Florida's diverse and growing population will uphold its crucial swing state status in 2020, experts say

Since 1964, the candidate who has won Florida has also gone on to win the presidency in (almost) every single election — with the exception of 1992. 

The Sunshine State has become one of the most important U.S. swing states over the last several decades. But why?

“There’s no other state that’s as big as we are, as close in terms of partisanship, as diverse from a racial and ethnic perspective, and an age perspective and a geographical perspective,” said Dr. Susan MacManus, a University of South Florida Distinguished University Professor Emerita.

With a population of 21 million, Florida has the third-largest number of electoral votes (29) and the most electoral votes of any battleground state. 

It also has consistently had the lowest average margin of victory for almost three decades, experts say.

How Florida has voted in previous elections

Florida voted almost exclusively Democratic from the Reconstruction era following the Civil War until the mid-20th century, according to the nonpartisan elections website 270toWin. It turned primarily red beginning in 1952 with the election of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Over the past 60 years, both the state’s population and its electoral votes have grown — with an estimated 21 million Floridians today. At the end of World War II, the state had just eight electoral votes. After the 2020 presidential election, the state is on track to have 31 electoral votes following the census count, experts say.

The state has also become much more diverse. Between Cubans, Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics, Black Americans and older White retirees, there are many different demographics that make up Florida, resulting in a wide swath of political differences.

This diversity has resulted in a state with very, very close races. According to University of Central Florida Political Science Professor Aubrey Jewett, Florida has had the lowest average margin of victory since 1992.

“For the past six elections in a row, we have voted for the winner. We have voted three times Republican, and three times Democrat,” Jewett explained. “Not only do we swing back and forth, and not only have we each time voted for the winner, but the winner’s margin of victory is just really slim every time.”

The result of the 2000 presidential election in Florida was so close — a margin of only 537 votes out of 6 million cast — that it triggered a statewide recount and was ultimately decided by the U.S Supreme Court.

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In 2004, President George W. Bush beat John Kerry in the state by a 5% margin of victory. In 2008, Barack Obama bested John McCain in Florida by just 2.8%. The election in 2012 was even closer, with Obama edging out Mitt Romney by less than 1% in the state.

The 2016 election was almost as close in Florida, with Donald Trump earning a 1.2% winning margin over Hillary Clinton.

“Florida for years has been described as a 1% state because going back four to five elections, including a couple presidential, the margin of victory for the winner was just 1%. And in 2018, the governor’s race was a half percent,” MacManus added.

The different demographics that make up Florida’s electorate

“It’s often said that Florida’s politics have been imported from every other state, particularly the Midwest and the Northeast, but from a lot of different countries as well, including the Caribbean and Latin America,” MacManus said. 

MacManus has written and co-authored multiple books on Florida politics, including “Politics in Florida” and “Florida’s Minority Trailblazers.”

Voters line up as the polls open at David Park Community Center on Nov. 6, 2018 in Hollywood, Florida. (Susan Stocker/Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Roughly two-thirds of Floridians were born in another state. One in five Floridians were born in another country, data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows.

Hispanic voters 

For Jewett, Hispanics are perhaps “one of the most interesting demographics” in Florida, which make up about one-quarter of the state’s population. But unlike many other states in the U.S. Southwest, which are comprised of many Mexican Americans, Florida is made up of two other large subgroups.

There are approximately 2.3 million Hispanics of Cuban ancestry living in the U.S., and more than two-thirds live in Florida, according to Pew Research.

“Traditionally, it’s been the Cuban Americans that were the largest and most influential,” Jewett said. “Unlike most other Hispanics across the country, Cuban Americans have traditionally leaned very Republican, and that remains the case today — particularly with middle-aged and older Cubans.”

While Jewett said there is somewhat of a generational divide, Trump did very well with this group in 2016. 

“He got a majority of the Cuban vote in Florida, and again, that really helped him eke out a victory last time around. They will be a hotly contested group this time,” Jewett said.

The other major and fast-growing subgroup in Florida is Puerto Ricans — with roughly 20% out of an estimated 5.6 million Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin living in the U.S., data from Pew Research shows.

While Cuban voters have been largely found in South Florida, many Puerto Rican voters are located in Central Florida — particularly the counties of Orange and Osceola. Both of the counties saw a surge in the Puerto Rican population in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey estimates.

Puerto Ricans on the mainland have traditionally leaned Democratic, Jewett said — adding that “within Florida, they are certainly considered a demographic in play by both parties.”

