It's been a strange presidential election — even by Florida's standards: Chris Hall

Chris Hall continues his road trip in Florida, a crucial swing state that decided the 2000 election by a few hundred votes and could be close again on Nov. 8

Democratic strategist says state is wired to be close and 2016 likely won't be any different

A supporter of Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump screams as Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Ocala, Fla., on Wednesday. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Carlos Palomares is going to do something he never would have considered even a few short months ago.

The longtime registered Republican is not only going to vote for Hillary Clinton, he's going to work for her as a volunteer between now and election day, Nov. 8.

"Donald Trump doesn't stand for anything I believe in," Palomares said in an interview at his home overlooking Biscayne Bay in Miami.
Carlos Palomares, a longtime registered Republican in Florida, says he's not only going to vote for Hillary Clinton, he's going to volunteer with her campaign. (CBC)

Palomares is a Cuban-American who came to the U.S. after Fidel Castro took power in his home country nearly 60 years ago. Since then, he's built a successful career in international banking that took him overseas and to the top of the industry.

Like so many Cubans of his generation, rich or poor, Palomares believed Democratic President John F. Kennedy abandoned them after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. It made him, and many Cuban-Americans, lifelong Republicans.
Cuban leader Fidel Castro, lower right, sits inside a tank during the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. (Raul Corrales/ Granma/Canadian Press)

Now Palomares says he no longer recognizes the GOP.

It starts with Trump's rejection of free trade, his extreme views on immigration and his refusal to accept the scientific evidence of the threat posed by climate change.

"I consider myself to be two things. A Cuban-American for Hillary. And an independent for Hillary. I think she will be a good president. I think she has the world expertise to lead our country in these very difficult times."

Florida is changing

Voters like Palomares in the Miami area and the broader reaches of Miami-Dade County will play a big role in deciding who wins Florida.

Clinton continues to hold a small lead in this perennial swing state that voted narrowly for Republican George W. Bush in the disputed election of 2000 and again in 2004, and for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

But Florida is changing. Its Hispanic population now features a growing number of voters from Puerto Rico and Venezuela, who are less likely than Cuban immigrants to lean Republican.

Despite its image in Canada and the U.S. as a mecca for conservative-minded retirees, millennials and generation Xers make up nearly half the population.

And yet, Clinton clings to a narrow lead.
U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, left, greets former vice-president Al Gore after they spoke about climate change at a rally in Miami on Tuesday. Clinton is clinging to a slim lead in Florida — the state that cost Gore the 2000 election. (REUTERS)

Longtime Democratic strategist Steve Schale, who ran Obama's 2008 campaign in the state, says nothing should be taken for granted in Florida. But Clinton has a huge edge if she can win in the Miami area, and win big.

"What's interesting about Miami, this talks to how much the state has changed, in 2004 — which was only 12 years ago — Dade County was considered a swing county. George Bush beat John Kerry by only five points there," he said in an interview airing Saturday on CBC Radio's The House.

"Hillary Clinton may win it by 40 if she's able to turn out her base. If she's able to win Dade County by historic margins — we're talking 250,000 to 300,000 votes — there just aren't enough votes for Trump to win elsewhere. She can build a wall around Dade County and pretty much almost win the state on that alone."

It's one of the strange quirks of Florida that the vast majority of its 67 counties will vote Republican, but Miami, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale are solidly Democrat.

Trump's topics

But Trump is dictating what's discussed in the local campaigns, says Ted Deutch, a four-term Democratic congressman running for re-election in Florida's 22nd District, which includes Fort Lauderdale. 

He says the presidential campaign has pushed aside important issues he should be talking about — how to stop the spread of the Zika virus, climate change and gun violence — and replaced them with the issues the Trump campaign is thrusting on the congressional contests.
Ted Deutch, a four-term Democratic congressman running for re-election in Florida's 22nd District, says Trumps issues are taking over the discussions on the campaign trail. (CBC)

"When he talks about jailing his opponent. That's the language of a Third World despot. That's not the language of a presidential candidate," Deutch said after a campaign event at a local agency dedicated to helping military veterans readjust to civilian life.

"It's the way he talks about what will come next that concerns me … When he talks about this election being rigged, it seems he's setting up the possibility of carrying on even after the election, calling into question the very function of our American democracy."
U.S. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump meets with local small business leaders before a campaign rally in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Thursday. (Reuters)

Trump's supporters remain steadfast in the face of more allegations of sexual impropriety with women, and as more Republicans running for election in this campaign try to distance themselves from him.

His true believers see him as the outsider who will clean up corruption. They believe him when he says he'll get rid of NAFTA and other bad trade deals, and bring manufacturing jobs back to Florida and other parts of the U.S., and they support his hardline on illegal immigration — issues that make it difficult for Democrats to break through in bedrock Republican districts.

Alvina Valdes is a Cuban immigrant and the Democratic candidate for Congress in the 25th District, to the west of Miami. The district is heavily Republican. So much so, her opponent, Mario Diaz-Balart, ran unopposed here in the last election.
Alvina Valdes, the Democratic candidate for Congress in the 25th District, says Trump's troubles give her some hope of winning the heavily Republican stronghold to the west of Miami. (CBC)

Trump, she says, offers a glimmer of hope because Diaz-Balart is one of the few Republican incumbents who hasn't openly broken with him.

"The more women that come out to speak against him and to speak for their empowerment, the more people are starting to get away from him."

Wired to be close

So with just under a month left before Americans head to the polls, can Trump win in Florida? Or will he lose here, and drag down Republicans running for Congress?

Carlos Palomares isn't sure.

He knows many people in Florida who don't like Trump but can't bring themselves to vote for Clinton.

"Those who claim they don't agree with Donald Trump but fail to support Hillary are in fact giving their vote to Trump," he said, "especially in Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia and other swing states that are critical to winning the presidency."

It's been a strange presidential election, even by Florida's standards, where the result in 2000 was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court and the two candidates — Bush and Gore — were separated by just 537 votes.

Florida, says Democratic strategist Steve Schale, is wired to be close. And it appears 2016 won't be any different.


Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.