Twenty years ago the eyes of the world turned to Florida, as the identity of America's next president lay in the balance. On election night 2000, TV networks called the state early for Democrat Al Gore, before later switching to George W Bush. Gore then conceded the contest, but later rescinded during a call to Bush as the Republican's lead narrowed.
A marathon process of recounting, lawsuits and recrimination began. The phrase “hanging chads” entered the lexicon, referring to shreds of perforated paper that had been left by incomplete punch-holes.
Thirty-six days after election day, the Supreme Court intervened in one of the most consequential decisions in its history, and Bush was declared the victor, winning the state by just 537 votes out of six million cast.
While this year's election may not deliver the same dramatic denouement in Florida – though it is possible given that US president Donald Trump has threatened to litigate the election if he loses – the state remains as critical as ever as the American election campaign enters its final few weeks.
Florida is the state where it is razor-thin every year
Both candidates are throwing resources into the Sunshine State. Trump held his post-coronavirus comeback rally on Monday night near Orlando and was back in the state on Thursday night for an NBC townhall interview. US vice-president Mike Pence and Trump's son Eric were also campaigning in southern Florida this week.
Democratic candidate Joe Biden visited seniors in counties north of Miami on Wednesday, as he also bids for votes there.
With a population of approximately 21 million, Florida is one of the most populous states in the country, accounting for 29 of the country’s 538 electoral college votes. It is also a traditional battleground state – a place where the election can be won or lost.
Barack Obama won the state in 2008 and by the smallest margin in the country in 2012. Trump won Florida by 1.2 per cent in 2016.
"Florida is always extremely close," says Michael Binder, associate professor of political science at the University of North Florida. "It's not just a matter of 'how the election goes, Florida goes,' but the proximity and tightness of the races have been a feature right back to 2000."
This is the case, not just for presidential races, but also at state level, he says. “The senate and governor races – both came down recount territory in 2018. Florida is the state where it is razor-thin every year.”
This year is no different. While polls show that Biden has expanded his lead to a double-digit gap over Trump nationally, and is ahead in key swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and even Arizona with just over two weeks to go until election day, the Florida race is tighter, though Biden is fractionally ahead.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Wednesday put Biden 2 per cent ahead, with the former vice-president polling at 49 per cent among likely voters compared with 47 per cent for Trump. Two other polls this week – Emerson and Florida Atlantic University – had Biden ahead by three and four percentage points respectively, though all were within the margin of error.
According to Real Clear Politics’ average of polls this month, Biden is ahead by 2.7 per cent in Florida.
Florida’s size, diversity and constantly replenishing population makes it difficult to gauge politically. There are some geographic markers. Broadly speaking, the southern part of the state trends Democratic, the northern part from Jacksonville to the panhandle on the Gulf coast favours Republican candidates, while the counties in the middle along the east-west I-4 corridor, tend to swing either way.
But within these categories that are often used as shorthands by political analysts, margins are so tight that getting the vote out is just as important as trying to win swing voters.
The state also has unique characteristics that make it different from other parts of the country. A high proportion of seniors and a large Hispanic community, particularly in the south, mean that these two constituencies can have an outsized influence on election outcomes.
Worryingly for Trump, recent polls have shown his support among seniors in Florida slipping. Figures released by the University of North Florida’s public opinion research lab this month that the president is still leading with voters over 65, but by a much lower margin than in 2016.
While Trump was ahead by 14 points in 2016, his lead has now dropped to three points, from 50 to 47. A poll by the AARP, an association representing older Americans, found Biden leading by one point with seniors in the state.
The most obvious reason is coronavirus. Seniors are the most at-risk category for the disease and Florida was badly hit by the pandemic in the early days. More than 15,000 people have died in the state from Covid-19.
But it is not just coronavirus and the president’s reckless reaction to his own diagnosis that have dented his support level, say election-watchers. Many seniors are turned off by Trump’s language and style – Biden’s quip at a townhall event during the primary season that people should not have to take their grandchildren out of the room when the president speaks resonated with many.
Chris Stanley is chair of the Democratic Club at the Villages – the largest retirement community in the United States, and possibly the world. Located in central Florida, the community of 130,000 people has 80 swimming pools, 50 golf courses and 100 tennis courts. Though Covid-19 has restricted campaigning this year, residents of the sprawling complex have taken to their golf carts in recent weeks to express their support for either candidate, holding mini-rallies on the tracks that winnow through the complex. More than 90 per cent of the residents are white and voters lean Republican by about two to one.
But Stanley believes there is something in the air this year: “I think Trump is helping us more than hurting us,” she says. “There are many people here who voted for him in ‘16 but will not do so this year. Yes, it’s Covid, but it’s also because of his tweets, his language, his behaviour,” she says.
She also highlights his desire to introduce a payroll tax, which would hit social security, a source of income for many seniors.
“Trump is still going to win the Villages – it’s ultimately a numbers game, but he’s not going to win by the same percentage as 2016,” she says.
But while Trump may be losing his edge among seniors, it's a different story in Miami. On a hot mid-week day this week, I joined Democratic volunteer Roberto Mejia on the campaign trail in Little Havana. The old Cuban quarter of the city has seen waves of immigrants from different parts of Latin America in recent years.
I'm seeing a lot of division in this country; the president is fanning the flames of extremism
Thirty-eight-year-old Roberto moved to Miami 14 years ago from Houston, Texas. His parents came from Mexico, though he was born in the US. He says he was motivated to get involved in politics this year for the first time because of Trump but also because he says the country needs to move away from division.
