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by Dr. Matthew Corrigan
May 12, 2016

Previewing Clinton vs. Trump in the 2016 General Election

Matthew Corrigan, UNF

With Donald Trump’s capture of the Republican nomination now secure, the focus of the presidential race shifts to the Electoral College and a Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump matchup.  At the outset, it is difficult to see a path for a Trump Electoral College victory without winning the state of Florida.  While forecasters such as Charlie Cook and Larry Sabato currently consider Florida a “lean D” state for their Electoral College projections, a Quinnipiac University poll released this week found Clinton leading Trump in Florida by just one point. And for those who think that Trump cannot keep it close in Florida, keep in mind that every presidential election in Florida since 2000 has been decided by 5% or less.  In 2008, with a collapsing economy, a Democratic candidate who was a media sensation, a Republican candidate who actually suspended his campaign for a brief time late in the campaign, Barack Obama still only won the state by less than 3% (or nearly 264,000 votes.)  In 2012, the Romney campaign with all of its faults came within 1% (nearly 74,000 votes) of beating Obama in the state.

In 2016, Donald Trump may ensure another high turnout election for both sides, along the lines of 2008.  Even if turnout is closer to the 2012 numbers, Republicans still need to find tens of thousands of votes to win back the state. So, where can Republicans go to find enough voters to help their margins? A good place to look is the counties where Republicans improved their standing from 2008 to 2012. 

The data below represents the counties where Republicans made gains of more than 5000 votes from the 2008 to 2012 presidential elections:











Indian River












Palm Beach*










St. Johns






*- Counties won by Democrats in 2012, but where Republicans still improved their standing by more than 5000 votes.

Not surprisingly, the southwest coast, home of Governor Rick Scott, was an area of real improvement from 2008 to 2012 for Republicans.  Collier, Lee, Charlotte, Sarasota and Manatee counties all showed large gains.  This area of the state tends to get overlooked when analyzing Florida, but because of the razor thin margins in most statewide races, Republicans would not be competitive statewide without these counties.  If Scott is chosen as a vice presidential candidate, this area would become even more important to a Trump campaign.  Parts of the I-4 corridor also showed improvement for Republicans, along with The Villages development in Sumter, Lake and Marion.  Margins should improve for Republicans in these areas as The Villages continue to grow.  The East Central Florida counties of Indian River, Brevard, Seminole and Volusia also gave Republicans over 30,000 votes compared to 2008.  Duval and St. Johns in the north helped Republicans in 2012; on Election Day, the margins in these counties are always signals to how Republicans are doing statewide.  Among counties that Democrats won but Republicans improved, Palm Beach County stands out.  I will address Palm Beach County in greater detail below.  

From 2008 to 2012, Democrats only improved their performance by 5000 votes or more in 3 counties:







Of interest is the improvement of Miami-Dade for Democrats in a year where they lost ground in most counties. Miami-Dade remains crucial in 2016, especially with Trump’s tough rhetoric on Hispanics and immigration.  Osceola is also an area where Democrats can possibly build on the improvements of 2012 with the surge of potential voters from Puerto Rico who have come to Florida to escape the economic troubles of the island.  For Broward County, Democrats cannot begin to talk about winning the state without an advantage in the county of at least 250,000 votes. Here is the full picture for both parties in map form, county by county:

Despite all this, any strategic targeting of counties must take into account the unique presence of Donald Trump.  Trump has run the most unorthodox campaign for president since George Wallace’s Independent run in 1968.  Trump has used an unprecedented media presence to overwhelm his Republican rivals.  Trump’s campaign hasn’t been strategic; it has been a mass media hammer that has bludgeoned conventional wisdom.  Can this scattershot approach win Florida in 2016? For Trump to find the tens of thousands of votes he needs to win Florida, four questions need to be answered:

1. Will We See a Strong Third Party Candidacy?

In hotel lobbies across Washington D.C., some are looking for a third party candidate to take up the conservative mantle.  If a well-funded conservative alternative gets on the ballot in Florida, it could take away precious votes from Trump.  Ross Perot garnered nearly 19% of Florida’s votes in 1992.  At this point so late in the cycle, it would need to be a high-profile candidate who can quickly get the petitions required, or someone who could be a well-known write-in. However, as we saw in 2000 with Ralph Nader, a third party or independent candidate that takes even a small percentage from either major candidate can impact the election.  Considering the dissatisfaction with the two major candidates among many in both parties, someone like Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson might be able to easily get over 100,000 votes in Florida, which would be greater than margin of victory in the last three Florida statewide elections for governor and president (2010, 2012, 2014).  While some Republicans are looking for an alternative, Johnson also could be a landing spot for disaffected Sanders supporter who may like Johnson’s liberal positions on social issues.

