TAMPA—In the frantic final days before the U.S. election, the world turns its anxious eyes to Florida. Home of sun and sand, swamps and gators, retirees, partying students, con men and baseball spring training, “Miami Vice” and Disney nice. Adopted home of President Donald J. Trump. Birthplace of a million wild headlines about the misadventures of “Florida Man.”
You learn quickly on a visit during election season that Florida Man and Florida Woman alike consider politics a participation sport.
Voters approaching an early voting station at a library in Tampa on Friday encountered something like a college football tailgate party. Out at the edge of the parking lot, dozens of people waved flags and signs bearing the names of candidates for president and statehouse and Congress and judge, wearing party colours and costumes.
One man wore a giant-sized Donald Trump mask over his face, flexing and flipping his thumbs up while his friend waved a giant Make America Great Again banner over his head. Under a Biden/Harris banner, another man’s hand-lettered sign said “Be Kind. Vote.”
The passing traffic responded with a blaring chorus of honking horns and shouts, a cacophony of democratic expression from which it was impossible to decipher partisan intent. In the parking lot, there were tents where you could pick up free campaign signs from both parties, there were candidates from local races introducing themselves, there was music blaring from a sound system, and a pickup truck circling the parking lot festooned with giant Trump flags and smaller Stars and Stripes.
And then, off to the side at a legally mandated distance, there was the 45-minute line to get into the voting booths.
“Feeling good, especially with everyone I’ve been talking to, about a lot of things that have come out recently,” said Jared Hyatt, holder of a giant Trump flag near the sidewalk, elaborating on the Hunter Biden story of alleged corruption that Trump’s campaign has leaned on in the final weeks of the campaign.
“You have Biden’s campaign literally raising money to bail out rioters that are literally destroying our country. I know people that actually voted for Hillary (Clinton) that don’t understand what has happened with the Democratic party in this country.”
Kip Eldridge has spent a few days out waving the Biden banner in this same spot, he said, shrugging off shouted abuse (catcalls, four-letter words and wild accusations of pedophilia) from Trump supporters driving past.
“I’m feeling cautiously optimistic,” Elridge said earlier in downtown Tampa at a different voting location, before we both headed here. “I think this election is basically either going to be a slow demise of the system we’ve had for a couple hundred years, or we’re going to get back to what the country was founded upon, as a democracy that evolves and constantly grows.”
Almost everyone you talk to here, like in much of the country, has that sense that something essential is at stake. And now, so much of it seems to come down to Florida.
It always seems to come down to Florida.
At least since the Supreme Court drama over recounts and hanging chads delivered the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000 by a margin of 537 votes in the state. The Sunshine State has voted for the president who won the election ever since, always by margins of just a few percentage points. Polls this year mark it as a battleground again.
And an important one: 29 electoral college votes make it a substantial prize, one it is all but impossible to see Trump winning without. Pennsylvania is thought to be the most likely “tipping point” in the electoral college this year, but Florida could be a silver bullet: if Biden takes it, Trump may not have a viable path to victory.
As a result, both campaigns have been hopping in and out of the state for rallies, doing the stretch-drive Hokey Pokey more here than in any other state except Pennsylvania. But Florida is hard to get a read on, because this one state is a bunch of different places. There’s Miami’s Latin cosmopolitanism, the panhandle’s ties to the cultural U.S. South, the vast golf-cart-lifestyle retirement communities of the central area called The Villages.
Each is important. But the counties thought to be particularly pivotal in this election are along the I-4 interstate corridor through central Florida, where, according to a 2016 Tampa Bay Times story, “Presidents get picked.”
The Most Powerful Sale & Affiliate Platform Available!
There's no credit card required! No fees ever.Create Your Free Account Now!
The highway corridor includes The Villages, the Orlando area (home to the theme parks and their workers), Tampa, and the St. Petersburg-Clearwater peninsula.
Driving on I-4 on Saturday, I saw a convoy of pickups, cars and military-style vehicles covered in Trump banners over two kilometres long. Near Orlando, I saw platoons of Biden supporters on street corners rallying.