“Both the Republicans and the Democrats are going after Puerto Rican voters in a big way with direct advertising on Hispanic radio and in print media,” he said. “The Hispanic vote is critically important in our state.”

Black voters

Black voters in Florida make up about 17% of the state’s population, and there are “tremendous differences” within this racial group — politically, socio-economically and culturally.

MacManus said the Sunshine State claims “one of the most diverse Black populations,” including African Americans and Caribbean-born populations with an influx from Haiti and Jamaica. “They’re very different in how you communicate with them and what their issues are,” she added.

The American-born Black population tends to lean Democratic, mirroring that same trend across the country. But research indicates there is slightly more partisan diversity among some foreign-born Black voters.

Senior voters

One of the Florida demographic groups very important for elections is senior citizens. About 20% of the state’s population is over the age of 65, and these voters are “super voters.”

“They turn out very reliably and in large numbers,” Jewett explained. “More recently, those voters have been leaning Republican. So in 2016, senior voters were a big part of a Trump coalition and helped him win this state by about 1%.”

Sumter County, home to the fast-growing Villages retirement community, has become one of the most Republican areas of the state — filled with senior voters and many Trump supporters, according to Jewett.

“Many Republican candidates, including President Trump, have visited The Villages,” he explained. “Over the last say, two to three to four election cycles, really — it has become a must-do place for Republican candidates to come.”

Younger voters

While many may think of Florida as a state filled with retirees, Gen Z and Millennials make up roughly 30% of Florida’s registered voters, according to MacManus. These age groups tend be more liberal on social issues, whether they are Democrats or Republicans, and a growing portion of younger voters are registering as No Party Affiliation voter, she added.

“Long gone are the days when you could describe Florida as totally a ‘senior-citizen-voting state.’ We have a huge and ever-growing younger portion of our electorate that’s very different from the older portion,” MacManus said.

The different regions of Florida

If you want to win in Florida, you have to look at it like a giant puzzle and see how each piece fits into completing the picture of winning the entire state. 

Florida has 10 different media markets across the state. And the political culture in each of those media markets is “vastly different,” Jewett said.

North Florida

North Florida, which includes the Panhandle region all the way over to northeast Florida where Jacksonville and Duval County is located, is an area of the state that is “most reliably Republican,” Jewett said.

“You have a lot of military folks up there. A lot of White, conservative, religious folks, evangelicals. A lot of people who are traditionally Southern, maybe who have moved down from Alabama or Georgia,” he explained. 

But there are some pockets of solidly Democratic-voting areas, particularly Alachua County, which includes the University of Florida in Gainesville, and Leon County, home to Florida State University and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in the state capitol of Tallahassee.

The rural, conservative regions in the Panhandle were “absolute runaways” in favor of Republican candidates in recent elections, including for Trump in 2016, according to FOX 13 Tampa Bay Political Editor and Chief Investigator Craig Patrick.

“That’s how Republicans have found a way to sustain greater losses in other parts of the state,” Patrick said.

Central Florida

In the central part of the state lies the I-4 Corridor, which stretches from the Tampa Bay area through Orlando to Daytona Beach. This area is often considered the swing region of the swing state and one of the most critical areas for candidates to win votes.

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Both the Tampa and Orlando markets make up roughly 45% of registered voters in Florida, according to MacManus. There have been a large influx of Puerto Rican voters around the Orlando area, which also includes big employers like Walt Disney World and Universal Studios. The Tampa Bay area has also seen an influx of some retirees, but really, people of all ages, she said.

“Not only are these two markets the most politically divided from a partisan perspective, they are the most diverse in terms of age overall,” MacManus said. 

This area along the I-4 Corridor is also representative of the “three most important geographies of politics,” urban voters, suburban voters, and rural voters, who all vote differently, MacManus said. 

“You can take just about any county in the I-4 corridor — from Hillsborough to Orange to Polk County — and you can clearly identify areas that are very rural, suburbanized, family-oriented places, and then the larger metro areas, particularly the big cities, which are younger and much more racially diverse and tend to lean heavily Democrat,” she said.

Even more so recently, Patrick said Orange County, which encompasses Orlando, has been trending “significantly progressive and Democratic,” while the Tampa Bay area remains a true “bellwether region.”

“This is a very diverse state. In that sense, it’s a microcosm of the nation,” Patrick added.

