Election 2016: 'As Florida votes, so goes the nation'

By Audrea Huff, Senior Digital Media Producer
Last Updated: Tuesday, March 08, 2016, 11:10 AM EST

When it comes to elections, there’s no bigger battleground than Florida.

With 29 electoral college votes up for grabs — only California and Texas offer more, though each have a long history of leaning toward a certain party -- Florida is not only a swing state, but the nation’s premier swing state.

“The state of Florida, based on the census, is now the third largest state. And when we get to the Nov. 8 election, Florida is very important because everybody knows that California votes Democrat, Texas votes Republican, and Florida is a swing state,” says Bill Cowles, Orange County’s Supervisor of Elections.

“New York is blue, Texas is red, California is blue — we’re the purple state,” says Dr. Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida and an expert in government and international affairs.

How strong is Florida at picking the next president? Only one time since 1964 has Florida not picked the winner of the presidential election. (That was 1992, when Florida went to George H.W. Bush.)

“As Florida votes, so goes the nation,” MacManus says.

And we like to keep our state and national elections interesting till the end. When it comes to Florida, no major media organizations dare call it for a candidate early on Election Night. In the past two governor’s races and the 2012 presidential election, the winner edged his rival by a mere 1 percent.

“In the case of Obama-Romney, it was 0.9 percent. No other state has come that close. No other state is that competitive,” MacManus says.

Our melting pot of racial, ethnic, age, religious and political diversity is a microcosm of America’s diversity. “Florida’s racial and ethnic makeup look more like the country than any other single state,” MacManus says. According to 2015 U.S. Census numbers, Florida’s population more closely matches the racial proportions of the nation than Iowa or New Hampshire, where the first of the nation’s party contests take place.

Our diverse populations are even changing the landscape of political campaigning, according to MacManus.

“Microtargeting is the way that politics is won these days. You have be able to figure out how to reach different slices of the electorate,” she says. “That’s why Florida is often the focal point. People really comb over the registration and voting pattern statistics and match those with the people in the areas that have voted that way, so they get a better idea of how to reach these diverse populations.”

The I-4 factor

If the state as a whole weren’t competitive enough for you, just take a drive down Interstate 4.

The Tampa and Orlando media markets together contain about 44 percent of all registered Florida voters.

“Even within Florida, we’re divided into three portions,” Cowles says. “There’s the north Florida — the I-10 from Jacksonville to Pensacola and that’s basically a very Republican portion of the state. South Florida is very heavily Democrat, with the Miami-Dade and Broward, Fort Lauderdale areas.

“And then I-4 — we become the swing state. If you want to win Florida, you have to win the north and I-4, or you have to win south and I-4,” he says.

When you look at their party affiliation, there’s roughly an equal number of registered Democrats and Republicans. So in the I-4 corridor, “They’re party competitive, there’s a lot of age diversity, and they also have a higher incidence of NPAs [no party affiliations] in the I-4 corridor than in many of the other media markets.”

Finally, it’s a myth that everyone in Florida is old. “Everybody thinks this is a state dominated by senior voters, but that’s increasingly less true,” MacManus says. “The reason is the fact that you have all these people moving in here, and a lot of them are young. So you have age diversity. It’s not only old people [here].”

“Regardless of what demographic you’re looking at, Florida just has it all,” she says.