For any Democrats who were still under the illusion this was going to be easy, a new Florida poll from NBC/Marist ended that consideration yesterday. Among likely voters it was a dead heat, 48/48. Immediately, memories of disappointments in 2016 and 2000 returned, along with various statewide contests, most recently the 2018 GOP wins for senator and governor.
Should Democrats panic? Can Joe Biden still win? Does it mattered if he doesn’t? Let’s take a closer look:
2016 Results: Trump 49.02%, Clinton 47.82% (R +3)
When Hillary Clinton began trailing as more and more Florida returns were posted, it became apparent that an upset was possible. She was going to need to sweep Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania to make up for it, and instead won none of the above.
2020 Polls: While the Marist poll has the candidates even, and it’s an extremely high quality survey (FiveThirtyEight rates Marist an A+ pollster), Biden has a slight edge. He’s at a weighted average of +2.8%. Three new polls have Biden leading by 3 to 5 points. Several other surveys taken after the conventions show Donald Trump trailing by 3 to 7 points. The only exception being a poll from the Trafalgar Group (which is GOP affiliated) and is Trump +3.
Biden’s national lead is nearly 8 points as of today. If Florida is still where it’s been compared to the nation over the past six elections, that translates to a Biden lead of a few points. His campaign shouldn’t be comfortable yet, but Trump still has some work to do.
Key Historical Shifts: Florida was once part of the old solid Democratic South. After having its electoral votes to go the GOP as part of the compromise that settled the 1876 election and ended Reconstruction, Florida voted Democratic in all but one election between 1880 and 1948, and was more blue than the average state in all elections between 1880 and 1956.
Floridians supported Republican Herbert Hoover over Catholic Democrat Al Smith in 1928, joining Texas, Virginia, and Tennessee in putting anti-Catholic bias ahead of party ties. All but Texas then supported Richard Nixon over JFK in 1960, again deciding to snub the Catholic candidate.
That would never happen in Florida now. Should Biden lose, it will be despite his Catholicism, not because of it. The migration of northerners to retire in Florida was just beginning when Kennedy and Nixon faced off. Over the past sixty years, millions of Catholics have found their way south. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of Catholic Puerto Ricans have moved to the mainland, settling in Florida along with hundreds of thousands of Cubans escaping the Castro regime.
Jews weren’t welcome in Florida prior to World War II. Now Broward County is heavily Jewish and Florida has more Jews than any state besides New York and California. While many parts of the state have moved towards the GOP, and Cuban voters are far more heavily Republican than any other Hispanic group, Jews, along with African Americans and Puerto Ricans are now a key part of the Democratic coalition here.
Transplants from northeastern or midwestern states are often more conservative than the neighbors they left behind, though not uniformly Republican. The Panhandle in the northern part of the state is the reddest section. As the old saying goes, the farther north in Florida you go, the further south you get. This stew leads to a state that is often up for grabs in presidential elections and has had a single digit margin in the past 7 contests.
Floridians have voted for the winner in all but two elections since they stopped automatically voting Democratic in 1928 (1960, 1992), and the exceptions were very close. But that doesn’t make Florida a swing state. It’s red. Not very red, but red. Starting in 1960, Florida has given Republicans more support than the nation as a whole in every election except 1976. That year, Floridians were 3 points kinder to Jimmy Carter, governor of the state just across the Florida-Georgia line.
Bill Clinton won the state in 1996, Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, but their Florida margins were smaller than their national victories. A Democrat can win Florida in a good year, but doesn’t need it to get to 270. Both Bill Clinton in 1992 and JFK in 1960 managed this. No Republican has won the presidency without Florida since Calvin Coolidge in 1924. Given the polls are showing Trump doing better here than overall in 2020, it appears this trend isn’t going to change by November.
How Biden Can Improve on 2016: Nationwide, Biden is doing better with white voters than Hillary did. He’s stronger with older white voters and less educated white voters, all of which will be useful in Florida, especially in the Panhandle and places like Duval County (Jacksonville.) Given that Clinton only lost by a point, if Biden can win a few of these voters over, especially those who voted for Obama before Trump, he’s got a clear path to a narrow win that would almost guarantee the presidency.
How Trump Can Improve on 2016: Unlike Michigan, where it’s going to be hard for Trump to do much better than last time, or Hawaii where doesn’t matter, he’s got a card to play here. Polling shows Trump is running ahead of 2016 among Hispanic voters, especially Cubans in Dade County (Miami area.) Last time, he was unable to get the same level of support that previous GOP candidates from Ronald Reagan to the Bushes were able to count on.
You may wonder why “build the wall and make Mexico pay for it” Trump is doing better with Hispanic voters. For anti-Castro Cubans, Trump has rescinded some of Obama’s more open Cuban policy. Beneficiaries of an immigration exemption since the mid-1960s, Cubans aren’t worried about their relatives being stopped at the border. And Trump is drawing plenty of support from non-Cuban Latinos in other states. This is not a monolithic community.
Trump does very well among business owners without a 4 year or graduate degree. Many Hispanic or Latino voters fit this description. And many families in places like Texas have been in the United States for generations longer than many Caucasian families. California Latinos mostly detest Trump. This isn’t true everywhere. So, if he can bring back a few of his now hesitant white voters from 2016, and add a few Cubans who are past Trump’s brawl with Marco Rubio four years ago, the math is there for him to build on his one point margin over Hillary and make Florida a little more red than normal.
Forecast: This is the inverse of Michigan. Biden needs that one. Trump needs this one. With so many seniors likely to vote by mail, we won’t know who won Florida until several days after November 3. The question is if it will matter. Trump could already be eliminated. Or we might be watching Florida like in 2000. At this point, I’d easily believe either outcome. Too soon to call.