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In must-win Florida, an economic rebound gives Trump a shot

October 25, 2020, 11:30 AM UTC

Florida’s economic picture has been as murky as President Donald Trump’s odds of winning the state next month, but the outlook for both is brightening.

Florida, with 29 electoral votes, has backed the presidential victor every year since 1996 and is accordingly often viewed as a “must-win” state. Coronavirus cases and deaths have been declining lately after a summer surge, leading businesses to reopen and begin rehiring.  The economy’s improving trajectory looked to benefit Trump, even if former Vice President Joe Biden’s support increased in late September. Then came a rash of layoff announcements at Walt Disney Co. and Universal Orlando Resort in Central Florida and American Airlines in Miami, clouding the picture once again.

“At least some more voters are now thinking about who will be better prepared to lead an economic recovery,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida. “To the degree voters think like that, it benefits Trump.”

The economy ranks first among issues in several Florida likely voter polls, with respondents favoring Trump over Biden in polls by Reuters/Ipsos and Quinnipiac University. The president is expected to campaign today in Republican-leaning parts of the Sunshine State, stopping this afternoon in The Villages, a large retirement community in central Florida, before an evening rally in the Panhandle city of Pensacola, according to his campaign website.

Trump’s campaign has to hope that Florida’s voters see the recent economic momentum and look past his handling of the virus that critics say caused the recession, said Kevin Wagner, political science professor at Florida Atlantic University.

“Republicans are much more willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt,” Wagner said. “But Democrats are less willing to do so, and a problem for the president is it appears many independents are less willing to do so.”

Long Lines

There are signs that point to a fledgling economic rebound in Florida.

Lines at the Magic Kingdom, the 49-year-old bedrock of Orlando’s economy, had grown surprisingly long by early this month. The plunging Seven Dwarfs Mine Train coaster required a 70-minute wait at one point on Oct. 2, although some pre-pandemic lines stretched past 150 minutes.

Florida’s struggle with coronavirus has eased since mid-summer, with new seven-day average cases dropping to around 3,200 a day from a peak of almost 12,000 daily in July, although they’ve rebounded some recently. Trump’s standing in the polls has risen since trailing by 8 points in midsummer. Biden still is 2.1 points ahead in RealClearPolitics’ average of state polls after pulling away slightly in recent days.

Meantime, Florida’s labor market is less bleak than it had been this summer. The jobless rate is down to 7.6% in September from 11.4%  two months before, according to recent federal data. The Orlando area is a notable exception with its 9.8% unemployment.

Diners also are eating out more frequently in the Sunshine State than elsewhere, helping to propel the recovery. Governor Ron DeSantis is trying to further juice up economy while infuriating critics, by allowing restaurants last month to open without capacity restrictions.

Restaurants there are now seating about 60% of the customers they were a year ago, beating the national level, according to a seven-day average of bookings on reservation service OpenTable. More than 75% of diners have returned in the Tampa area, OpenTable data show.

Senior Vote Key

Both campaigns are heavily targeting two large voting blocs there, Hispanics and seniors. Floridians age 65 and older supported Trump over Hillary Clinton four years ago by a 17-point margin and helped him win the state. Yet, Biden had a 15-point lead among seniors in Florida in this month’s Quinnipiac poll.

In Pinellas County, where Democrats have a 1-point lead over Republicans in voter registration rolls, April Thanos bristles at Trump’s boasting about the pre-pandemic economy despite its decade-long record expansion.

“It wasn’t his economic upturn, it was left over from Obama,” said the 71-year-old Democrat, a city council member in tiny Gulfport. “He did nothing to help it. The trade stuff with China hurt the farmers. And he’s an idiot if he thinks when you put a tariff on something, it costs the originating country money. It costs the end user.”

Trump has made more headway with Florida’s Hispanics, running ads touting wage and job gains under his watch, including the campaign spot “Subio Los Salarios” or “Raised the Salaries.” A September poll of likely Miami-Dade County voters showed that, while Biden had a comfortable lead in the majority Hispanic county, it fell short of Clinton’s lead in four years ago. A Democratic pollster, Fernand Amandi, urged the Biden campaign to heed the results, because Democrats traditionally run up the score in liberal South Florida to offset weakness in conservative north Florida.

In Osceola County, a suburban Orlando community reeling with 13.3% unemployment, Emilio Ruiz owns a coffee kiosk in a mall popular with Puerto Rican seniors who come in to play dominoes. He sees Trump as the best bet to bring the economy back, even if his own sales are down 45% since the pandemic started.

“I don’t blame him at all, because I don’t think any world leader got to manage this situation the way everyone wanted to,” said Ruiz, 30, vice chairman of a local Hispanic Republican group. “Now more than ever, we need someone who can manage the economy. He did pretty well for the first three years.”