention the demographic growth, and while he really needs to keep Clinton at the same level of support that Obama won in 2012, it is hard to imagine Clinton her share of vote to 60%. If she gets any higher than this, he’s pretty much done, as there just isn’t that many more places for him to make it up.
Last but not least, Miami, which in this scenario also includes the Keys.
Roughly the population of Nevada, Miami is one of the most diverse areas in the world. It is becoming what London is to Europe, and what Singapore and Hong Kong are to Asia, that critical hub that serves as both an economic and political point of entry for Latin America, and about the only thing it shares in common with the rest of the state is the common border. It is also exceptionally complicated. According to the 2010 census:
At just under 14% of the statewide population, nearly 85% of this “state” population is made up of people of color. In terms of voter performance, the area makes up just under 11% of the statewide vote, a difference which points to the sheer number of non-citizen residents in Miami.
Today we consider this base Democratic territory, but that definition really only applies to the last eight years. In the disputed election of 2000, and again in 2004, Gore only carried the two party vote by 6 points. Fast forward to 2008, and the margin grew to nearly 16%. In 2012, the number grew to 23%.
What is driving that change?
Let’s start by looking back.
The key factor driving the relative competitiveness of Miami was the strength of the Republicans with exile-era Cubans. As recently as 2000, 56% of Hispanics in Dade were Republican. In 2006, the number had dropped to 49%. In January of this year: 36%. In terms of raw voters, the GOP advantage among Hispanics has dropped from about 130,000 in 2004 to about 40,000 today. It would not surprise me if this number was close to parity by Election Day 2016. Over the same time, the percentage of Dade County voters who are Hispanic has risen from 44% in 2000 to 57% today. Over the same time, non-Hispanic white has dropped from 31 to 19%. In other words, the largest share of the Miami vote is getting bigger, and more Democratic. Even Donald Trump could do that math.
Looking at it just since the 2008 election, Democrats have added more than 31,000 Hispanics to their Miami area rolls, while another 65,000 have signed up without party affiliation? Republicans: They have lost nearly 11,000 Hispanic voters. It boils down to this, Republicans are failing to replace their aging exile-era Cuban base, as later generations of Cubans are not as loyal to their elder’s party affiliations AND Miami is rapidly diversifying within the Hispanic population, and those non-Cuban voters are performing much more like non-Cuban Hispanics elsewhere: overwhelmingly Democratic.
So what does this mean? For Republicans, absolutely nothing good.
Two things separate things are happening on a collision course: demographic inertia is pushing the area more Democratic. One could argue that if Democrats did nothing at all, the Clinton margin of victory would probably push towards 28–30%, which would increase her margin of victory by 50–60K votes.
But combine this with Trump, and now you have the chance for a truly generational change in Miami, one that could change the look of the county, not just at the top of the ticket, but at all levels of the ballot. Let’s say the Trump factor pushes Clinton to carry the two party vote in Miami Dade county by a margin of 70–30 (keep in mind Obama won Miami Dade with 61%), now she carries the county by 350K votes or more — a significant increase over 2012. Two things happen: She wins Florida, no questions asked, and lots of local Republican office holders go home. For Trump to win, he needs to keep the Miami margin under 30 points, which means he needs to find his footing with Hispanics, and stem demographic energy — two really tall tasks.
So how does this plane land?
This piece is long, but Florida isn’t simple. I wanted to show in a traditional election, how the two main candidates should approach the state to win. I understand that nothing about this election is traditional, and that multiple candidates in this race will change win goals in each of these markets.
But for all the different scenarios, the basic premise of Florida doesn’t really change.
Politically mine is not a state that is moved by what happens in a number of battleground counties — these days, I am honestly not sure I could list more than 2 or 3 such counties, but instead the state is like a scale, balancing on the fulcrum of the I-4 corridor. Candidates will work to influence where the scale tips in how they manage the margins — how much you win or lose different areas — Dems keeping it closer in Duval versus Republicans running up the score somewhere else. At its most basic level, for Trump to win, he needs to tip that scale to the north, running up big numbers, more than she runs up South Florida. For Clinton to win, the math is reversed. There aren’t many reasonable experts on either side who at this point wouldn’t give her the advantage.
Though nothing is easy here. The state is absurdly expensive, and winning Florida means navigating different cultures, languages, and economic realities. It requires both turning out your base and persuading an ideologically and culturally diverse swing voters. When folks ask me, what is the key to winning Florida, the answer is everything, which can be a hard concept to understand. But the reality is Florida isn’t competitive because of its unique nature, like an Iowa, but it becomes competitive in sum when you add up all of its many parts. Furthermore, the state seems to be growing in such a way that even as the state grows and gets more diverse, the competitive nature of it isn’t really changing. Honestly, that is why I love working in this state.
I am not as blindly optimistic as some in my party are about what demographics mean, I do know this, in 2016, I’d much rather be her than him at this point, by a long shot.
Steve Schale served as State Director and Senior Advisor to President Obama’s Florida campaigns. He has more than 20 years of experience in Florida, where he currently advises both candidates and corporations on how to navigate Florida’s political terrain. His website is steveschale.com.