Could Past Be Prologue In Florida Come Election Night?

September 4, 2020 by Dan McCue
Jupiter Island, Florida. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – It was the end of a long day and night in Florida’s Martin County.

Straggling reporters wandered into the newsroom, filing a few late sentences to be added to the local election coverage.

But inside the newspaper’s library, a brief stroll from the city editor’s desk, all eyes were fixed on the television set and on CNN’s quickly updated electoral projections.

The year 2000, it’s easy to forget now, was the first true election of the Internet age. Thanks to advances in technology, the networks would now have to be on a flat out tear to beat the competition.

Looking for an edge, most turned to interpreting voter survey data – exit polls – to determine which way important battleground states would fall.

Shortly after 7:50 p.m., CNN, Fox News, and every other television network began calling Florida for former Vice President Al Gore. By 9 p.m., the outcome seemed to be a lock, but the editors were uneasy.

A minor controversy earlier in the week — the discovery the paper had printed up a “Bush Wins” front page in advance of Election Day — was still on the minds of many people in the newsroom.

“Easier to speed the paper to our readers,” said management, explaining, without providing evidence, that a “Gore Wins” front page had been printed as well.

If Gore had in fact pulled off a narrow victory in Florida, he would have, most likely, also won the presidency.

When nothing appeared to change, the next morning’s paper was put on the large presses next door, sending a low, insistent rumble throughout the conjoined buildings.

“I guess I’ll catch Gore’s victory speech on the radio on the way home,” a reporter said.

He was almost home, navigating the rise in U.S. Highway 1 near Jonathan Dickinson State Park, when the world suddenly seemed to turn upside down.

“We have a major change in the race for the White House,” the announcer said. “Based on the latest raw vote totals, television networks are now withdrawing their earlier predictions of a Gore victory. The race is now being called too close to call.”

What would transpire in the hours that followed — Bush being projected the winner, Gore’s concession, and then his withdrawal of that concession — was quite fittingly like something out of the writing of Dave Barry or Carl Hiaasen.

And, it led to 36 days of confusion and tumult, as lawyers, political operatives, “chad” counting Palm Beach County elections workers, and finally the courts, tried to unravel exactly what transpired on Election Day.

In the end, Gore, winner of the national popular vote, conceded the contest to Bush, who led in the Electoral College and was sworn in as president in January 2001.

Fewer than 60 days out from Election Day 2020, the specter of 2000 continues to haunt those who lived through it, the pangs all the more severe because of the uncertainty associated with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Could all the chaos associated with the 2000 election happen again 20 years later?

Current Models Show Biden Winning Florida

Prognosticators are loath to go on record about what they think might happen in Florida two months from now.

That said, G. Elliott Morris, data journalist at The Economist, has been one of the most interesting reads of the summer because of what he and his colleagues at the magazine do say about the race in general and Florida specifically.

According to The Economist model, at present, former Vice President Joe Biden is likely to defeat President Donald Trump in November, and if he happens to win Florida, his odds of winning the whole thing climb to around 96%.

Morris, who is using his Twitter account as daily commentary on The Economist’s forecast, has also suggested that Florida has a 17% chance of providing the eventual winner with their 270th vote in the Electoral College — making it the “tipping point” state.

The only state that ranks higher in his formulations is Pennsylvania, which has a 20% chance of being the state that brings the victor across the finish line.

While this smacks of good news for Biden, Democrats in Florida continue to fear a scenario in which Trump takes an early lead on Nov. 3, thanks to Republicans being more likely to vote in person, and then claims victory while tweeting entirely unsupported assertions of mail-ballot fraud before those votes are even counted.

Like 2000, that could toss the election into the courts, which weren’t kind to Gore last time around.

Little wonder then that during her speech at the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama urged Democrats to vote “in person if we can” to reduce the chances of such an outcome.

According to a Quinnipiac University Poll released Thursday, 42% of likely Florida voters say they will vote in person on Election Day, while 32% think they will vote early by mail or an absentee ballot, and 23% said they’ll likely vote at an early voting location.

Most Voters Have Made Up Their Minds

The Quinnipiac poll currently has Biden ahead of Trump, 48-45%, in line with an average of recent polls on the website 270towin, which had Biden ahead with 48.8% in Florida, compared with Trump’s 44.5%.

The university’s pollsters went a step further however, finding that nearly all likely voters said their minds are made up.

In Florida, they found 93% of likely voters who selected a candidate in the presidential matchup say their minds are made up, with 5% saying they might change their minds.

