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Sayfie Review Featured Column

by Dr. Susan MacManus
November 7, 2016

Dr. Susan A. MacManus, USF Distinguished Professor

Anthony Cilluffo, Research Associate

David J. Bonanza, Research Associate


All eyes are on Florida—once again at the center of the political storm that has swept across the nation for months on end. While the bulk of the attention (measured by candidate visits and TV ad spending) has been on the presidential race, Florida’s U.S. Senate race has garnered national attention as well, being part of the calculus as to which party controls that august chamber. Less in the spotlight have been the state’s 27 U.S. House seats and its 120 state legislative seats (40 Senate; 120 House), although both Democrats and Republicans will tally up their wins and losses in those contests—and quickly calculate what they need to do as they move onward to the 2018 gubernatorial race.  

Here are ten things to watch on Election Night that will affect each party’s political clout at the national and state levels now and in the future:

1.     Margin of victory in presidential contest; another 1% election?  For the past three statewide races (2010 and 2014 governor’s races, 2012 presidential), the winner’s margin of victory has been just 1%. Recent polls have projected another “nail-biter” election here, in spite of some significant demographic shifts since 2012 (growth in Latino and millennial registrants) that should spell larger margins for Democrats. Republicans have countered with stronger support among the state’s older residents and economically-stressed working-class whites. A larger margin for Democrats would affirm what many have been proclaiming for quite some time: “Demographics are destiny.” A 1% margin would underscore Republicans’ arguments that Trump effectively expanded the party’s base.

2.     Will the state’s overall turnout rate be higher or lower than in 2012?  Turnout in the 2012 presidential contest was 72% (down from 75% in 2008). Will turnout be higher or lower than in 2012? Many pundits expect a much higher turnout this year based on the unconventional nature of the presidential campaign, high levels of voter interest, and record levels of early voting. On the other hand, some predict a somewhat lower turnout rate for three reasons: strong dislike/distrust of both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the record number of negative ads, and what some describe as a largely issueless campaign at a time when many “sometimes” Florida voters are strapped financially and have been left wanting to hear more details about how each candidate proposes to fix the economy. Normally, a higher-than-expected turnout rate would be seen as benefiting Democrats more than Republicans. But if it is slightly lower, and Trump wins, it would be a sign than Republicans, more than Democrats, energized the “sometimes” voters from the working class.  

3.     How well will each major party keep its traditional base together? Each side has soft spots in their party’s traditional base. Hillary Clinton is struggling to energize blue-collar workers, millennials (age 18-34) including young college women, and black voters at the levels achieved by Obama’s winning coalition. Likewise, Trump is having trouble attracting support from more moderate Republicans, suburban women, Hispanic Republicans, and college-educated whites. Also, Trump is relying more heavily on previously disenchanted voters that he brought into the Republican Party, many of whom do not have a strong record of voting. At this late stage, both sides are intensely focused on energizing and turning out the wavering portions of the base. Clinton and her surrogates have been campaigning heavily in the Democratic strongholds of Miami and West Palm Beach, appearing on college campuses and in minority neighborhoods. Trump and Pence have been focusing more on Tampa and Orlando, Jacksonville, and Pensacola—and holding events at large amphitheaters and sports venues that can accommodate a large number of rural and suburban voters crucial to their coalition.

4.     The gender gap: how wide will it be? The first presidential contest pitting a female and male candidate from the two major parties against each other prompted some national analysts like Charles Cook to predict early on that gender would be the defining element of the 2016 contest. Hillary Clinton has made it the centerpiece of her outreach to women voters, first as the history-making, glass-ceiling-breaking nature of a win by her, more recently as an opportunity to vote against Donald Trump for his outrageous comments about women.  Women have long been the majority of registered voters in Florida (53% at present). It is often said that Republicans here can win statewide races if they can split the women’s vote, while Democrats win when there is a sizable gender gap (in 2012, 53% women voted for Obama and 46% for Romney). Polls taken nationally and in Florida have shown a larger gender gap now than in 2012, but that gap has been shrinking over the past couple of weeks.  Should Hillary win here, it will be yet another signal to Republicans that fielding all male tickets in the future is not a winning strategy—particularly now that a majority of college undergraduates across Florida are female.

