Swingy I-4 Corridor Is Still Key in Bellwether Florida

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As Floridians like me know, during every presidential election cycle there comes a time when the focus turns to the I-4 corridor, a stretch of land that encompasses the major metropolitan areas of Tampa and Orlando and the swath of mostly rural land in between. That's why it was not surprising to see Vice President Mike Pence campaigning in the region this past weekend. The I-4 corridor is the critical swing area in the largest swing state that has correctly chosen the candidate who ultimately wins the White House in nearly every election since 1936.

As a third-generation Tampa native whose family is apolitical, growing up I didn’t realize that I was living in such a politically significant area (you would think all the political TV ads and yard signs would have clued me in). But after graduating from the University of South Florida and getting involved in political campaigns, it became increasingly obvious as campaigns funneled large amounts of resources into the region and candidates visited numerous times. I even attended Mitt Romney’s Florida campaign headquarters opening in Tampa in early September 2011. Romney understood then what the Trump campaign does now: how vital it is to win, or at least come close, in the I-4 corridor.  

On the surface, there is a simple reason this area is so important. As the Tampa Bay Times points out, the I-4 corridor accounts for 43% of Florida's voters. The sheer volume of voters in this area can make or break anyone's political ambitions in the state. Given that South Florida is a Democratic stronghold, and North Florida votes solidly Republican, the I-4 corridor can swing the election in either party’s direction, making it the most critical area in the country.

But what makes this area unique is not just the huge chunk of votes or its wavering support for either party. This region, a 132.3-mile mass of land between St. Petersburg and Daytona, is not like other swing districts in the country that are more homogeneous, like the Rust Belt. To win the I-4 corridor, you need to appeal to the elderly, college students, middle-class suburbanites, Latinos, and more. It is a microcosm of America’s diversity, not only demographically, but in lifestyle and background. 

Along this corridor are “The Villages,” a fast-growing 55+ community where seniors deck out their golf carts in exorbitant fashion, and where Vice President Pence visited on Saturday. The community’s growth is fueled, in part, by retirees from the North often fleeing South to enjoy Florida’s temperate climate. Sumter County, where The Villages is located, has high voter turnout, and is the only U.S. county where the majority of people are over 65. In 2016, nearly 70% voted for President Trump. But recent polling has shown Trump losing support among seniors, a trend that has continued since late May when a Firehouse/0ptimus poll found that nearly 45% of voters 65 and older strongly disapproved of the president's handling of the coronavirus. Vice President Pence had his work cut out for him to reverse course this weekend. 

The I-4 corridor is also home to a large number of college students and recent college grads, with the University of Central Florida in Orlando often being ranked the first or second-largest university in terms of enrollment in the country  at roughly 69,000 students. The University of South Florida in Tampa is not far behind, with just over 50,000 students enrolled for the fall 2020 semester. College students are more progressive than the average voter, prioritizing issues like climate change and racial justice, further complicating Trump's path to victory in the region. 

There are also many children and families along the I-4 corridor, with Hillsborough County School District being the eighth-largest school district in the country and Orange County School District being the ninth. Suburban moms are crucial swing voters, and are a voting bloc President Trump has struggled to win over. And there are plenty of them living in cul-de- sacs in the suburbs of Tampa and Orlando. 

Central Florida is also home to a diverse group of immigrants, as well as implants from the north -- a trend that has only accelerated since the start of the pandemic. The Orlando metro area, for example, is home to roughly 385,000 Puerto Ricans, many of whom fled the island after the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria. As a whole, they tend to be more Democratic and have aided in Orlando’s shift to the left. And roughly 2% of the Tampa Bay population is Cuban or of Cuban descent, a group that leans more conservative.

With theme parks, beaches, a warm (but humid) climate, and the lack of a state income tax, it is an incredibly attractive area for people of all backgrounds. The result is a region as politically diverse as it is demographically and culturally diverse. More than a third of I-4 voters are registered Democrats, a third are Republicans, and a quarter are independent or unaffiliated to either party. 

To win reelection, President Trump will need to provide real solutions and a vision that appeals to this ideologically and culturally diverse group. Not only must he focus on issues that help Americans prosper, but also promote policies that protect the safety, health, and security of our senior citizens, appeal to those in the Latino community who have diverse cultural backgrounds and belief systems, and address the educational concerns of families across America. In other words, history seems to be repeating itself yet again: to win the presidency, you must win the I-4 corridor. And we are a complicated bunch. 

Jennifer Krantz is a vice president at Firehouse Strategies and a former congressional communications staffer and Republican campaign operative.



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