A server wearing a protective mask serves a drink to a customer in the dining area of a restaurant in St. Petersburg, Florida on Monday, May 4, 2020.
Zack Wittman | Bloomberg via Getty Images
If you want to know who will win the 2020 presidential election between President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden on November 3rd, Florida's Pinellas County may be able to let you know.
Pinellas is the largest swing county in the ultimate swing state.
The county has picked the right horse in every presidential race since 1980, with the exception of 2000 when it voted for Al Gore in one of the most competitive elections in US history.
"The county has a track record," said Susan MacManus, professor emeritus of political science at the University of South Florida.
Pinellas is located west of Tampa on Florida's central Gulf Coast. The population is just under 1 million.
Once a bastion of conservatism, Pinellas has evolved into a purple place. Republicans dominate the northern part of the county, Democrats dominate the south and a melting pot in the middle.
"It has the three main regions of politics," said MacManus. "There are very rural areas, very suburban areas, and a large urban area in St. Petersburg that is ethnically diverse."
And while it can take days or even weeks for the vote to be confirmed nationwide, pinellas should be in your pocket by 11 p.m. ET on election night, Pinellas said Democratic chairwoman Barbara Scott.
This is because unlike many states that have expanded mail-in voting to provide a safer alternative to in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic, Florida has years of experience with mail-in voting. While the Sunshine State is known for election night hiccups and paper-thin margins, Pinellas County is usually not a hotspot.
"Pinellas is a leading provider of vote-by-mail technology," said Scott.
So tea leaf readers will take a very close look at these results.
MacManus notes that the county has turned a lot bluer since 2016, when there were about 2,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. According to the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections website, there are just over 5,000 registered Democrats as Republicans and a total of just over 711,000 registered voters.
The county's population remains older, if not the oldest in the state. And demographics are changing, with younger families and more black and Latin American residents populating the region.
"What you see there is what is happening everywhere," MacManus said, noting, "Generational change, the rise of multi-ethnic families and demographics that are creating more blue voters across the country."
While voters campaigned for Trump in 2016, the county chose Democrat Andrew Gillum as governor and incumbent Bill Nelson as senator in 2018. Both lost their respective statewide races against Republicans Ron DeSantis and Rick Scott.
So does that mean that the district is losing its predictive lead?
While it's impossible to know how the 2020 elections will play out, "I will be very happy if we lose our swing status and go blue," said Scott, Democratic chairman of Pinellas.
Coronavirus concerns could make the difference
Pinellas has had a relatively high number of Covid-19 cases and deaths. According to the New York Times Tracker, the county had 23,161 cases and 782 deaths as of October 12.
That could give Biden a leg up, said J. Edwin Benton, professor of political science and public administration on the University of South Florida Tampa campus.
"What I hear in Tampa Bay is that Covid weighs a lot in the elections," Benton said. "They see Trump as not being proactive and aggressive in dealing with it. He downplayed it. It doesn't play well with the people of Pinellas County."
Still, Anthony Pedicini, a longtime GOP advisor in neighboring Hillsborough County – a solid blue bastion – is optimistic about Trump's prospects. He found that Republicans closed the registration gap with Democrats nationwide with historically low margins.
Even at Pinellas, the margin is smaller than it was at the peak when there were about 9,000 more registered Democrats, Scott admits.
"You cut into our leadership," she said.
"Who are all these newly registered Republicans voting for? Not Joe Biden," Pedicini said in a recent interview.
But Trump's widespread debate performance, his Covid-19 diagnosis, a White House coronavirus outbreak that most voters believe is preventable, and a New York Times revelation that says Trump will only be in 2016 and 2017 Having paid $ 750 in federal income tax, the president has further depressed poll numbers.
According to a statewide poll by Real Clear Politics, Trump is currently nearly 4 points behind Biden in Florida.
"Republicans can only win the presidency if they wear Florida," said Stephen Craig, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. "If you lose Florida, it means you lose elsewhere where you have to win."
The Cuban question
Even so, Tampa-based Republican strategist Ron Pierce said recent events may not affect voters as much as Democrats would like. "I think a lot of people have been disappointed with the overall debate, but I'm not sure if it is enough to influence undecided voters one way or another," he said.
He pointed out that Biden's potential weakness lies in the state of South Florida, where Cuban voters have shown more support for Trump than in 2016. "It will be due to Hispanic voters in South Florida and the I-4 corridor." which covers much of central Florida, including Orlando and Tampa.
It's not just Cubans, a group that has long been moving towards Republicans. Venezuelans, Colombians, Nicaraguans and Hondurans are also moving in Trump's direction, MacManus said.
"Socialism is all you have to say to these people, and they don't vote for someone who looks like they're walking towards it," she said, noting that Republican news about Biden seems to be working on these populations.
Samantha Zager, deputy national press secretary for the Trump campaign, reiterated the news in an email to CNBC: "Floridians know better than to trust Joe Biden, who has been in office for 47 years and just out of fear of the coronavirus and lies about his socialists are on the agenda. " She added, "President Trump is running a campaign based on boundless optimism and trust in our American values. This includes a roaring post-COVID economy and the opportunity for people to chase their version of the American dream."
The Biden campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
While polls give Biden the edge in the state, there are many variables that could move Florida in the other direction.
As for pinellas, Benton said, "You are ready for a change."