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How Hillary Clinton lost Florida (Hint: It happened on Election Day)

Donald Trump’s  Election Day strength, especially in areas rich in swing voters, indicates overwhelming support from late-deciders, experts say, maybe aided by the surprise FBI statement.
Donald Trump’s Election Day strength, especially in areas rich in swing voters, indicates overwhelming support from late-deciders, experts say, maybe aided by the surprise FBI statement.
Published Dec. 6, 2016

Hillary Clinton's team had every reason to feel great about her Florida prospects by the time Election Day dawned on Nov. 8.

New Florida election data shows that Clinton led Donald Trump by nearly 250,000 votes from people who voted by mail or in person prior to Election Day, according to an analysis by a leading Democratic consultant. Most political experts expected Trump would outperform Clinton with Election Day, but Clinton's early vote lead was about 66 percent bigger than President Barack Obama's in 2012, when he narrowly beat Mitt Romney in Florida.

Yet Clinton's buffer proved inadequate in holding off the tide of Trump voters who waited until Nov. 8 to cast their ballots. Trump won Florida's 29 electoral votes by 112,911 or 1.2 percentage points.

"Trump just crushed Election Day," said Democratic consultant Steve Schale, who ran Obama's 2008 Florida campaign. "There is no other way to look at it."

In an analysis posted on his blog, Schale drew comparisons to 2004, the last time a presidential nominee won the state in a landslide. But consider that George W. Bush won Florida that year by an overall total of 380,000 votes, including absentees. Trump nearly matched that on one day, Nov. 8, with a margin of 360,000.

Elections offices in Florida's 67 counties have yet to release all their data on the presidential election, including details on the voters who turned out on Election Day. But data emerging on early voters fleshes out how Trump won America's biggest battleground state.

The Tampa Bay and Orlando regions — the I-4 corridor and especially their suburbs — proved critical to Trump's counteracting Clinton's strength in early voting.

Florida GOP chairman Blaise Ingoglia said Democrats had less of an early vote cushion than it appeared because many Democratic voters simply decided to vote early, which they had not done in prior years.

"It was very clear that the Democrats were cannibalizing their Election Day vote," said Ingoglia, a state representative from Spring Hill.

"Almost 75 percent of all of their supervoters — the people classified as voting in three or four of the last four Election Days — had already voted before Election Day. They had low-propensity voters left for Election Day," Ingoglia said. "Republicans had over 200,000 supervoters left to vote than Democrats."

Schale and other Democrats say Trump's strength on Election Day, especially in areas such as Pinellas and Pasco counties that were rich in swing voters, indicates late-deciders overwhelmingly backed Trump. They contend FBI director James Comey's surprise announcement that he had resurrected the inquiry into Clinton's private email server was a likely factor.

"Had the FBI director not chosen to insert himself into the campaign with a week to go, I suspect Clinton would have carried Pinellas (albeit very narrowly)," Schale speculated.

The data also shows:

• Trump won Pinellas by about 5,500 votes because of Election Day. Clinton received about 14,000 more Pinellas early votes than Trump, but lost Nov. 8 voting by more than 19,000. Obama won it four years earlier by about 26,000.

• Trump won Hillsborough County on Election Day by about 2 percentage points — nearly 3,000 votes — but Clinton had an early vote lead of nearly 44,000 votes. She won the county by almost seven points, about the same as Obama, though her raw vote win was 5,000 votes higher.

• Trump won Pasco County by nearly 52,000 votes, compared to Romney winning it by 14,000 four years earlier. And he won Hernando County by more than 27,000, compared to 7,100 for Romney. He won Polk County by about 40,000 votes, about twice Romney's margin.

"Late-deciders broke his way for sure, and you had these counties where, when you compare her margins to Barack Obama's margins, she got blown out," said Democratic consultant Ashley Walker, who ran Obama's 2012 Florida campaign and this year ran an independent political committee that helped mobilize Democrats in Florida.

"There is such a phenomena as an Obama-Trump voter, which is something no one really talked about or conceptualized before the election," Walker said. "It speaks more to Hillary Clinton's problems with these voters than it does about Barack Obama or Donald Trump."

One big difference between the Clinton and Obama campaigns in Florida and across the country, Walker lamented, was that Clinton's campaign put little or no emphasis on reaching out to existing voters.

"They didn't do any persuasion," Walker said. "Somebody needs to be going and talking with the middle-class voter in Pasco County and talk to them about why the Democratic ticket was going to help them in their situation."

Contact Adam C. Smith at asmith@tampabay.com. Follow @adamsmithtimes.