5.     Accuracy of pre-election polls? Election 2016 has seen record numbers of polls conducted for races up and down the ballot. However, much has been written about possible inaccuracies in the polls. One potential area of error that is particularly concerning to pollsters and analysts is the possibility that some survey participants may not admit they are voting for Donald Trump due to the social stigma around doing so (the so-called “Shadow Trump vote”). The fact that the results of most of the polls taken in Florida have been within the margin of error (a virtual statistical tie) could conceivably mean that a candidate up by a small percent could end up losing the state. The consequences of erroneous polls could be major protests and challenges to election returns. It should always be remembered that no poll can predict turnout, meaning that even the best poll could be wrong if their voter sample does not look like who actually ends up voting.

6.     How many third party/write-in/under-votes will there be for president and what does it signal? Historic dislike for both of the major party candidates led many people to speculate that this would be the best year for a third party since Ross Perot in 1992. However, polling numbers have fallen for the third party candidates (Gary Johnson, Libertarian and Jill Stein, Green) since around the time of the first debate. Johnson fell from a high of about 10% nationally to just 5% now, while Stein has struggled to just reach 5% and is currently polling about 2%. The third-party candidates have struggled to reach their national poll numbers in Florida, with Johnson currently getting about 3% of the Florida vote, while Stein is around 1%. If these results are accurate, both candidates would do far better than their respective showings in 2012, when Johnson got 0.5% of the vote in the state to Stein’s 0.1%. Others have suggested that voters will write-in their preferred candidate, with Ohio Governor John Kasich famously reporting that he wrote-in John McCain for president on his ballot. (In Florida, a voter must vote for a registered write-in candidate for the vote to count. Otherwise, the vote is not counted.) Another prediction is that some voters may just skip the race all together—a concept known as “roll-off” or “drop-off.” A high roll-off for the presidential race could serve as a signal to the party(ies) of a weakening of the party label and/or the danger of too many negative TV ads and mailers, with far too little issue focus. So, too, would a disproportionate percentage of millennial and GenX voters choosing Johnson or Stein.

7.     Is 2016 election best described as a “status quo” vs. “change” (“insider” vs. “outsider”) election or a “temperament-to-be-president” choice? The 2016 presidential race has often been characterized as offering voters the sharpest contrast between the two major party nominees in modern history.  Exit poll data for Florida that will be released on Election Night will give us better insights as to which of these two views was the more prevalent characterization and bigger motivator for Florida voters.

8.     Can Rubio attract crossover votes in the U.S. Senate race? Traditionally, candidates for a U.S. Senate race that takes place during a presidential election year tie themselves closely to their party’s presidential nominee. This year, only one (Democrat Patrick Murphy) is doing so. Republican Marco Rubio has had to keep both “Never Trump” Republicans and Trump supporters in the fold, while accepting that some Republicans still resent him running for president against Jeb Bush.  To make up for the loss of support among Republicans, Rubio has worked hard to attract at least some millennial and Hispanic voters who will vote for Hillary for president. Rubio has been polling better than Trump in Florida with these groups, along with moderate, pro-immigrant Republicans. Will it be enough to carry him over the finish line? A close presidential race would most likely see Rubio re-elected, while a sizable vote margin by Hillary would likely mean a Senator Murphy.  A Rubio success would also signal to Republicans that diversity is an important factor in the vote decisions of younger Floridians.