South Florida

The southern portion of the state is perhaps the most diverse area with a large number of Black voters, Hispanic voters, Jewish voters, and White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant voters, according to experts.

Southeast Florida, however, “is the bedrock of the Democratic party in Florida,” Jewett said. In 2016, Clinton won Miami-Dade County by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, and also won in nearby Broward and Palm Beach counties.

While the southeast portion of the state is very blue, the southwestern side is very red — including areas like Lee County, which includes Fort Myers, and Collier County, which encompasses Naples.

“They’re a very reliably Republican area. It’s a conservative area, it’s a wealthy area, it’s whiter than most of the rest of Florida,” Jewett explained. “Not as much racial and ethnic diversity there, and so southwest Florida is a very Republican area.”

Who is polling better in the state?

Florida 2020 presidential election polls throughout September show that Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is just slightly leading in Florida over Trump — but still well within the plus or minus 3% margin of error.

In 2018, a year netted 40 House seats for Democrats and seven governorships, Florida didn’t necessarily follow this “blue wave” trend. Republican Rick Scott just narrowly defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson in a close race, and Republican Ron DeSantis also defeated Democrat Andrew Gillum in another tight race for governor.

Despite being exceedingly close margins, the results prompted some to reconsider Florida’s swing state status leading into 2020. But both Jewett and MacManus disagree.

“I think, certainly, we can look at 2018 and it gives us some idea of what might happen in 2020. But I would strongly disagree with any political analyst or political pundit that would say Florida is a red state,” Jewett said. “If you look at 2018, yes, were Democrats disappointed in this state? Absolutely. They were bitterly disappointed. But they came up just, just short. Really, if you look it, we had three statewide races that went into recounts. They were that close.”

Polling in Florida does not have a great track record of accuracy, MacManus added. 

“I always remind people that polls cannot and never have been able to predict turnout accurately. In Florida, debates matter a lot and in Florida, so does the constant news saturation,” she said.

What issues will matter most to Florida voters in 2020?  

For both Democrats and Republicans — the COVID-19 pandemic and the response of the Trump administration will be top of mind for Florida voters in November, according to Jewett. 

Florida, which earlier in the summer faced a surge in coronavirus cases, began to see a downward trend in new cases starting in August. But business shutdowns to help curb the spread of COVID-19 have also led to a rattled economy, which is traditionally one of the most important issues for American voters.

This year, Jewett said it will hold a particular importance for Floridians. In the tourism-dependent Central Florida, Osceola and Orange counties ranked highest in the state for unemployment rates after coronavirus-related shutdowns at massive employers like Disney and Universal, as well as a decline in air travel coming into Florida’s international airports.

“Very few people are flying in from overseas like they normally would, and so unemployment is a huge issue in the state and particularly here in Central Florida, the heart of the I-4 Corridor, because we have so many workers that are dependent on that tourism dollar,” Jewett explained. “People in restaurants and hotels, people that work at the airport. The pilots themselves. The people at the theme parks. I mean, it’s just, it’s been really, really tough on a lot of workers here.

According to Patrick, one issue that transcends political parties in Florida is the environment.

“Florida Republicans and Democrats collectively across the aisle embrace environmental protection more so than we see typically in other states,” he explained. “Because they understand that the economy among other things depends on it. That people come to Florida, not so much for the big box stores and the subdivisions and sprawl, they come here for the idea of Florida. And protecting its natural beauty is an economic stance in this state.” 

Another issue is the Black Lives Matter movement, including calls for racial justice in America and some of violence and “perceived violence” that has accompanied protests in some U.S. cities.

“On the Democratic side, if they could get younger voters and African American voters to really turn out in super high levels because they support Black Lives Matter and they think that perhaps Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be better on that issue than Donald Trump and Mike Pence, that would be helpful for the Democrats for sure,” Jewett said.

“But on the other side, Republicans have been able to use that issue in Florida as well to their advantage, as more and more violence has sprung up across the country,” Jewett added. 

Don’t expect Florida’s results on election night

As more voters will likely shift to mail-in ballots in November amid the coronavirus pandemic, officials have stressed that full results for the presidential and down-ballot races may not be known on election night — including in the crucial state of Florida. Counting the results will take time.

“Everyone in the election world and media is trying to really inform the public as to why we may not know on election night. And it’s not because of a conspiracy or fraud,” MacManus said.  

“I think a lot of people are realistically telling people that it could be a month or so. We have no idea.”

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This story was reported from Cincinnati.