“The president’s reelection team faces the reality that the Trump era could end at sun splashed Mar-a-Lago in November if Joe Biden captures Florida,” said Quinnipiac polling analyst Tim Malloy.

What’s on Florida voters’ minds? Given a list of choices, a plurality (27%) of likely voters in the state said the economy is the most important issue in deciding who to vote for, followed by:

  • Law and order (19%);
  • Dealing with the coronavirus (15%); and
  • Racial inequality (13%).

Broken down by political party affiliation, the top issues varied.

  • 42% of Republicans named the economy and 35% name law and order as their top issues;
  • 29% of Democrats named the coronavirus as their top issue, while 24% said racial inequality.
  • Among independents, the economy ranked as the top issue with 26%, followed by law and order at 16%.

Florida likely voters were also asked which candidate would do a better job handling key issues:

  • On handling the economy: Trump 55%, Biden 42%;
  • On handling a crisis: Biden 49%, Trump 47%;
  • On handling the response to the coronavirus: Biden 50%, Trump 45%;
  • On handling health care: Biden 51%, Trump 43%;
  • On handling racial inequality: Biden 53%, Trump 41%.

The Quinnipiac University pollsters found likely voters have slightly negative views of both presidential candidates.

  • For Biden, 41% have a favorable opinion and 46% have an unfavorable one;
  • For Trump, 44% have a favorable opinion and 49% have an unfavorable one.

Turnout Will Be Key

All of which to say one thing is as likely to be true in 2020 as it was in 2000: the presidential election is going to be close.

What will tip the scale? 

Carol S. Weissert, the LeRoy Collins Eminent Scholar and professor of Political Science at Florida State University, said the biggest difference between 2016 and 2020 “is, of course, flowing from COVID-19.”

“Because house to house canvassing has been severely curtailed, both parties are relying on social media and virtual events, but it is unclear how these will motivate voters. What is similar is that it is all about turnout. FL elections are always close,” Weissert said “If the Democrats had been better able to get their base out in South Florida in 2016, they might have won the state.”

In all likelihood turnout in one or more of the political regions that Florida has divided itself into over the years will be key.

In 2000, the focus was on population dense southeast Florida, long the Democrat stronghold of the state encompassing the cities of Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach.

Three of the four counties the Gore campaign wanted recounted — Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach — were all located here.

Gore’s lawyers also sought a recount in Volusia County, in the state’s Democrat-leaning I-4 corridor.

Republicans at the time dominated the northern tier of the state and a large diagonal swatch, extending roughly from Fort Myers on the west coast of the state, to the so-called Space Coast, encompassing Cape Canaveral and its surrounding communities on the east coast.

Though seven million more people live in Florida now than lived there 20 years ago, the relative competitiveness of the political parties remains pretty much the same. The difference is in a group of widely dispersed pockets, that proved decisive in 2016.

A hard look at how the election played out reveals the two candidates won the regions of the state they were expected to, but Trump was able to capitalize on the deepening redness of places like Fort Myers, Naples, Melbourne and Daytona Beach to pull out the victory.

Among the questions people will be asking in Florida on election night in 2020 is whether an anticipated surge in Black voters materializes, and if it does, will it be enough to offset Trump’s base in what he now calls his home state.

High Profile Congressional Races

A pair of closely watched congressional races could also play a role in the outcome of the presidential race.

In Florida’s 16th Congressional District, state Rep. Margaret Good, a Sarasota Democrat, is taking on incumbent Republican Rep. Vern Buchanan.

Good, often referred to in print as a “rising star” among Florida Democrats, proved to be a gifted fundraiser and tireless campaigner in 2018 when she defeated Buchanan’s son, James, and a third-party candidate in a special election for a vacant Florida House seat.

Her victory turned heads because she was victorious in a district Trump won by more than 4 percentage points in 2016. Her victory was seen as a bellwether of the coming blue wave, and she handily won the general election for her seat.

Good’s decision to leave the Florida Legislature, where Democrats are badly outnumbered by Republicans, immediately drew the attention of both the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, who are both said to be pouring money and staff into the race.

Good explained her reason for leaving the legislature after just one term by saying she realized “it isn’t just my state House district that deserves better representation, it’s all of us.”

But Buchanan won’t be a pushover. He hasn’t faced a serious challenge since 2006, when he prevailed over Democrat Christine Jennings by only 369 votes after a recount. Since then, his margin of victory has grown in each of his bids for re-election.

