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  1. Florida Politics

Who's going to win Florida? Here are six counties to watch

Poll worker Sheryle Chambers puts pens in voting privacy booths Monday at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Tampa during preparations for Tuesday's election. (JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times)
Poll worker Sheryle Chambers puts pens in voting privacy booths Monday at St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Tampa during preparations for Tuesday's election. (JAMES BORCHUCK | Times)
Published Nov. 8, 2016

One of the big, overlooked benefits of so many Floridians casting their ballots early is that tonight we may be able to call Florida for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

Probably two-thirds of the Florida vote already will have been cast by the time polling places open at 7 a.m. Those pre-Election Day votes will be the first results posted online after the polls close at 7 p.m. (8 p.m. in the Panhandle).

That means that if we're heading to a close but clear result — rather than a virtually tied Florida race like 2012, when we didn't know the winner until the Saturday after the election — we may see the indications very quickly.

"If one of them is going to win this state by two to three points, I think we'll pretty well know it by 7:30 or 8," said Democratic consultant Steve Schale, probably the state's top cruncher of Florida campaign data.

Overall, it's safe to assume Democrats go into Election Day with a lead in early votes. So today boils down to whether Republicans can overcome that lead.

Florida is the checkmate state, meaning that if Clinton wins here, Trump is done. She has other plausible paths without Florida, but if you want to watch which way Florida appears to be going, here are six counties to monitor:

1. Pinellas County. Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark has been pushing mail voting so aggressively for so long that Pinellas voters are more accustomed to voting early than the rest of the state, which is just now catching up. That should make the first votes posted on Clark's site a good representative sample.

Pinellas leans Democratic — Barack Obama won it by nearly 8 percentage points in 2008 and nearly 5 in 2012 — but Trump stands to do especially well with working-class Pinellas voters.

If Pinellas is tied or nearly so early on, it's a good sign for Trump statewide and a bad one for Clinton.

2. Pasco County. Pasco has long been the first place to look for Florida results, partly because it is a bellwether but largely because it has one of the most efficient elections offices in Florida. Results tend to come in fast and without glitches. (No pressure, Elections Supervisor Brian Corley!)

In 2004, when early exit polls suggested John Kerry was poised to defeat George W. Bush in Florida, then-Gov. Jeb Bush had only to look at the numbers in Pasco. Gov. Bush phoned his brother to assure him Florida was going red as soon as he saw the early Pasco numbers showing W. comfortably ahead.

Pasco leans Republican, but has a lot of independent voters that swing either way. Mitt Romney won it by nearly 6 points four years ago, and Trump at various times this year has been remarkably strong even in areas where Democrats win elections. If the early Pasco results show Trump tied or just a few points ahead, that's good news for her and bad for him.

3. Hillsborough County. Yes, we're going heavy on Tampa Bay here, but we are the ultimate battleground.

Besides, Hillsborough has the best track record of any Florida county for picking winners. It has voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election since 1960 except one —1992, when Hillsborough residents voted for President George H.W. Bush, who did win Florida that year but lost the White House to Bill Clinton.

Demographic changes are turning Hillsborough into a more Democratic-leaning county, however, so Trump fans should not panic if they see Clinton leading in the early Hillsborough vote. Obama won it by nearly 7 percentage points in 2012.

If Trump leads early on in Hillsborough, or is even close behind Clinton, it could be a bad night statewide for Clinton's Hillsborough-based Florida campaign.

4. Miami-Dade. In Florida's most populous county, it's all about the margin of victory. Obama crushed Romney in Miami-Dade by nearly 24 percentage points — more than 208,000 votes in a state he won by 74,000.

Even with Cuban-Americans far more GOP-friendly than other Hispanic voters in Florida, Clinton could do even better in Miami-Dade given how Trump's rhetoric so often has been perceived as anti-immigrant. If Clinton isn't way up in Miami-Dade — at least 20 percentage points — Trump is probably having a very good night.

5. Duval County. This is a key Republican stronghold, but also has a large Democratic-leaning African-American population in Jacksonville. Romney in 2012 won by nearly 4 percentage points, and George W. Bush in 2004 won by 16.

Both sides expect Trump to do better here than Romney, but if it looks like a 15-point margin for Trump, Clinton fans should worry.

6. Volusia County. Romney narrowly won the county on the eastern end of the I-4 corridor, which has been leaning toward the GOP lately. If either side is comfortably ahead in Volusia early on, that bodes well for them statewide.

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