President Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden have for weeks been heading in opposite directions in Florida public opinion polls. And with mail ballots set to go out in late September — and two July polls finding the president down double digits — Trump may be at his lowest point in the must-win battleground, where Biden appears to now comfortably hold a lead.
But don’t misunderstand the polls: Florida is still the recount state.
Known for narrow margins — and questionable public polling — Florida has seen many a sunny summer outlook for Democrats fade into Republican victory in November. Few Florida strategists and pollsters expect anything other than a close race in the fall.
“Every four years we go through this, whether it’s the governor’s race or the presidential race,” said Brian Ballard, a veteran Tallahassee and Washington lobbyist who served as finance chairman for Trump’s 2016 Florida campaign. “Most governor’s races I’ve been involved in, the Democrats do a great job of having a first half lead and doing a lot of celebrating, and then when the game’s over, they have to go back and figure out how they blew it.”
Four years after winning Florida by about 112,000 votes, Trump’s campaign remains confident in the president’s ability to carry the state again. That’s partly because the campaign conducts its own internal polling — which Trump recently said has shown him up in all battleground states — and partly because public polls have since 2016 seemed to low-ball Trump’s support in Florida.
“The worst thing the Biden campaign can do is to buy into what the polls are suggesting about Florida being a non-competitive race,” said Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based pollster and Democratic strategist. “Their best maneuver is to act like they’re three points behind in Florida.”
In the 2016 presidential contest, the University of North Florida found Democrat Hillary Clinton up 7 points on Trump in early October amid a string of positive polls for Clinton. Then Trump won the state by 1.2 points.
Two years later, CNN published a poll on the eve of the first debate in the Florida governor’s race between Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum, showing Gillum up by 12 points. DeSantis, who was endorsed by Trump and campaigned closely with the president in the final days of the gubernatorial election, went on to win by 34,000 votes in an election that saw more than 8 million ballots cast.
“I feel better [now] than I felt in ’16,” Ballard said this week. “And better than I did with DeSantis in ’18.”
At the same time, some private polls are capturing a closer contest between Trump and Biden than what is being shown by public polls. And while there’s little dispute that Trump must make up ground on Biden to win in Florida, there is disagreement about how good the picture really looks for Biden.
“Everything I’m seeing in the numbers right now, I’d rather be Trump than Biden” in Florida, said Ryan Tyson, a Republican, Tallahassee-based pollster who is not affiliated with the Trump campaign. “We’re seeing a lot of national DC beltway guys dancing on Trump’s grave in Florida, and it’s premature and it’s wrong.”
Tyson, who polls for campaigns and private clients, said his firm is among those seeing Trump’s support waning in Florida. But he stressed that he isn’t seeing Biden’s support growing as voters move away from Trump — raising the possibility that voters who now say they are undecided in the race will move back to Trump when it comes time to actually cast ballots and choose between the Republican or the Democrat.
“In terms of public opinion, the race is shaping up very similar to what we saw in 2016,” said Tyson, who believes some Trump voters are hesitant to talk to pollsters in a highly charged atmosphere. “The president’s ballot share has shrunk a little, but Biden hasn’t moved.”
Florida is known as a difficult place to poll. Broken up into 10 media markets, the third-most populous state in the country looks demographically like several different states, with Cuban-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Caribbean Blacks and whites from the Midwest and Northeast creating unique political cultures and voting patterns in pockets of the state that can be tricky to gauge with accuracy.
Poll too many conservative-leaning Cuban-Americans, for example, and Hispanic voter sentiments will skew too far to the right. Rely too heavily on voter registration makeup and not enough on voting trends, and a poll will undervalue Republican turnout and lean to the left.
But that’s not to say that all public polling in Florida is off.
Steve Vancore, a veteran Democratic strategist in Florida, said people tend to misread polls by projecting the results forward to Election Day, and by failing to account for the campaigns’ ability to react to the numbers by shifting strategy and winning over new supporters.
And multiple strategists and pollsters said in interviews that, while polls shouldn’t be interpreted as predictors of the future, they are currently picking up voters’ discontent in Florida and other battleground states with the president’s ability to lead a nation in crisis.
“Right now, I don’t think there’s anything unusual about the polls. The economy is hurting, people are scared and the commander-in-chief isn’t giving people what they want, so his numbers are going down,” Vancore said. “But the campaigns see this data and start reacting to the data. That’s what closes things down. Partisans tend to go back to the ticket.”
Steve Schale, a veteran Democrat pollster and CEO of the pro-Biden Super PAC Unite the Country, said it’s possible that the pandemic and Trump will prove so disruptive to the election that the November election will buck the last decade of Florida voting trends. But Schale also likes to throw out the following stat: Since Bill Clinton was elected president in 1992, more than 50 million ballots have been cast for president in Florida, and yet fewer than 20,000 total votes separate the two parties.
“With the caveat that we’re in arguably the most effed-up election cycle in our lives,” Schale said, “when you consider that since 2010 there have been seven statewide elections in Florida decided by a point or less, you kind of have to assume it’s going to go back to the mean at some point.”