As I’ve reported recently, almost everywhere you go in the U.S., the Trump supporters dominate the rural areas and small towns and Biden supporters are all you can find in cities, with the two solitudes screaming at each from a distance across the gulf of the suburbs. But in Florida along the I-4, supporters of each candidate live side by side.
I was shooting a photo of a house on the Tampa waterfront with multiple Trump flags outside when two women walking dogs stopped to tell me they hated the display, and pointed to a house two doors down with a “For the Love of God, Anyone But Trump” sign on the lawn as better reflecting their community. Looking at signs and talking to people in Tampa, Orlando and St. Petersburg, you could find a mix of support for each candidate in each place. A truly purple part of a purple state.
This part of the U.S. is dependent on tourism — families who visit Disney World in Orlando, spring breakers who fill beach towns, people who fill 11 cruise ships a week docked in Tampa. COVID has crushed that economy. And it’s hard to read how the presidential candidates’ divergent responses play here: I saw a big hunger among people to forget the virus concerns and get back to normal. Trump supporters told me they’ve been in phase three of reopening for a while and things are fine.
I can report that outside of hotel staff and the airport, you don’t see many people wearing masks, even indoors, even in elevators. But I also heard from a lot of people — Biden supporters who do wear masks, even outdoors — that a lot of tourism industry workers realize the virus needs to go away if the tourists are going to come back. One man told me Canadians typically account for around a quarter of the local tax revenue in some communities, and as long as COVID cases are heading up (and they are, in Florida and the rest of the country), those Canadians are going to be locked down north of the border.
I’m told Pinellas County, the area around St. Petersburg on the Gulf Coast peninsula, is a place to watch. Maybe the place to watch. It’s been a bellwether, Democratic under Obama, Republican under Trump. It’s close this year.
A voting station in downtown St. Pete’s offered another instalment of Vote-A-Palooza: the music, the signs, the flag-waving. A local restaurant had set up a table to hand out free sandwiches. Competing stalls featured cardboard cut-outs of Trump and Biden you could pose for pictures with, while in between them a Libertarian party representative chanted a coarse-language rhyme about how the two-party system means things are, um, fouled up no matter which side wins.
“For me, it’s about our freedom,” said Mara Bresnahan, who’ll serve as a Republican poll-watcher on election day. “I don’t believe Biden — should he, God forbid, be elected — would be in office too long. And his running mate Kamala (Harris) is a very radical radical, she wants to change, they want to change the Supreme Court and add seats to the Supreme Court. And end fracking for our friends in Pennsylvania and Texas. My belief is that’s the globalist mission to bring our gas and oil production outside of the U.S. so we’re once again dependent upon other countries.”
Was she feeling confident in how Florida would vote? “Yeah, I am, 100 per cent.”
Just down the block, attorney Michelle Peters was at the edge of the sidewalk with a broken ankle, helping staff the Biden efforts. She says she’s a lifelong Republican who’s switched sides because of Trump.
“I was an original member of the Federalist Society for New York Law School,” she says, in reference to the conservative organization that has led the push to appoint right-wing judges, including Amy Coney Barrett.
“The defining issue? I would have to say democracy. I mean that truly, because I think what we’re witnessing here is fascism. I hate to be that extreme, but that is what I feel. We have a person at the helm who does not understand the constitution, who makes it up as he goes along. He has completely destroyed the country with COVID-19. He is continuing not to listen to the scientists and the experts in the area,” she said. “It’s appalling to me that so many people do support Trump.”
Biden had just visited, Obama would be back the next day, the FiveThirtyEight poll average showed Biden with a two-point lead. How was Peters feeling in a bellwether county of a bellwether state days before the election? “How do I feel? I’m nervous. I mean, that’s reality. Nobody take anything for granted,” she said. “That’s why I’m here, fractured ankle and all. I’m doing the little that I can as a volunteer in order to encourage people to vote.”
Stretching down the block and around the corner, hundreds of people stood in line to get into the early voting booth or drop off absentee ballots, some of the 8.2 million Floridians who’d already voted by Saturday. Anxious and excited, waiting to decide for themselves which way this historic election would end, and perhaps to decide for the rest of the country, and the world, too.
Edward Keenan is the Star’s Washington Bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Reach him via email: [email protected]
Subscribe to the newsletter news
We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe