President Donald Trump’s campaign rally on a tarmac at Orlando Sanford International Airport after his coronavirus hospitalization earlier this month seemed to recapture the magic of his stunning 2016 campaign.
The television cameras. The staging. The drama. His supporters, mesmerized by the spectacle, gave off an electricity that signaled another victory is on the horizon.
“Look around,” said Brad Virgin, an Orlando-area chiropractor. “How could he lose?”
Five days later, St. Pete Polls, a well-respected Florida pollster, surveyed voters in the Senate district that surrounds the airport. It’s a district Trump carried by 4 percentage points in 2016. But in the waning days of the race, the Republican finds himself behind former Vice President Joe Biden by double digits.
Trump’s Sunshine State victory four years ago was built on the communities surrounding Interstate 4, the coast-to-coast highway where campaigns battle for some of the country’s most influential swing voters. He won it by about 250,000 votes in a state decided by 113,000.
The region, known by political operatives and pundits as the I-4 corridor, is shaping up as the most crucial again. This time, however, polls say it’s Trump who is in trouble.
Statewide, Trump remains neck and neck with Biden. But in the middle of the state, polls consistently show the president trailing his 2016 performance. The same polls say there is a dearth of undecided voters left to convince. Meanwhile, the opposition is mobilized. By Monday, 193,000 more Democrats had voted early or by mail than Republicans across the 19 counties that span the I-4 region.
And yet, those numbers can be difficult to reconcile against the unyielding displays of loyalty from Trump’s supporters these past four years. They show up at a moment’s notice to see Trump’s children speak or to wave flags on a corner. They organize parades that attract hundreds of cars or boats. They stand three deep along a busy highway just to catch a glimpse of Trump’s motorcade.
Republicans have also increased their voter registration lead across the I-4 corridor to 111,000 thanks to a sustained summer push.
In Polk County, they can’t keep Trump signs in stock, said J.C. Martin, the chairman of the Republican Party. About 250 people have volunteered to be poll watchers. On the first day of early voting, 500 more Democrats voted than Republicans there, but Martin predicts Trump will win Polk by 50,000 votes, nearly double his 2016 margin.
“I’ve been in politics for 49 years,” Martin said. “I’m not worried about the polls and I’m not worried about who is showing up to vote because the energy is far exceeding anything I’ve seen before.”
Publicly, Trump has expressed confidence in a repeat of 2016. Last week in Ocala, he predicted a “red wave the likes of which they’ve never seen before" was coming in November.
But the movements by his campaign suggest the outcome here remains in doubt. The Tampa Bay media market is one of just a handful in battleground states where Trump’s team is outspending the Biden campaign, according to a New York Times analysis, and the Republican has spent heavily to keep up with Biden’s advertising blitz in the Orlando market.
Meanwhile, Trump, the First Family and Vice President Mike Pence have hit cities all along the I-4 corridor, from Clearwater and Tampa to The Villages and Ormand Beach, in an all-out effort to shore up support in the closing weeks.
Trump faces stiff headwinds. The region is flush with retirees who are disappointed with Trump’s response to the coronavirus and are moving toward Biden, polls show. The exploding suburbs around Orlando are full of college-educated women who have become disenchanted by the president since he took office. Fast-growing Latino communities in Tampa and Kissimmee are less enamored by Trump than Cuban voters in South Florida.
Biden’s campaign has ramped up appearances in these areas. His running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, stopped in Orlando on Monday to mark the first day of early voting. Former First Lady Jill Biden visited St. Petersburg and Lake Mary on Friday.
Those events featured supporters watching from their vehicles or social distanced to meet public health protocols. The turnout fell short of most Trump-branded events.
But Democrats insist that the polls and ballot returns reflect an energy that shows up in other ways.
In Seminole County, a Republican stronghold for decades, the local Democratic Party has grown from 15 to 300 members since Trump took office, said Brittany Nethers, the party chairwoman. Democrats are challenging Republicans in 10 more seats than they did in 2016, including what would be the first female tax collector, the first black county commissioner and Pasha Baker, who would be the first black woman to represent Sanford in the state Legislature.
“We are aware that this is life or death,” Nethers said, “and that Seminole may make it or break it for Florida.”
The polls across the region reflect a campaign that is losing its grip on Republican-leaning independents. In races across Interstate 4, from the Gulf of Mexico to Daytona Beach, Trump consistently under-performs other Republicans. In Pinellas County, where Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, Biden is leading by 13.5 points. Meanwhile, other Republicans running countywide are faring much better, suggesting that a significant portion of voters are crossing party lines and splitting their tickets.
“It’s measurable and it’s greater than in previous years,” said Matt Florell, the pollster for St. Pete Polls. “It is in every race we’ve polled."
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