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Florida’s Pinellas County could hold the key to the Trump-Biden election

A server wearing a protective mask serves a drink to a customer in the outside dining area of a restaurant in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Monday, May 4, 2020.

Zack Wittman | Bloomberg via Getty Images

If you want to know who will win the 2020 presidential election between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden on Nov. 3, Florida’s Pinellas County may be able to tell you.

Pinellas is the biggest swing county in the ultimate swing state.

The county has picked the right horse in every presidential race since 1980, except for 2000, when it voted for Al Gore in what became one of the most contested elections in U.S. history.

“The county has a track record,” said Susan MacManus, University of South Florida professor emerita of political science.

Pinellas sits just west of Tampa, along Florida’s central Gulf Coast. Its population is just shy of 1 million.

Once a bastion of conservatism, Pinellas has become a purple place, with Republicans dominating the northern part of the county, Democrats the south and a melting pot in the middle.

“It’s got the three key geographies of politics,” said MacManus. “It’s got very rural areas, very suburban areas and a big urban area in St. Petersburg that is ethnically diverse.”

And, while it could be days or even weeks before the vote is certified nationwide, Pinellas should be in the bag by 11 p.m. ET on election night, said Pinellas Democratic Chair Barbara Scott.

That’s because unlike many states that have expanded mail-in voting to offer a safer alternative to in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic, Florida has years of experience with mail-in ballots. While the Sunshine State is known for election-night hiccups and razor-thin margins, Pinellas County isn’t usually among the trouble spots.

“Pinellas is one of the leaders in vote-by-mail technology,” Scott said.

So, tea-leaf readers will be looking very carefully at those results.

MacManus notes that the county has turned a lot bluer since 2016, when there were about 2,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. These days there are just over 5,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, according to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections’ website, and a total of just over 711,000 registered voters.

The county’s population remains older, though not the oldest in the state. And the demographics are changing, with younger families and more Black and Latino residents populating the area.  

“What you see happening there is what’s happening everywhere,” MacManus said, noting “generational replacement, the rise of multiethnic families and demographics that are yielding more blue voters around country.”

Indeed, while voters sided with Trump in 2016, the county in 2018 went for Democrats Andrew Gillum for governor and incumbent Bill Nelson for senator. Both lost their respective statewide races to Republicans Ron DeSantis and Rick Scott, respectively.

So, does that mean the county is losing its predictive edge?

While it’s impossible to know how the 2020 election will turn out, “I will be very happy if we lose our swing status and become solid blue,” Scott, the Pinellas Democratic chair, said.

Coronavirus concerns could tip the scales

Pinellas has had a relatively high number of Covid-19 cases and deaths. According to the New York Times tracker, the county had 23,161 cases and 782 deaths as of Oct. 12.

That could give Biden a leg up, said J. Edwin Benton, professor of political science and public administration at the University of South Florida’s Tampa campus.

“What I’m hearing across the Tampa Bay is that Covid is weighing very big in the election,” Benton said. “They view Trump as not being proactive and aggressive in dealing with it. He downplayed it. That is not playing well with citizens of Pinellas County.”

Still, Anthony Pedicini, a longtime GOP consultant in neighboring Hillsborough County — a solid blue bastion — is optimistic about Trump’s chances. He noted that Republicans have closed the registration gap with Democrats statewide to a historically low margin.

Even in Pinellas the margin is smaller than it was at the peak, when there were about 9,000 more registered Democrats, Scott admits.

“They have cut into our lead,” she said.

“Who are all those newly registered Republicans voting for? Not Joe Biden,” Pedicini said in a recent interview.

But Trump’s widely panned debate performance, his Covid-19 diagnosis, a White House coronavirus outbreak that most voters think was avoidable, and a New York Times expose showing that Trump paid just $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017 have further depressed the president’s poll numbers.

Trump is currently lagging Biden by nearly 4 points in Florida, according to a Real Clear Politics statewide polling average.  

“Republicans can’t win the presidency unless they carry Florida,” said Stephen Craig, a political science professor at the University of Florida. “If they lose Florida, it means they’re losing elsewhere in places they need to win.”

The Trump and Biden campaigns did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Cuban question

Even so, Tampa-based Republican strategist Ron Pierce said the recent events may not impact voters as much as Democrats would like. “I think lot of people were disappointed overall from the debate, but I’m not sure it’s enough to sway undecided voters one way or the other,” he said.

He pointed out that Biden’s potential weakness in the state is in South Florida, where Cuban voters have been showing more support for Trump than they did in 2016. “It will come down to Hispanic voters in South Florida and the I-4 corridor,” which covers much of central Florida, including Orlando and Tampa.

It’s not just Cubans, a group that has long been shifting toward Republicans. Venezuelans, Colombians, Nicaraguans and Hondurans are moving in Trump’s direction, too, MacManus said.

“Socialism is all you have to say to those people and they’re not voting for anyone who looks like they’re going toward that,” she said, noting that Republican messaging about Biden appears to be working in those populations.

So, while polls give Biden the advantage in the state, there are plenty of variables that could swing Florida the other way.

As for Pinellas, Benton said, “They’re ready for a change.”

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