Florida has long been a swing state in presidential politics, but there’s a growing sense this year that the state may be slipping away from Republican Donald Trump — and with it not just GOP hopes of retaking the White House in November but perhaps the party’s chances in the future.
A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed Democrat Hillary Clinton leading Trump by 8 points, 47 percent to 39 percent, confirming what many political operatives were seeing in private polling for campaigns and interest groups. In fact, of the past 11 polls, only two showed the race statistically tied. Last week National Public Radio downgraded Florida on its battleground map from tossup to “leans Democrat” status, putting it in line with other analysts like the Cook Political Report, Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, and the University of Virginia’s Crystal Ball.
Trump’s problems are largely a matter of demographics. When Al Gore and George W. Bush competed there 16 years ago, 78 percent of voters were non-Hispanic whites. In 2012, when Barack Obama won the state with 50.01 percent of the vote, the non-Hispanic white vote dropped to 66.5 percent. And census numbers out last month show that in the past five years, 51.5 percent of all new residents in the state are Hispanic. This group, which already tends to vote Democratic, has been pushed more by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“Unless Trump somehow dramatically reverses course, I see Florida firmly in the Clinton column,” said Republican pollster Dario Moreno, who is also an associate politics professor at Florida International University in Miami.
“The real danger for Republicans in this election is that Trump could accelerate a trend of Florida Hispanics moving away from them. Marco Rubio’s decision to run for reelection to the Senate could mitigate this some, but the down-ballot damage could be lasting.”
This is not just dangerous to Florida Republicans, but to Republicans nationwide because of the Electoral College math. While as many as a dozen states are considered battlegrounds, Clinton could lose all of them except Florida — and then win every state Democrats have won in the past six presidential elections — and win the White House. Stopping Clinton, or any Democrat in the future, from winning the White House, means stopping them in Florida first, unless there is a total restructuring of how states have voted in the past generation.
Trump is scheduled to return to Florida Friday to give a speech in Miami titled, “Succeeding Together,” which is not open to the general public.
The trip will help alleviate concerns by Republicans that he is not spending enough time in the state or building out a significant campaign on the ground to match Clinton, who has had a dozen paid staff on the ground for nearly two months. Trump announced who would lead his Florida operation just last week.
Clinton and supporting groups spent $7.3 million on television ads in the state in June, while Trump and his supporting groups spent zero, according to an analysis by NBC News.
Nonetheless, Republican National Committeeman Peter Feaman, an attorney in Boynton Beach, said he doesn’t believe the state is slipping away from Trump just yet, though he admits there is a lot of work to be done in Hispanic communities to get out the vote.
“This state could still go either way, and Republicans are becoming more unified around Trump,” Feaman said.
Veteran Florida Republican consultant Brad Doster agreed that while polls show Trump having a rough stretch, the state is so divided politically that it will once again be a tossup.
“[Mitt] Romney was not doing well in Florida early on either,” Doster said, referring to the 2012 contest. “A lot of this will come down to late-breaking votes based on the personality of the candidates. I am just not convinced that Hillary has a winning personality. Then again, I know others will argue the same about Trump, which only reinforces my point that who knows how this is going to go here.”
For the moment, Democrats are keeping their heads down. For example, the statewide Clinton campaign is currently focused on voter registration.
Steve Schale, a Florida Democratic operative who helped steer both Obama Florida victories in 2008 and 2012, said that while Trump faces challenges in both demographics and his campaign organization locally, it is too early to say the state is a lock for Clinton.
“It is a big state that naturally wants to be tight,” he said. “At times in both 2008 and 2012, it looked uphill for Obama — and since many people wrote us off, I am not going to start writing others off.”
However, this time the uphill climb for Trump could be too much.
“Florida has many moving parts politically, and a lot of them are moving in the wrong direction for Trump,” said Kevin Wagner, a Florida Atlantic University political science professor.
“Meanwhile, Clinton is spending a lot of money here and building out her campaign. While you can never say Florida is in the bag for any candidate, it is unclear how Trump can bounce back.”