Buchanan had a number of advantages entering the 2020 campaign, including a personal fortune gleaned from car dealerships and real estate investments.

While Good hopes to take advantage of public fatigue with Donald Trump, Buchanan has distanced himself from the president, making him harder to paint with the same brush.

Political observers in the state say Buchanan is likely to try to portray Good as an extremist, and a socialist in a centrist’s clothing.

This past week, both candidates launched their first video ads of the 2020 election cycle.

Good focused on her record of bipartisanship in the Florida House.

“In the Florida Legislature, I worked with both Democrats and Republicans to solve issues that are important to the people I serve and that’s what I will continue to do in Congress,” Good said in the video currently airing online, but which soon will be broadcast on television.

“We need leaders in Congress who will do the hard work to get people back to work safely, to ensure people have access to affordable health care and to ensure that small businesses have the resources they need to recover and that is the work I look forward to doing,” she adds.

Meanwhile Buchanan’s spot is a tribute to Nicholas Panipinto, an Army specialist from Bradenton, Fla., who died in a military training accident last November. The ad ends with Buchanan talking of fighting for “reforms to help save lives.”

In the wake of the accident that killed Panipinto, Buchanan filed a bill that requires emergency medical staff to be present during training activities.

The bill found bipartisan support, and the U.S. House ultimately passed Buchanan’s amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act.

The other race garnering widespread attention is in Florida’s 26th Congressional District where Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell is running for re-election against Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

Mucarsel-Powell, born and raised in Guayaquil, Ecuador, flipped the South Florida district in 2018 by defeating GOP Rep. Carlos Curbelo by fewer than 5,000 votes.

She immigrated to the United States with her mother and three sisters when she was 14, and she worked in a donut shop, among other places to help support the family.

When she was 24, she lost her father to gun violence which she said led to her forming her current support of “common-sense” gun reform.

In addition to gun safety, she is campaigning on a platform which includes affordable health care, raising the minimum wage, and reforming the current immigration system.

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political science from Pitzer College and a master’s degree in international political economy from Claremont Graduate University, she mostly worked in the non-profit sector, and ran unsuccessfully for the Florida State Senate before making her successful congressional bid in 2018.

Giménez, who was born in Cuba, immigrated to Florida as a child and became a firefighter in 1974, ultimately rising to fire chief in 1991. He entered politics in 2000 when he became city manager of Miami, and later, a Miami-Dade County Commissioner. He was first elected mayor in 2011.

Giménez announced his intention to challenge Mucarsel-Powell in January, and in August, he defeated rival Omar Blanco in the Republican primary.

The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapper, rates this year’s race as a “toss-up.”

Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, currently rates the district as “leans Democratic.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee featured Giménez on the top tier of its “Young Guns” program, which identifies candidates in competitive districts, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee included Mucarsel-Powell on its list of vulnerable House members to defend.

To say the race has already gotten heated would be an understatement.

Mucarsel-Powell has already launched a digital ad accusing Gimenez and his family of profiting from his county mayor’s post.

Since then she’s assailed his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, comparing his performance to “the failed leadership of the governor and of the president.”

“What is he leaving as a legacy? An economic recession, a pandemic that never ends, and also families who are struggling to pay their bills,” she said during a recent press conference.

On primary night in August, Ginemez said the outcome of the contest “set the stage for November.”

“The voters have a clear choice: Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, one of the most divisive members of Congress who has spent her time focused on ways to divide our community, and myself, a true public servant who has spent his career working with people of all viewpoints to find solutions to our everyday problems,” he said.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Mucarsel-Powell has raised $3.8 million – over three times as much as Gimenez with $1.1 million. Gimenez has $882,000 in cash on hand remaining, also over three times less than Mucarsel-Powell’s $2.8 million on hand.

But Florida State University’s Weissert isn’t so sure the outcome of any race will bleed into another this year.

“This is a blue moon election in Florida,” she said. “There is no senate race at the top and no governor’s race or other statewide race. Next down is Congress, then state senate and state house and I don’t think the top of the ticket does much for these races and they don’t do much for the top of the ticket.

“As for the 16th Congressional District, Buchanan seems to always win and there isn’t much to think he won’t continue to do so.” Weissert said. “The 26th Congressional District is a much iffier district. Both candidates are well-known, and Mucarsel-Powell barely won in 2018. It truly is a toss-up and, like every other Florida election, the outcome is probably going to depend entirely on turnout.”

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