Florida presidential fight a '1 percent election'

State stands at intersection of many issues reshaping the American electorate

By Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla - There might not be a national television commentator writing "Florida Florida Florida" on a whiteboard, as Tim Russert infamously did on the night of the 2000 presidential election, but both parties will be eagerly watching the Sunshine State on Tuesday as the polls close.

For real-estate mogul Donald Trump, the surprise Republican presidential nominee, Florida's trove of 29 electoral votes is a necessary building block of virtually any scenario that ends with him winning the White House.

For former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a victory in Florida carries with it the potential of a knockout blow, all but ensuring that Trump won't be able to cobble together a winning collection of states.

Florida also stands at an intersection of many of the issues reshaping the American electorate, both in 2016 and beyond: Can Trump turn out the disaffected white voters who powered him to the GOP nomination in numbers large enough to win the general election as well? Will African-American voters remain energized after the historic glow of electing the nation's first black president? Does the nation's growing Latino population make hard-line immigration policies like those advocated by Trump politically untenable?

That has prompted both campaigns to invest heavily in the state, both in persuading voters and, more recently, turning them out to cast ballots. Trump, Clinton and President Barack Obama --- one of Clinton's most effective surrogates --- have repeatedly bounced in and out of the state during the closing weeks of the election.

The result has been a race in which the two candidates are running virtually neck-and-neck in polling averages, and the prospect of a late night or even another dreaded recount looms.

"I really think we're right where we always are, which is a 1 percent election," said Susan MacManus, a political-science professor at the University of South Florida.

The messages of the campaigns and their allies in Florida have closely mirrored those nationwide. For Republicans: Clinton's private email server and involvement in her family foundation show her to be an untrustworthy and out-of-touch member of the Washington, D.C., elite that Trump rails against.

"Our country is rigged, it's crooked and it's broken," Trump said during a recent campaign swing through Tallahassee. " ... The criminal conduct of Hillary Clinton threatens the foundations of our democracy; it really does. But we're going to turn it around. A new day begins for America and it starts on Nov. 8."

Clinton, meanwhile, has mixed an appeal for unity with lacerating attacks on Trump's temperament, fitness for offense and divisive comments.

"When I think about all of the people that Donald Trump has insulted in this campaign, literally, he has insulted a huge majority of the American people," she said recently in Sanford, according to a transcript provided by the campaign. "I mean, think about it. He started with immigrants, moved on to Latinos, African Americans, Muslims, people with disabilities, prisoners of war, and then women."

If the goal was to drive voters to the polls, it might be working. Nearly 4.9 million Floridians had voted early, either by mail or in person, by Thursday morning, according to state statistics.

Again, the results so far appear to be on the edge: Democrats had returned almost 1.94 million ballots; Republicans almost 1.95 million.

The rest of the votes came from Floridians registered with third parties or without a party affiliation.

Still, both parties have reason to worry about the makeup of those voters. On the Democratic side, some Clinton supporters were concerned that black voters didn't appear to be showing up in large enough numbers early on --- potentially eating into the demographic advantage that Democrats believe they enjoy in Florida presidential elections.

"The question, of course, is whether or not the African-American turnout is going to be comparable," said Kevin Wagner, a political-science professor at Florida Atlantic University.

Another key part of the Obama coalition seems to be voting.

"What we are seeing is, Hispanics actually are turning out in surge proportions so far," said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who oversaw Obama's Florida campaign in 2008.

Meanwhile, at least one previously solid bloc of Republican voters doesn't appear to be enthusiastic about Trump: Cuban-Americans who dominate Miami-Dade County politics. In the March presidential primary, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio defeated Trump in one of Florida's 67 counties: Miami-Dade.

Rubio is likely trying to turn out those same voters again, this time in his battle to hold onto his Senate seat.

"That's an area (Trump) needs to shore up because they're high-turnout voters," MacManus said.

Trump's fortunes might depend more, though, on whether he can get white, working-class voters frustrated with the economy to the polls.

Some of those voters have not traditionally participated in elections, or might not have backed Republicans as strongly in the past as they will Trump's protectionist message.

"If Trump wins," Schale said, "it's going to be because he just drove Democratic support among whites into the ground."

News Service of Florida