Elections in Florida are rarely boring, but the 2020 Election will be hard to forget.
The COVID-19 pandemic and big news happenings affected nearly every aspect of the election, including the issues on voters’ minds, campaign tactics and voting methods.
This was a hotly contested election in one of the most eventful years in recent history. Besides the presidential race, there were many hard-fought down ballot races featuring candidates more diverse in their partisan affiliations, age, race and ethnicity, and gender.
The most unexpected outcome of the 2020 election was how smoothly the vote counting in Florida went. It left Sunshine State voters hopeful that our state’s future elections will run just as smoothly, preventing any more “Flori-duh” stories from appearing in the national news.
While most Floridians are happy to put Election 2020 behind them, it is interesting to pinpoint exactly what made this election so intriguing.
Here are 10 things that made Election 2020 unique in Florida:
- Over 70,000 Floridians (of the 11.1 million who voted) did not vote for president (called “undervotes”). They skipped the race, finding neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump nor any third-party candidate acceptable or worthy of their vote. Thousands of others cast unofficial write-in votes for everyone from Mickey Mouse, God, Baby Yoda, and Batman, to None of the Above. While these write-in votes did not count, they also reflect disappointment or disgust with the official choices for president.
Turnout was the highest since 1992—75%. (The 1992 presidential race was between Bill Clinton (D), George H.W. Bush (R), and a strong third-party candidate, Ross Perot (Reform Party). This was not surprising. For months on end, record numbers of Floridians said they were following the election closely and believed their vote could really make a difference. Reflecting Florida’s “biggest swing state” status, the presidential candidates and their running mates visited Florida more often than other states. More money was spent on TV ads in the Sunshine State than anywhere else.
- The two major parties differed significantly in their registration and Get-Out-The-Vote strategies and in their issue priorities. Florida Democrats primarily relied on social media, virtual town halls, and drive-in rallies to push voters to register, then vote. This “no in-person contact” approach was adopted to be consistent with Biden’s central COVID-19 theme of social distancing. In contrast, Florida Republicans utilized more a locally focused ground game with more personal contact, which allowed them to register new voters and canvass neighborhoods to pinpoint high priority issues. The superior GOP ground game was what won Florida for Trump and helped down-ballot Republican candidates win their races. The Florida exit poll conducted by Edison Research found that the top issues for Trump voters were the economy, and crime and safety. For Democrats, the coronavirus, racial inequality and health care were top concerns.
- Only one-third of Floridians actually voted on Election Day. More chose to either vote by mail or early in-person at a central polling location. Vote-By-Mail (VBM) was the most popular option (44%), chosen by those fearful of crowded polling places exposing them to COVID-19 or by the ease and convenience of VBM. Early in-person voting was the second most common choice (39%), particularly among those worrying the postal service would not deliver their VBM ballot on time, but also by voters who just wanted to put the election behind them! Still 17% voted on Election Day, choosing to be part of the electric atmosphere at a polling place with sign-wavers and candidates pushing voters to choose them. This year a voter’s choice of when and where to cast their ballot had a heavy partisan overtone. Democrats and candidate Biden stressed VBM, while Republicans, following Trump’s lead, favored voting early in-person or on Election Day.
- It was the “Year of the Woman Candidate.” A record number of women (177 total) ran. Forty ran for Congress and 137 ran for the Florida Legislature (Senate 26; House 111). Of those, 62% were Democrats, 31% Republicans, 3% No Party Affiliation—NPAs, and 3% write-ins. They reflected the political party, age, and racial and ethnic diversity of Florida. Many were young, first-time candidates. Over 40% were women of color (27% Black, 14% Latina, 3% Middle Eastern, 1 % Asian, and 1% multi-racial). Women won 57 races—eight seats in Congress, nine seats in the Florida Senate, and 40 seats in the Florida House of Representatives. The Sunshine State was, and is, a bright spot for women candidates.
- The gap between registered Democrats and Republicans shrunk significantly, while the ranks of NPAs continued to grow larger than in 2016. The registration gap between the two parties is the narrowest in Florida history—only 134,000 more Democrats than Republicans were registered statewide. This near closing of the gap was the result of an aggressive registration drive that began after the 2016 election and continued throughout the COVID-19 shutdown to the registration deadline (Oct. 5). While this made the state more evenly divided from a partisan perspective, it masks the fact that 26% of all registrants were NPAs—choosing not to register with either party (more common among younger voters, Latinos, and Asian Americans).
- The margin-of-victory (3.4%) for Trump was the largest in over a decade. In the five prior statewide races (two presidential, three gubernatorial) the margin-of-victory for the winner was around 1% (0.5% in the 2018 governor’s race). This larger-than-usual margin in the most recent election prompted some to question whether Florida is still a swing state or now a solidly Republican state. The proof will lie in the results of the 2022 mid-term election.
- Highly unusual news-dominating events constantly changed the focus of the 2020 presidential campaign—impeachment proceedings and defeat; the Democratic presidential primary that began with 25 candidates seeking the party’s nomination; COVID-19, the presidential order for a shutdown; the death of African American George Floyd at the hands of a police officer, which sparked extended protests against police and racism; the death of U.S. Supreme Court justice icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg and U.S. Senate confirmation of a new Justice Amy Coney Barrett; the president’s hospitalization for COVID-19, followed by quick release, and a slew of rallies in swing states. Interspersed were the more traditional events — the party conventions and the debates. Except this time, those events were virtual.
- Florida shed its “Flori-duh” label for poorly run elections. Instead, Florida was applauded for its smoothly run election. The “Flori-duh” label was first given to Florida after the extremely close 2000 election featuring the infamous punch card ballots, hanging chads, recounts, and multiple lawsuits finally resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2020, the label was passed on to other states with voter identification problems, signature issues, vote-by-mail controversies, and recounts yielding thousands of uncounted ballots.
- In the end, it was a win for both Florida Republicans and Democrats. Republicans could crow that Donald Trump won Florida and Republicans gained seats in Congress and in the House and Senate of the Florida Legislature. For Florida Democrats, they could find solace in Joe Biden winning the presidency.
By Dr. Susan A. MacManus
Dr. Susan A. MacManus, a distinguished university professor emeritus from the University of South Florida, lives in Land O’ Lakes. She is known nationally for her deep knowledge of Florida politics.
Published December 09, 2020