Biden or Trump? Outcome of presidential race has high stakes for Florida politics

Antonio Fins
 
| Palm Beach Post

Floridians finally got their turn to speak at the ballot box Tuesday, bringing an end to a presidential campaign of unprecedented public intensity — and that analysts said holds equally high stakes for Sunshine State Republicans and Democrats alike.

Voters said they were ready to decide who got Florida’s valuable 29 electoral votes after 18 months of campaigning and debating. The 2020 presidential campaign kicked off here in June of last year when President Trump officially announced he would run for re-election at one of his trademark rallies in Orlando and 20 Democratic presidential hopefuls, including Joe Biden, a week later met for the first debate showdown in Miami.

On Tuesday, Vanessa Stock, a 54-year-old Ellenton resident, waited outside a polling location for her husband while blaring a song called “Trump Train” on a speaker. Stock said she could cite “a slew of other issues with values” that she is in agreement with Trump on.

“I just believe that he is the man who is a true patriot,” Stock said, who cast her ballot for the Trump-Pence ticket during early voting.  

Latest Election Day updates: A look at what’s happening across Florida

Results: See the latest election results

Photos: First lady Melania Trump votes in Palm Beach

In Sarasota, James White, 76, wore a Biden-Harris face covering and sported a campaign sign for the Democratic ticket on the roof of his car. White, who lived in Alabama during the era of Jim Crow segregation, said this was the “most important election in my entire life.”

“I’ve never seen so much chaos caused by a single president,” he added.

The mood of the electorate in Florida 

Sure, a myriad of issues, from the pandemic to taxes to reproductive rights to federal judicial nominations, were at stake in who won the White House.

But key themes Stock and White pointed to — patriotism and chaos — were echoed by other voters as the mood of the electorate reflected a presidential campaign dominated by visceral emotions.

After all, on the campaign trail Republicans repeatedly alleged that Biden was a feeble tool of radical left socialists. And Democrats consistently charged that Trump was an ego-driven leader uncaring toward the suffering of Americans and too enamored with global authoritarians.

Susan MacManus, a longtime Florida political analyst, said she was not surprised to hear many voters say they were persuaded as much by sentiment as policy wonk assessments.

“This vote, it’s more about personality,” said MacManus, a professor emeritus at the University of South Florida, said of the way Trump and Biden, and their respective camps, characterized each other. 

But MacManus said the decision by voters at the top of the ballot would likely impact congressional and legislative seats that got mired in the bitter and polarized presidential race.

“It’s not just the presidency but all the way down to the grassroots,” she said.

What the outcome of the presidential race means for Florida

MacManus added that once the winner and loser in the presidential race are known, the impact of voters’ decision will shake, and reverberate through, both parties across Florida.

A Trump loss will require the GOP to rethink not only its ideological swing to the far right but also how it courts a growing Florida electorate that is younger and more ethnically and racially diverse, she said.

Likewise, MacManus said, a Biden loss would force Democrats to look at their ideological “standard bearer” candidates but also examine their vote producing ground games while investing a lot more energy in cultivating voters in years where there is not a major election on the schedule. 

Indeed, the fallout from who won — or lost — Florida will leave a lot of politicos “soul searching” in the state, said Kathryn DePalo at Florida International University’s Department of Politics and International Relations..

DePalo said which ever party wins the presidency will have a powerful ally at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue going forward. That is especially crucial in a state where the electorate is sharply divided, neither major party holds a dominant position in voter registrations and the share of voters that do not have a party affiliation is significant.

“The 2024 governor’s race starts the day after the 2020 presidential race ends,” said DePalo.

But the more complex questions Republicans and Democrats will need to sort, she added, will revolve around each political party’s next step, and direction.

Looking ahead, she says, would a Biden loss push Democrats to embrace more progressive candidates in the mold of 2018 gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum? Or a more centrist political figure?

Florida GOP’s fate tied to Trump?

For Republicans, a Trump loss would create a major push-pull void at the top of the party.

“This is Trump’s GOP,” she said.

DePalo said the GOP’s fate is tied to Trump, who has remolded the party and made it beholden to his views. She points out that, in fact, Gov. Ron DeSantis won because of Trump’s support although the governor pre-pandemic had “carved out some space” between himself and Trump. 

However, Republicans also have the advantage of recent history on their side, too. GOP candidates have had their way with Democrats in statewide races — they’ve won 11 of 12 since 2012. Those contests include presidential electoral votes plus gubernatorial, U.S. Senate and Florida Cabinet posts.

“Florida is fascinating because we are a purple state,” said DePalo, although she noted that Republicans have dominated statewide races for more than decade. But that’s all the more reason why she said the presidential race could be seismic for Florida politics in the near future.

“The stakes are high in the presidential race and so are the consequences,” DePalo said.

USA Today Florida Network reporters Timothy Fanning  and Angie DiMichele contributed to this story.

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