2. Will the Hispanic Vote Doom Trump? The ultimate testing ground for the impact of Trump’s volatile rhetoric toward Hispanics during the GOP Primary will be the state of Florida.  Florida has a unique mix of Hispanic voters, including Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and others from throughout the Caribbean and Central and South America.  Unlike most of other states, the Republican Party has an important foothold among the Hispanic voting population because of the presence of Cuban voters, who used to be a near-monolith force for the GOP.  Even today, Miami-Dade County has more Hispanic Republicans than Hispanic Democrats.  Thus if Trump’s rhetoric has had a negative impact on Hispanic voter, Miami-Dade will tell the tale in November.  Even though Trump dominated the state in the March primary, he lost to Cuban-American Marco Rubio by over 70,000 votes in Miami-Dade County.  In a recent poll by Dr. Dario Moreno of FIU, Hillary Clinton nearly tied Donald Trump among Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade.  10% of respondents said they might not vote at all if the options are Clinton and Trump.  These are ominous signs for the GOP effort in Florida.  Democrats actually increased their vote share between 2008 and 2012 in Miami-Dade, with an advantage of over 200,000 votes.  If that advantage moves toward 250,000 votes this year, it is difficult to see a path for a Trump victory.  Marco Rubio would have to come out with a strong endorsement for Trump to possibly salvage Republican efforts in the county. 

The tremendous increase of the Puerto Rican migrant population in Florida due to economic problems on the island also could heavily impact the Hispanic vote in the state.  There are now over one million Puerto Rican residents in the state. Puerto Ricans’ unique status as American citizens makes them automatically eligible to vote when they move to the Florida.  While Puerto Rican populations in other states have leaned Democratic, this tendency has not been so clear in Florida.   Some see a potential advantage for Republicans in the island’s current economic plight, given that Puerto Rico’s governor is a Democrat. However, Trump’s rhetoric against Hispanics, along with his refusal to support assisting Puerto Rico with its bankruptcy problems provides a real opportunity for the Clinton campaign. 

If turnout is high among Puerto Rican voters in Orange and Osceola counties, Democrats will likely benefit.  However, if newly arrived Puerto Ricans vote at the same low rate as non-Cuban Hispanics in the state, Republicans may dodge a serious bullet.  More generally, Dr. Daniel Smith of the University of Florida found that in 2012, Florida Hispanic turnout in 2012 was 12.5%, which was much lower than exit polls indicated.  If that number gets to 14% or higher November, the Trump effort is probably in real trouble in the state.

3. Can Trump Make Inroads in Palm Beach County? Palm Beach County is a Democratic stronghold where Republicans showed real improvement in 2012.   Trump views the county as a second home with his luxurious Mar-a-Lago resort.  To do well in this county, a candidate must make inroads with the Jewish vote, since Jewish residents make up almost 1 in 5 of all residents. While Jewish voters usually lean Democratic, some analysts believe Trump can do well here because of Jewish voters’ dissatisfaction with President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran. 

However, the Clintons have a deep understanding of the dynamics of the Jewish vote in Florida.  While Hillary Clinton was promoting her strong ties to Israel in the New York primary last month in the face of pressure from Bernie Sanders, she was also sending a strong message to Jewish Floridians: “I am with you.” Thus Palm Beach County will be a showdown between Trump’s Florida roots and large personality and Clinton’s longtime political organization.  If the margins for Democrats are larger in Palm Beach and Broward Counties in November, Clinton will be much closer to victory in the state.

4. Can Trump match the Democrats’ organization? With his media-driven populist primary campaign, it remains to be seen if the Trump campaign can fund and organize the type of campaign that will be needed in the battleground states.  Will Trump find a strategist with the skills of a Karl Rove or a Steve Schale, who knows the difference between Marion and Martin counties? The RNC has been preparing for a general election for three years, so perhaps the Trump campaign can coordinate with the RNC.

The Democrats’ organization will be tested as well.  However, the Clintons are no strangers to the state.  Between primaries and general elections, Bill and Hillary Clinton have won the state of Florida five times since 1992.  A crucial question for the Clinton organization is this: Can the Democrats turn out the African American vote that was crucial to Obama’s two Florida wins?  A basic fact is that Hillary Clinton is not as strong of a candidate as Barack Obama.  Also, a crucial factor in bolstering African-American turnout is Obama himself.  He has made it clear he will not be a bystander in this race, unlike Bill Clinton in 2000 and George W. Bush in 2008. President Obama will likely make it clear to African-American voters that staying home may elect Donald Trump.  Look to Duval County in the northern part of the state as a good measure of African-American turnout, especially if local congresswoman Corrine Brown is not on the ballot.  Representative Brown has led turnout efforts among Democrats in Jacksonville for decades.  She is currently facing both political and legal challenges, including the fact that she has to run in a new congressional district.  Republicans should win the county, but if the county is within three to four points, it means a solid African-American turnout and good news for Democrats.  If the margin in Duval is five points or greater, Trump and the Republicans may have a good day.

In conclusion, no single factor will determine the closeness of the 2016 election in Florida than Donald Trump himself.  If he can manage some message discipline that successfully paints Clinton as the establishment candidate who has had her chance and failed, Florida can be close.  If Trump continues to manufacture daily personal insults and offenses targeted at women, Hispanics and anyone else who criticizes him, Clinton may maintain a large national lead in the polls that will be reflected in Florida.  The Republican convention in July will be a major testing ground for Trump’s political skills in the general.  If the GOP can emerge from that convention having made some amends with the Hispanic voters, Florida could be extremely close. However, the demographic makeup of turnout in presidential years in Florida would seem to be strongly against the unpredictable Donald Trump.  Short of something unexpected, such as a bombshell indictment of Clinton over her State Department email troubles, Trump may need to pull out one more remarkable political upset to win the state.