9.     How many of Florida’s 27 congressional seats will Democrats pick up? Florida led the nation in the number of U.S. House members (7) who decided not to run for re-election in 2016. The unexpectedly high turnover and redistricting have produced a record number of competitive Congressional seats in this year’s election and given Florida Democrats hope they can narrow the current edge (17 Rs, 10 Ds) Republicans have in the delegation. Congressman John Mica (R) is facing an unexpectedly tough re-election battle in CD-7 (Parts of Seminole, Orange) against Stephanie Murphy (D). Redistricting has made St. Petersburg’s CD-13 one of the most competitive races in the country, with incumbent Congressman David Jolly (R) facing former Governor Charlie Crist (D), who is seeking a political comeback. Patrick Murphy’s run for Florida’s U.S. Senate seat left his Port St. Lucie-Jupiter Congressional seat (CD-18) open, setting up a tough fight between Democrat Randy Perkins and Republican Brian Mast. Lastly, in a classic “only in Florida” story, former Congressman Joe Garcia (D) narrowly beat Annette Taddeo, a local Democratic Party leader, for a chance for a rematch of the 2014 election against freshman Congressman Carlos Curbelo (R), who is facing a tough race after redistricting moved his seat more toward the Democrats and fallout from many of Trump’s comments about immigrants, which play very poorly in this Hispanic-dominated South Florida district (CD-26).  Wins by Democrats in CDs 7 and 13 would be seen as a big boost to the party as both districts are located in the critical I-4 corridor (44% of state’s registered voters).  The winner of CD-18, the only open seat, would yield important insights as to how to win a highly competitive district…or even a statewide race.

10.  What will be the outcomes of votes on constitutional amendments and in judicial retention elections? The four constitutional amendments on the ballot this year have gotten far less attention than in earlier elections in spite of the fact that at least two (Amendments 1 and 2) are somewhat controversial.  Part of the reason is that the presidential and U.S. Senate races have dominated the airwaves, although each of these proposals has seen some TV ads aired for and against them. The key questions are:  Will voters vote “Yes” on the well-funded solar energy amendment arguably for its superior advertising campaign or “No” because of negative “free media” against it, along with its confusing wording?    And is there a “silent majority” of “No” voters against medicinal marijuana in Amendment 2? Both amendments must receive 60% of “yes” votes to be approved by voters, a high bar to reach. Amendments and judicial races are considered low information races which means that voters rely more on editorials and fact-checks or just don’t vote on them at all (roll-off). Expect more roll-off on judicial retention elections (three state Supreme Court justices; many District Courts of Appeal judges) but don’t count on a majority of voters to boot any justices or judges. None has been denied retention since Florida transitioned to the current system in the 1970’s, and there is little reason to think this election will be different. What could we expect from these low information elections? Perhaps some new ideas or proposals about them will come from next year’s Constitutional Revision Commission.

11.  Will there be voting issues – violence, disruptions, and/or hacking? Late breaking news about WikiLeaks, scandals, or candidate missteps? Much has been made in this election about possible disruptions to normal voting. Indeed, recent polls show that substantial portions of Americans are concerned about the possibility of disruptions on Election Day. Concerns raised include violence at polling stations, hacking of election systems, and other disruptions. Elections officials have taken these threats seriously, and federal law enforcement officials have offered advice to counter the threats. While we should all hope that there are no issues with the voting process, we should also rest assured that every county has voting continuation plans in place if the unthinkable happens. But late breaking news of a negative sort is out of a candidate’s control yet it could affect the vote choice of Election Day voters.

12.  Will we know the result Election Night? Will there be a recount? Will the loser accept the results? It all comes down to this. A combination of a close race and potential voting disruptions could send Florida’s election into overtime as in 2000. Remember, if the margin of victory in any race is 0.5% or less, an automatic (“machine”) recount is triggered. If the margin of victory in any race is 0.25% or less, a manual recount of under-votes and other spoiled votes is triggered to attempt to determine voter intent. Add to this the provisional ballots and overseas and military vote-by-mail ballots that may be counted after November 8—normally not enough to swing a race, but, in an exceptionally close contest, every vote matters. Every election official in Florida is hoping for a smooth election and clear result, but a close result may not be clear until the days after Election Day. And there is no guarantee the loser will accept the results without a challenge.

One thing everyone in Florida can agree on is that 2016 has been the most unusual election year ever. Stay tuned!!