Can Donald Trump win Florida? Yes, but he probably won't

Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Charleston, W.Va., May 5.  (Ty Wright/The New York Times)
Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally in Charleston, W.Va., May 5. (Ty Wright/The New York Times)
Published May 7, 2016

Political campaigns tend to be about hope, fear, self-interest, frustration and, occasionally, inspiration. Ultimately, though, campaigns are about math, and the presidential electoral math has been consistent for decades: If the Republican nominee loses Florida, he loses the election.

So the bottom-line question of this extraordinary presidential campaign may turn out to be: Can Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Florida?

The easy and logical answer, based on current evidence, is Trump can win Florida's 29 electoral votes — but he probably won't.

A candidate wildly unpopular with non-white voters and presiding over a deeply fractured party with swaths of voters who can't stomach their nominee simply has little shot of winning a state as diverse and competitive as Florida.

This, at least, is the conventional wisdom from wise political players who never imagined the reality star could win the Republican nomination against Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. The Tampa Bay Times surveyed more than 130 Florida political professionals, fundraisers and other experienced politicos, and nearly 70 percent predicted Clinton will win Florida in November.

The Republican-leaning business group Associated Industries of Florida commissioned a poll late last month that found 52 percent of Florida voters view Clinton unfavorably, and 42 percent have a "very unfavorable" view of her. Still, the poll showed her handily leading the New York billionaire and part-time Florida resident, 49 percent to 36 percent, and trouncing him by 17 percent among Florida's independent voters, 22 percent among women and a whopping 43 percent among Hispanics.

Polls, of course, are snapshots in time, not necessarily predictors. Florida being Florida, the safe assumption is that the numbers will tighten into a neck-and-neck contest by November.

Yes, Trump can win America's biggest battleground state, but only if the GOP closes ranks behind him. And only if he can perform far better against Clinton than Mitt Romney did against Barack Obama in places like Tampa Bay and North Florida to compensate for what most experts predict will be a historic Democratic drubbing in vote-rich southeast Florida.

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Democrats worried about complacency on their side offer two words of caution: Rick Scott.

"If you were to have asked me if Rick Scott in 2010 could beat Alex Sink for governor I would have said, 'No way!' " said Scott Maddox, a former state Democratic Party chairman and Tallahassee mayor, referring to the wealthy businessman and awkward political newcomer whose baggage included Medicare fraud. "Well, Rick Scott won twice."

One key number to keep in mind for November is 75,000. That's roughly the number of votes by which Obama won Florida in 2012.

"Seventy-five thousand votes is not a huge number to move," noted Steve Schale, a Democratic consultant who helped lead Obama's Florida campaigns in 2008 and 2012. "You could say that, given Donald Trump's trouble with Hispanic voters, Hillary Clinton maybe wins South Florida even by another 100,000 votes. If we're in a typical election cycle — and that's a big if — making up 170,000 to 200,000 votes is not insurmountable at all."

But those who tend to view demographics as destiny for political campaigns see a brutal Florida landscape for Trump.

Four years ago, exit polls showed Romney won just 39 percent of the Hispanic vote in Florida, which should be about 14 percent of the electorate. Even that weak showing looks far out of reach for Trump, who has built his campaign on anti-immigrant rhetoric.

The recent Associated Industries poll found nearly 9 in 10 Hispanics in Florida view Trump negatively.

"Hispanic voters represent such a big bloc of independent voters today, as well as swing voters and disaffected Republicans, that if we do our politics and our messaging right and we get our voters out, we've got an opportunity to run up really historic numbers in South Florida because of the nature of Trump's candidacy," said Scott Arceneaux, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party and senior adviser to Clinton's Florida campaign.

Dario Moreno, a Republican pollster and associate politics professor at Florida International University, recently surveyed 400 Miami-Dade, Cuban-American voters — once a reliable GOP voting bloc — and found 37 percent support for Trump. That's higher than the 31 percent for Clinton, but still a dire warning for Florida Republicans.

"We've been seeing demographic changes in this community since 2004," Moreno said, as younger voters of Cuban descent have increasingly identified as Democrats or independents. "With Trump, the real danger is that he's going to accelerate this realignment in Miami."

