It’s Florida, so voters are accustomed to close elections, going back to the famous 537-vote margin that gave George W. Bush victory in 2000. November 6 appears to be destined to be no different.
At stake: the state governorship and a U.S. Senate seat, with the potential for an earthshaking political overhaul in the nation’s largest swing state. Republicans have occupied the Governor’s mansion for two decades, as well as virtually every statewide elected office, as well as the state legislature. Meanwhile, the Senate seat is held by an 18-year incumbent Democrat, Bill Nelson.
Florida’s last four presidential and gubernatorial elections have all been won by the slightest margins, with Trump winning by 113,000 votes out of 9.5 million, or about 1.2%.
The current Governor, Republican Rick Scott, who is challenging Nelson in the senate race won both his elections in 2010 and 2014 by about 60,000 votes.
“This is a purple state,” said Al Cardenas, former chairman of the state Republican Party. “My gut sense is that the races are pretty close to being tied,” he added.
The gubernatorial race involves two less-well known figures, a Republican former U.S. congressman and Trump favorite, Ron DeSantis, and Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum who is vying to be the first African-American to lead the state.
In such a close race one of the keys to victory could be a large turnout by new, younger voters, according to Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
“Younger generations are replacing the Baby Boomers,’ said MacManus. “They are turning their backs on the two parties. They are looking for somebody new, with a compelling story, and they also value diversity,” she added.
The Parkland school shooting in February created a large student voter registration movement, as well as increased debate over gun control, though it remains unclear what impact that will have on November turnout.
MacManus co-authored a recent study which found that t he three youngest generations (GenX, Millennials, and GenZ), aged between 18 and 50, now make up over half (52%) of Florida’s registered voters. The Millennials (ages 22-37) and the GenZers (ages 18-21) together make up 28% of all registered voters and are considerably less white and more ethnically diverse than the older generations, according to the authors.
“This diversity affects the way they perceive politics and, in turn, whom they vote for and why. Accessing these voters requires candidates to create narratives and policy proposals that reflect the diverse experiences of these groups,” they wrote. “Out of this generation have come the progressive and environmental movements ... Polls show them more open to socialism than any previous generation,” they added.
That could favor Gillum, the charismatic, 39-year-old mayor of Tallahassee, a progressive politician on the left of his party - he rejects the term socialist - who was largely unknown until he won his August primary in an upset that instantly earned him nationwide political attention. Money has poured into his campaign from big name donors, including New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg and investor George Soros.
At the opposite end of the political spectrum, DeSantis, 40, is a darling of the Republican right-wing. Yale and Harvard-educated, he served as a military lawyer in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and shot to fame on Capitol Hill as a critic of the investigation into alleged collusion with Russia by the Trump administration.
Trump famously endorsed DeSantis early on, tweeting in December that he “would make a GREAT Governor of Florida.”
With a virtual tie in the number of registered Republicans and Democrats, the path to victory appears to lie in which party does a better job turning out its voters. That is something Republicans have traditionally been far better at, potentially giving DeSantis the edge in a close race.
Turnout in midterms is typically lower that presidential election years, though enthusiasm this year is running higher, experts say, largely due to political polarization over Trump’s first two years in the White House. Turnout was 9% higher in the state’s August primaries. Even so, turnout in this election will likely only reach around 54%, only slightly higher than the last primary in 2014 (51%), according to Steve Schale, a veteran Democratic Party political consultant.
Democrats are pinning their hopes on the increasing number of voters who are registered as having no party affiliation (NPA), and now make up a large segment - almost 27% - of the electorate, compared to 23% in 2016.
Gillum has surprised experts by consistently leading DeSantis in the polls, suggesting he may have the advantage with these less predictable voters. With more than two million ballots already cast by mail and at early voting precincts there are some early signs of improved turnout so far among registered Democrats compared to 2014, said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida.
Smith notes that younger, non-party voters are turning out in larger numbers so far, as well as blakc voters. “There’s something going on. There’s a different feel and that’s due to Andrew Gillum,” Smith said. On the other hand, he noted that 55% of all early votes cast as of Friday morning were by voters aged 65 and older, with only 4.4% of all votes cast voters 29 and younger.
While African-American voters make up only 13.2% of the electorate, they vote overwhelmingly for Democrat. Hispanics who make up 16.5% of the registered voters are more evenly divided, with Cuban-Americans leaning Republican and Puerto Ricans in Central Florida leaning Democrat.
Trump to the rescue
The White House appears to sense the state may be slipping from its grasp and is reportedly planning several last-minute Trump rallies in the state to try and give a boost to its candidates. Vice President Mike Pence and senior White House counselor Kellyanne Conway visited the state on Thursday to appear at a rally for DeSantis.
Republicans are also concerned that Hurricane Michael my also put a dent in voting in the Panhandle, traditionally a Republican stronghold.
“Honestly, DeSantis is at the point where he needs a bit of a game changer,” Schale wrote in his election blog. “It isn’t that this race is over – it isn’t – there is a tremendous amount of work to be done. But the trajectory is very much in Gillum corner.”
Trump’s appearance may not be much help. Some moderate Republicans are unhappy with Trump and privately express dismay that Scott and DeSantis have played along with his divisive rhetoric.
“I’ll pinch my nose,” said one Miami Republican who said he planned to vote for DeSantis despite his deep aversion for Trump. “He’s not Trumpy at all. He’s very good in person,” he said, describing a couple of meetings with DeSantis. “But as soon as the camera goes live on him he changes,” he added.
His Cuban roots made it easier to vote for DeSantis, he explained, saying that many in Miami’s large Cuban American population consider Gillum as a dangerous socialist and an ugly reminder of the leftwing Castro brothers in Cuba. “I can’t support anyone who stands for these psychotic progressives. They are socialists and we all know that leads to communism,” he said.
Other leading Republicans such as former Governor Jeb Bush, who tangled with Trump as a presidential candidate in 2016, are also lending their support to Scott and DeSantis. Bush tweeted a photo of himself on Scott’s campaign bus in September, saying “Glad to be on the Let’s Get To Work bus with Rick Scott.”
Not all Cuban-Americans agree. Mike Fernandez, a billionaire healthcare entrepreneur and former top Republican donor, announced earlier this month he would vote for Gillum.
“I know socialism all too well,” he wrote in an opinion column for The Miami Herald, describing how his family left Cuba in 1964. He went on; “ Andrew Gillum is not a socialist. To exploit our suffering is an insult to the countless people in Florida who fled socialist regimes and brutal dictatorships.”
“If DeSantis is worried about socialist dictatorships, then he should look no further than Donald Trump, the man who propelled him to victory in the primary, a leader who attacks the press, threatens to jail critics, and admires dictators like Vladimir Putin,” he added.
Oddly, the senate race has taken a back seat in this election, largely due to the lack of charisma of both candidates, Scott and Nelson. Even so, with the Republicans holding only a single seat majority in the U.S. Senate, Democrats know that Nelson is a must win for them if they are to have any chance of tipping the balance of power.
Nelson, who is 76, and has been in Congress since 1978, has relied on a tired TV ad hailing his career as a former space shuttle astronaut and his strong environmental record.
Scott is despised by Democrats for cuts to state education spending and his rejection of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. His denial of a climate change – he banned the words ‘global warming’ from his administration – has also upset environmentalists who regard Florida as one of the U.S. states most vulnerable to sea level rise.
"The senate has never been the driver of interest in this election," said MacManus.
"The other candidates are younger or more racially diverse. And that's what younger people are about, new faces in high places."