Donald Trump is about to launch his re-election campaign from the Colosseum of Florida’s bare-knuckle politics.
When the president takes the stage Tuesday night in the Amway Center in downtown Orlando, he’ll practically be on top of Interstate 4, the coast-to-Florida-coast highway that has come to define the most purple of districts in the most purple of states. The vaunted I-4 corridor spans two of the most important media markets in the country and touches nearly half of Florida’s voters — with whom Trump did exceptionally well in 2016.
In order to secure a second term, Trump almost certainly needs to win Florida, and to do that he’ll need to fight and manage the margins across the entire state. But perhaps more than anything, Trump’s re-election hinges on his ability to once again squeeze as much juice as possible out of Central Florida.
“There are few states more important than Florida, and within our state, for many cycles, the I-4 corridor has been the battleground,” said Susie Wiles, chairwoman of Trump’s 2016 Florida campaign. “To neglect it is to be foolish.”
Though it’s fraught to claim any silver bullet in a state where top-of-ticket elections tend to come down to a single point or less, a case can be made that Trump won Florida in 2016 because he clobbered Hillary Clinton in Florida’s “golden girdle” — a region that in many ways is a political and demographic microcosm of America.
Like the country as a whole, the 19 counties that comprise the Orlando and Tampa media markets revolve around swelling and increasingly diverse and liberal metropolitan areas but are geographically dominated by blue-collar, predominately white rural counties. A dramatic surge of Puerto Rican transplants and African-Americans in and around Orlando has threatened to throw the balance of power in the region to the left, but white flight from the Democratic Party and domestic migration from other states into rural neighborhoods and the booming Villages retirement community has acted as a counterweight to the right.
All of that has created an equilibrium that highlights each party’s strengths and weaknesses and preserves the perpetual tug-of-war over the roughly 6 million voters from St. Petersburg to Daytona Beach. And Trump’s campaign exploited that three years ago in a way that doomed Clinton and made up for his weaknesses everywhere else.
Trump won the I-4 corridor by 217,000 votes and lost the rest of the state by about 100,000. Four years earlier, Mitt Romney beat Barack Obama by 18,000 votes in the region — and lost the state by about 100,000.
“The I-4 corridor was critical to President Trump’s victory in Florida in 2016, and it will be again in 2020,” said Republican National Committee spokeswoman Ellie Hockenbury. “However the I-4 corridor breaks is how you win Florida, and we won’t take any vote there for granted.”
In some ways, Orlando could be seen as an odd place for Trump to launch his re-election campaign. The city is the heart of Orange County, the deep blue sea of Central Florida. The area has seen a dramatic expansion of Puerto Ricans, who have an exceedingly dim view of the president due to his response to Hurricane Maria.
“Central Florida is not Trump country,” said state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an East Orlando Democrat and leader of the state’s progressive caucus. “Central Florida cares about things like access to affordable health care. We care about equality for all, including immigrants, including the LGBTQ community, including women. So much of what Donald Trump is advocating for is against and is antithetical to everything that Central Florida represents.”
But Trump’s play is to the entire region.
“Trump could have done a rally in an area even stronger for him but where are there so many raw voters concentrated?” said Democratic consultant Matthew Isbell.
Over the last four years, the Tampa and Orlando media markets have ranked either first and second or first and third in terms of the number of political ads run. Voters in Central Florida were inundated during the 2016 presidential campaign with 50,000 TV ads in 2016 in the presidential race alone, according to the Wesleyan Media Project. And last year, the campaigns for governor and U.S. Senate dropped another 140,000 of them.
Brad Herold, a media strategist and former Republican Party of Florida executive who led Ron DeSantis’ messaging campaign last year in the congressman’s successful run for governor, said the campaign spent close to half its media budget on the I-4 corridor. But that decision wasn’t due only to the number of voters in the region. It was also because voters there are persuadable.
In Volusia County, Republicans barely outnumber Democrats in terms of voter registration, but Trump and DeSantis dominated in 2016 and 2018. Last year, Republican Elizabeth Fetterhoff won a Volusia-area seat in the state House in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by 12,000.
Seminole County, on the other hand, voted Democrat in November despite a slight Republican advantage in registered voters.
“Television is about persuasion and not only do 50 percent of the voters in Florida live in Tampa and Orlando, it’s a sizable chunk of the persuadable universe,” said Herold. “That’s why you spend so much money in Tampa and Orlando.”
The push-and-pull and the national significance of the region is already playing out. The Florida Democratic Party held its annual leadership conference a week ago at Disney World, rallying the troops in Orange County. Both Republicans and Democrats also coalesced last week in Orlando around the third anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting, which remains a symbol of national tragedy and a lightning rod on the issues of gun control and gay rights.
And most of the roughly two dozen Democrats running for president will be in the state starting this week as the party prepares for its first primary debates in Miami.
When the president drops into Orlando, Democrats will be waiting for him with planned protests. Permit applications submitted to the city show they’re hoping to give him a London-style greeting, complete with a giant Trump baby balloon.
Trump, meanwhile, should be able to pull large crowds from Orlando’s Republican minority and the surrounding communities.
He tweeted last week that his campaign had already received 74,000 ticket requests for a venue seating 20,000. And if he wants to remain president, he’ll need to maintain that type of demand from Tampa to Daytona Beach all the way to Election Day 2020.