Ryan Tyson, Associated Industries vice president of political operations, expects as much as one-third of Florida's electorate in November will be nonwhite. As things stand, Trump appears hard-pressed to win any state with a population of under 75 percent white. That would make big, traditional battleground or GOP-leaning states including North Carolina, Virginia and Colorado tough for Trump.

Diverse and heavily Democratic South Florida alone could make Florida out of reach for Trump.

Obama in 2012 won Miami-Dade, Broward and Trump's part-time home of Palm Beach County by 529,425 votes. Democrats are likely to increase that margin given Trump's toxicity among Hispanic voters.

"You just cannot make up those deficits in the rest of the state," said Tyson. "There's not enough people."

Then again, presumptive Democratic nominee Clinton has her own significant hurdles, including skepticism and outright hostility from progressive Bernie Sanders supporters and voters viewing her more negatively than positively. The Vermont senator no longer has a realistic shot at winning the nomination, but he is poised to continue beating Clinton in primary states, damaging the likely nominee.

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Clinton may be the favorite to win Florida, but she is also a flawed candidate representing the party establishment in a year when voters of all persuasions are fed up with the political establishment.

"Donald Trump is going to win Florida. We had a great indicator in our primary," said Karen Giorno, who is leading Trump's Florida campaign. "Republicans have a net gain of 33,000 new voters in Florida — and that's because of Donald Trump. He's the main motivator."

Trump has plenty of opportunities to perform better than Romney. Here's two:

• Duval County. Romney won the GOP stronghold in northeast Florida by 15,000 votes four years ago. But if Clinton fails to mobilize African-American voters as Obama did, who's to say Trump couldn't win Duval comparable to the George W. Bush vs. John Kerry margin of more than 60,000?

• Tampa Bay. Democrats worry about Trump's potential in counties with largely older, white populations, including Pinellas, Pasco, Hernando and Sarasota counties. Consider recent Florida Democratic Party polls of two battleground legislative districts that Obama won twice. In Senate District 24, which includes parts of South Tampa and south Pinellas and is represented by St. Petersburg Republican Jeff Brandes, Trump was leading Clinton 49 percent to 41 percent. In Pinellas County's House District 69, represented by Republican Kathleen Peters of South Pasadena, Trump was leading Clinton 48 percent to 44 percent.

Supporters note that Florida's Republican primary drew record turnout when Trump trounced Rubio, a sign of how he is energizing thousands of voters who have given up on politics. They see strong potential for him to draw crossover votes from Democrats and independents.

"He's going to have to bring the normal Republican base together, and then the way he wins Florida is to mobilize people who haven't been mobilized before," said Brian Burgess, a Republican consultant in Tallahassee who voted for Ted Cruz. "It's doable, but it's going to be tricky."

That first part — unifying the Republican base — is essential. If 15 to 20 percent of Republicans ultimately don't vote for Trump, he has zero chance of winning.

Normally, parties unite behind their nominee even after the nastiest of primaries, but never before has a presumptive nominee faced so many party leaders — from U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan to former Presidents George W. and George H.W. Bush and just Friday, Jeb Bush — withholding their support.

Gov. Scott has called on Republicans to unite behind Trump, but that appears unlikely to happen soon. State GOP chairman Blaise Ingoglia declined to comment Wednesday, Thursday and Friday when asked how Trump can win Florida.

J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, who helped elect Republican Govs. Bob Martinez, Bush and Charlie Crist, last week wrote a column urging Republicans not to vote for Trump.

"Politically, by intent or instinct, he is a neo-fascist — a nativist, an ultranationalist, a racist, a misogynist, an anti-intellectual, a demagogue and a palingenetic (sorry) authoritarian to whom clings the odor of the political violence he encourages. . . . A drop of a few percentage points in the Republican vote for Trump will be enough, which is why the pressure to conform, to toe the party line, will be enormous. We cannot depend on our elected leaders to lead us. They, for the most part, will fold like cheap lawn chairs, cowed by fear and fueled by ambition," Stipanovich wrote.

Still, most Democrats expect the #NeverTrump faction of the GOP to continue fading away.

"I think you underestimate Trump at your peril," said Arceneaux. "As we've seen in all past elections in Florida, Republicans and Democrats tend to come home, and then we fight over basically a small sliver in the middle of the electorate."

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report. Contact Adam Smith at Follow @AdamSmithTimes.