“I’m seeing a lot of division in this country; the president is fanning the flames of extremism,” he says. He supports Biden because he is a centrist candidate, he says. “Look, I’m not a socialist. Most of our country is centrist – both parties need to come back from the extremes of their parties. That’s where the country is.”
Armed with the most valuable commodity in this part of Miami – fluent Spanish – Roberto begins knocking on doors. Though the small houses and apartment blocks are painted in the pretty pastel colours that define this historic community, it's unmistakably a low-income neighbourhood. Many of those on Roberto's list are not home or don't answer – "I usually get a 20 per cent response rate," he says through his face mask – and he leaves a Biden-Harris flier at the door with information about Daniella Levine Cava, a candidate for Miami-Dade county mayor.
Another potential Biden supporter says in Spanish that he can’t vote because he is undocumented. But many who we meet are Trump supporters and proudly so.
Jose Ramos moved to America from Cuba, and like many Latinos here are strong Republican supporters. Trump's message linking Democrats to socialism resonates with many men of his generation who left socialist-run countries in Latin America. Similarly, one woman who comes to the door says her daughter – a Democrat, she says – is not home. But she proceeds to say in Spanish, and then in broken English, why she supports Trump. "He's the guy who says what he has to say. I think he's not a political person, he's a normal person, a businessman," she says, animatedly. "I'm tired of people talking too much nice – a lot of wonderful words, but it's what they do."
Another problem is voter turnout. Twenty-four-year-old Dunia Franco is at home when we knock, but she tells Roberto she has “no idea” how to vote. Though she’s on the electoral register, she has never voted before. Roberto explains that she can vote early at a number of polling locations, as well as a designated voting site on election day. She takes his leaflet, and smiling closes the door. Whether she will vote or not is another question.
Maria-Elena Lopez, vice-chair of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party says that reaching voters and ensuring they turn out on the day is a constant challenge in this area.
While Hispanic voters tend to vote Democrat across the country, in Florida the picture is more complex, given its long history of immigration from central and south America. Many Latinos in Miami vote Republican – as evidenced by the strong support here for Republican senator Mark Rubio, a second-generation Cuban-America.
Nonetheless, Lopez believes that national political operatives are beginning to hone their message more effectively and not take the Hispanic vote for granted.
“I think finally campaigns have started to realise that you cannot put all people who speak Spanish into the same category. My experience as a Cuban is not the experience of a Puerto Rican who moves here, it is not the experience of a Venezuelan who came recently, it’s not the experience of a Salvadorean who came during their civil war, it is not the experience of a Mexican who came for economic reasons.”
Lopez, who herself moved to America from Cuba with her parents in 1960 aged four, was herself for many years a Republican, but changed to Democrat during the Obama presidency. “I think it was when the Tea Party movement began around 2010, I began to question – what exactly does the Republican party stand for any more?”
She believes that younger generations of Hispanic voters are moving leftward and are voting in different ways that their parents.
Nonetheless, polls have shown that Biden is struggling with Latino voters.
During the primary contest, a strong part of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders's support in states like Nevada and California came from younger Hispanic voters, many of whom were attracted by his policy of "Medicare for all". And while white suburban women are deserting Trump in their droves, he remains popular with Latino men. Nationally, polls show Biden is less popular with Hispanic men than his overall average with non-white voters.
Amid criticism of the campaign’s lack of outreach to Latino voters, particularly in Florida, the Biden campaign has launched a series of Spanish-language ads. A sizeable chunk of former Democratic hopeful Mike Bloomberg’s recently-announced $100 million cash injection into Florida for the Biden campaign, is focused on the Latino vote.
Lopez is confident that this year turnout will be up for Democrat-leaning Floridian Hispanics. She said the Covid-19 pandemic has led to a big increase in the number of people registering for absentee ballots. The Miami-Dade Democratic Party has been inundating potential voters with postcards explaining the voting process and encouraging people to vote. “The result is we’ve tripled our vote by mail enrolment here in Miami Dade County among registered Democrats,” she says.
Other efforts to expand voter participation have had mixed success. In 2018, voters in Florida chose to remove a lifetime ban on felons from voting in a referendum known as Amendment Four. The result was to restore voting rights to more than a million people, many of whom had served time in prison for minor offenses and a large number of whom were non-white.
But the Republican-controlled state legislature decided that felons would be allowed to vote only if they paid all outstanding fines and restitution – figures that sometimes go into the millions and are impossible for many to pay back.
While various lawsuits are under way, the full constitutional change that Floridians voters approved in 2018 will not be in place for this election. The Republican attorney general of Florida has also called for a criminal inquiry into a $16 million donation by Bloomberg to a fund that is paying court fees and fines for felons.
As both campaigns chase the final votes ahead of election day, and with early voting beginning this weekend, the race could come down to the wire on election night. Because Florida has a long tradition of postal voting and officials are permitted to process ballots before election day, a result on election night is expected relatively early, though there is always the possibility of a repeat of the Bush vs Gore contested election.
Interestingly, two conservative members of the Supreme Court – chief justice John Roberts and justice Brett Kavanaugh – were previously involved in litigation related to the 2000 presidential race in Florida, as was Trump's third Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. The prospect of the nine-member court weighing in on the election is not an altogether remote possibility.
What is clear, however, is that with Trump currently trailing his opponent in most states, a win in Florida is vital if he is to secure a path to the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the election. It’s also a personal issue for Trump, who moved his residency from New York to Florida last year.
For Trump, his adopted state could determine whether he returns for another four years or remains a one-term president.