• Fri. Nov 27th, 2020

Who Will Win Florida? What Polls Say About an Eternal Mystery

Welcome to Poll Watch, our weekly look at polling data and survey research on the candidates, voters and issues shaping the 2020 election.


The presidential race in Florida looks similar to 2016 in at least one regard: It’ll probably be close, maybe decided again by just a single percentage point. But under the surface, there will be major differences in terms of who’s voting for whom.

President Trump can count on the continued support of rural voters and white men, while Joseph R. Biden Jr. is almost guaranteed to carry strong support from women and African-American voters across the state.

Yet Mr. Biden is unlikely to hold on to Hillary Clinton’s strong showing with Latino voters. Instead, he’s looking to make up for it among some of the white voting blocs that Mr. Trump relied on in 2016, particularly suburbanites and older voters.

A batch of high-quality Florida polls arrived this week — probably some of the last that we’ll see before the election — and they all showed Mr. Biden with an advantage of three to six percentage points among the state’s likely voters. Taken together, the surveys from Monmouth University, Quinnipiac University and NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College put Mr. Biden in a strong position to pull together a winning coalition in Florida, which has successfully predicted the victor in the past six presidential elections.

In each poll, the difference was within the margin of error, and the polling miss of 2016 — when Florida surveys overestimated Mrs. Clinton’s support by a few points — should give us pause.

But Mr. Trump’s victory in Florida that year relied heavily on late-deciding voters, and in both the Monmouth and Marist polls, no more than 2 percent of voters said they still didn’t know how they would vote. Turnout is also on track to be considerably higher this year, which leaves less room for certain groups to under-participate, as Democratic voters did in 2016, further throwing off polls.

The consistency of the findings from this week’s polls suggests that Mr. Trump does have ground to make up. The Monmouth and Quinnipiac polls also showed that he will be fighting the clock: In both surveys, just 17 percent of likely voters said they would vote on Election Day, with the rest planning to cast ballots early in person or by mail.

Turnout has been running high across the state, with more than seven million ballots already cast as of Thursday night. That’s nearly 80 percent of the total votes cast in 2016. After one more weekend of early voting and a few more days of mail ballots arriving, the vote tally could well surpass 2016’s total vote before Election Day even arrives.

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Slightly more Democrats have turned out than Republicans, though only by 200,000 votes. That advantage is padded by Mr. Biden’s polling lead among independents, who have cast about one in five ballots so far.

If the crosstabs from Monmouth University’s latest poll of Florida were to perfectly predict how Democrats, Republicans and independents are voting, then Mr. Biden would be winning 52 percent of early votes and Mr. Trump 43 percent, according to the available voter data on ballots already cast by Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters. Those are almost certainly not the exact real numbers, but they’re somewhere in that range.

Republicans can count on a last-minute voting surge come Election Day, when they are almost certain to outnumber Democrats going to the polls. But given how many votes will have been cast by then, and since less than one in five voters are telling pollsters they plan to vote that day, it may be a steep uphill climb.

Daniel Smith, a professor of political science and pollster at the University of Florida, has been tracking voter turnout by demographic groups, and he said he had been struck by the participation from older voters. Florida is home to vast numbers of retirees, and its diverse population of seniors is a heavily sought-after chunk of the electorate.

“The senior vote has been huge so far,” Dr. Smith said, citing numbers showing that two-thirds of voters 65 and older had already voted. That is occurring in traditionally Republican areas — like Sumter County, home to the Villages, which has already matched its 2016 vote total — and more heavily Democratic ones, such as Broward County.

But the election may be won and lost in the middle, among the many older voters who cast ballots for Mr. Trump four years ago but have turned against him, and whose opposition has only been cemented by his response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Trump has doubled down on ‘Covid, Covid, Covid’ and the ‘hoax’ of this virus, and older voters aren’t buying it,” Dr. Smith said.

Yet Mr. Biden hasn’t left the president in the dust; according to the three polls this week, the candidates are roughly splitting older voters in Florida, meaning that Mr. Trump is hanging on to at least a slight majority of white seniors.

The president has proved more consistently repellent to college-educated white voters across the state. These voters spurned Mrs. Clinton and supported him overwhelmingly in 2016, when he won 60 percent of white women with college degrees in Florida to Mrs. Clinton’s 37 percent, according to exit polls.

But the Marist poll released on Thursday found that those numbers had more than flipped: Sixty-four percent of white, college-educated women in Florida supported Mr. Biden, and 35 percent backed Mr. Trump.

The effect was particularly felt in the state’s suburbs, which Mr. Trump won handily in 2016 — and which largely stuck with Republicans in the 2018 midterm election, defying national trends. The NPR/PBS/Marist poll gave Mr. Biden a 14-point lead in suburban areas.

Like most of the country, Florida tilted Democratic in 2018, with two House seats flipping blue. But in narrow races for senator and governor, Republicans eked out victories.

Part of that was because of a drop in Democratic support among Latino voters. In 2016, 62 percent of Florida’s Latino voters broke for Mrs. Clinton, according to exit polls; two years later, just 54 percent voted for the Democratic governor and Senate candidates.

Mr. Trump has worked to strengthen his support among Cuban-Americans in particular, and his claims that Democrats are flirting with socialism may carry a particular resonance with these voters, many of whom belong to families that fled the Castro regime. But it was not only among Cuban Latinos that Democrats’ margins suffered in 2018.

While the Democratic vote generally rose elsewhere, in the three Florida counties with the highest Hispanic populations, it was down compared with two years earlier. One of those counties, Miami-Dade, has a high concentration of Cubans, but the others, Osceola and Hendry, are more heavily Puerto Rican and Mexican-American.

Mr. Biden was not the Latino community’s first choice in the Democratic primaries, and his lead over Mr. Trump among Latino voters has been unreliable since he became the nominee. That’s been particularly true in Florida, where some polls have shown him effectively tied with Mr. Trump.

“We’ve known for a while that Biden was unlikely to hit Clinton’s 2016 numbers, but the goal would be to do better than Nelson and Gillum did in 2018 and be more in line with where Obama was in 2012,” said Carlos Odio, a founder of EquisLabs, a liberal-leaning Latino research firm. That year, exit polls gave President Barack Obama a 21-point lead over Mitt Romney.

So far, Mr. Biden has not managed that. Averaging together the results of the Monmouth, Marist and Quinnipiac polls this week, Mr. Biden led by just 12 points among Latinos.

Latino voters now account for about one in five ballots cast in Florida, twice their share just 20 years ago.

Mr. Odio said that Democrats would seek to win over Cuban-American voters in Miami-Dade County, but that they would be largely focused on driving up turnout among the roughly seven in 10 Florida Latinos who are not Cuban.

“Biden has a lot more room to grow, and these are populations where there are more late deciders,” Mr. Odio said. Latino voters are more likely than other groups to affiliate with neither party, and to be conflicted about which candidate to choose.

But only a few days remain for that decision. And Florida this year intends to be efficient: While it is known for its vote-counting snafus, the state has a long history of accepting high numbers of mail-in ballots, and its election laws allow officials to begin counting them earlier than in many other states.

Together with the fact that ballots must be received by Election Day in order to be counted, that means it’s possible the state could manage to declare a winner by the evening of Nov. 3, providing a powerful clue to which candidate is on track to win the presidency.