Florida and the presidential election: darkness looms in the Sunshine State

15 Jul

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Florida is a unique and brilliant place – a state of at times total contrasts.

Over 3.5 million retirees aged 65 and older live in it year-round, but during the spring break its beaches are flooded with college students. The southern tip of the country is drenched in sun for the majority of the year, but sits in the eye of the storm of America’s hurricane season.

For visitors, Florida is a source of relaxation, but life is even less taxing for its residents – since the state has no income, estate or inheritance tax.

A crucial state in electoral politics

Florida is a traditional swing state in presidential elections, and the biggest battleground one by population size. It is also an historic indicator of the outcome of any given presidential election.

The candidate who won Florida in 13 out of the past 14 presidential elections went on to win the White House. The ‘Dartford of America’ – you don’t hear political pundits call it often enough but, here, that constituency has voted for the party which went on to win nationwide in UK general elections since 1964.

Donald Trump won Florida by a 1.2-point margin in 2016, and the state is considered pivotal for his re-election prospects. In the context of November, the Cook Political Report lists four swing-states as ‘toss-ups’, including Florida. Of the four, Florida has the most electoral college votes (29) and is therefore a vital step in the path to the White House.

The Coronavirus has put Florida under the spotlight

The rapid chain of events of the last few months has placed an even greater onus on Florida – in particular, the triple-threat of social unrest, Covid-19 and the resulting economic climate.

The Sunshine State was one of the most bullish when it came to reopening its economy. Its Republican Governor, Ron DeSantis, rushed to remove the shackles on indoors bars and restaurants, catering to holidaying college students and visitors to Florida’s beautiful beaches.

Since then, the state has become one of the epicentres of a Coronavirus crisis that never really went away. The numbers make stark reading. Florida has recently been averaging around 10,000 new cases per day. Having reported more than 15,000 new cases on Sunday, a Reuters analysis showed that, were Florida were a country, it would rank fourth in the world for the most new cases in a day behind the United States, Brazil and India. Over 4,000 Floridians have died of Covid-19.

Florida has responded – commendably – by increasing its testing capacity, and announced 143,000 results on Sunday ,compared to an average of 68,000 for the seven days prior. But as the president often does, Governor DeSantis insisted the surge in cases was due to an increase in testing.

Like Greg Abbott in Texas, DeSantis has become used to high praise from the President, having led the charge on reopening his state for business. A long list of the president’s most revered Fox News hosts have lavished praise on Governors Abbott and DeSantis, citing the “dire predictions” about reopening too soon which “have not come true”. That praise now looks tragically myopic.

First a U-turn on masks, next the Republican National Convention?

Having resisted wearing a mask for the duration of the Coronavirus crisis, the president wore one in public for the first time last week. Could it prompt a sharp change in approach by DeSantis in Florida? The governor has remained in step with the president, and refused to require masks to worn state-wide (although city leaders have imposed their own rules).

Trump’s shift gives De Santis political cover to follow suit and pursue more aggressive measures to contain the spread of the virus. But having become the White House’s poster boys for the Covid-19 economic liberation, Abbott and DeSantis will not want to shut their states down again.

With Florida so aggressively under the spotlight, an awkward dilemma looms for the Republican Party. Having argued with the political leadership in Charlotte, North Carolina, the Republican National Committee (RNC) decided to move its convention to Jacksonville, Florida.

Given the White House has championed the economic resurgence, and urged governors to reopen their states for business, the RNC will not want to be moved into relocating their convention again owing to a pandemic that the White House thinks should not obstruct the economic recovery.

But a growing number of Republicans are adding their names to a list of delegates who won’t be attending next month. More than five GOP Senators and eight Congressmen have stated they will skip the ceremony that coronates Trump as the GOP’s presidential nominee.

Having attempted a rousing speech in front of a half empty arena in Tulsa recently, the president’s campaign team will dread the optics of another poorly attended event in Jacksonville.

In the Rose Garden yesterday, the President dismissed the notion that he is the underdog in Florida. The incumbent’s confidence of winning in 2020 is based on replicating his success against the odds in 2016. But four years ago, few expected Trump to win.

As in his first election, a second victory will be reliant on defying the existing polling trends which are not in his favour. In the Sunshine State, Joe Biden has a six-point lead in the Real Clear Politics average and the President has only led in three of the last 26 polls included in the RCP sample.

Florida is known to so many in this country for its long white beaches, the art deco facades that line South Beach and the welcoming smiles at Disneyland. But a lack of political leadership risks turning the state into an even deeper focal point for a disease that continues to rip through chunks of America at a catastrophic rate.

Whilst the White House has shown flexibility on masks, the battle lines for the next political fight have been drawn over the reopening of schools and colleges for the fall semester. Still in the epicentre of a health crisis, it seems like the worst possible time for vast university and college campuses to welcome back their students with open arms – let alone the Republican National Convention. The start of the fall semester will precede the presidential election. Florida will be under the spotlight once again.