Why will Trump be in Orlando? Because Interstate 4 is the road to the White House
If state transportation authorities ever wanted to rename Interstate 4, the highway that slashes across Central Florida from Tampa Bay to Daytona Beach, they might consider calling it, "The Road to the White House."
With its 29 Electoral College votes, Florida is the biggest swing state in the nation. Taking Florida in the 2020 presidential election will be key to winning the White House next year.
In fact, over the past 50 years, only Bill Clinton in 1992 won the presidential election without prevailing Florida.
And the key to winning Florida, is winning Central Florida.
Which is why it's no coincidence that Donald Trump chose Orlando to officially kick-off his re-election campaign.
"There is a reason why they are going to be in Orlando to start the campaign," said State Sen. Joe Gruters, chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. "The president has to win re-election here if he is going to win the White House again."
Other parts of the state are either highly Democratic or Republican, but Central Florida, with its seemingly endless stream of newcomers, remains stubbornly independent. And it is home to almost half the registered voters in the state.
"If you need to keep Florida, and you have to pick one place to go, you have to go the I-4 corridor," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics and a leading expert on presidential elections.
Orlando is the dead center of the I-4 corridor.
The swinging Sunshine State
At first glance, Florida might not seem like much of a "swing state." Republicans have controlled the Legislature since 1996 and the governor's office since 1999. Both U.S. Senators are Republicans. In fact, the only Democrat to hold statewide office at the moment is Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried.
But in presidential elections, the state's voters flip back and forth.
More: President Trump rally in Orlando: Tickets do not guarantee entry to Amway Center
More: What to know about Trump rally in Orlando: Tickets, what NOT to bring, parking, traffic
More: Protesters expected to descend on Orlando for Trump rally
Trump took the state in 2016, but Democrat Barack Obama won Florida in 2008 and 2012. Before that, Republican George W. Bush won here in 2000 and 2004.
And top-of-the-ticket races like the president and governor have been won by narrow margins, most notably when Bush was declared the winner over Democrat Al Gore in 2000 — after extended legal battles — by just 537 vote out of more than 6 million cast.
That was the closest statewide race in Florida history. Before that, the closest had been the 1994 governor's race when Democrat Lawton Chiles edged Bush's brother, Jeb, to win a second term.
How closely divided the state is was reinforced in last year's elections. Then Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, defeated incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, by 0.2 percentage points. In the governor's race Republican Rick DeSantis edged Democratic Andrew Gilllum by 0.4 points.
"We used to be the 1% state," said Susan MacManus, political science professor emeritus at the University of South Florida, about the typical margins in past statewide races. "As of 2018, we are the half-a-percent state."
Trump is no stranger to the Sunshine State. He spends many weekends at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach. And he held countless rallies here during the 2016 election season. He ended up winning the state by 1.2 percentage points over Hillary Clinton.
And while Trump bills this rally as the official kickoff to his campaign — the place where he "announces" his candidacy — he actually filed his re-election paperwork Jan 20. 2017, the very day he was inaugurated. He held his first campaign rally a month later in Melbourne.
Trump still would have won the White House by in the last election, even if he had lost Florida because he also won several Midwestern states that had been Democratic strongholds.
But recent polling suggests that voters in at least some of those states now prefer former Vice President Joe Biden of over Trump by a significant margin. While such polling 18 months ahead of Election Day is far from conclusive, it does emphasize the importance of winning Florida.
"This is a state that the Republicans have to win to win the White House," MacManus said, noting Trump's apparent weakness in the Midwest.
Florida all Trump's, for now
Meanwhile Democratic candidates — all 23 of them — are spending the majority of their efforts in Iowa and New Hampshire, which in February kick off the process of choosing the party's nominee.
Florida's presidential primary will be held March 17.
"The Democrats are fractured among 23 candidates," Gruters said. "We are unified around the president."
Democrats aren't ignoring Florida, though. The party's first debate will be held later this month in Miami.
And the Florida Democratic Party is ramping up its outreach efforts now, says Juan Peñalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. The goal is to register 200,000 new voters before Election Day and otherwise strengthen the party's "ground game."
"When we do have a candidate, we will be ready to go on Day 1," he said.
Other than that, Trump will have the state all to himself until next year. Don't be surprised to see him hold many rallies throughout Florida over the year.
He also has the advantage of being a close ally of Florida's new governor, Republican Ron DeSantis. Trumps endorsement of DeSantis is widely seen as having secured the GOP nomination last year over the front-runner at the time, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
"Having the governorship in Florida makes a difference," Sabato said. "DeSantis will devote a substantial amount of time and energy to campaigning for Trump."
Beside campaigning for Trump, DeSantis could continue to push policies the president favors. Friday, DeSantis signed a bill banning so-called "sanctuary cities" in Florida, something the governor lobbied hard for. The president routinely rails against sanctuary cities.
While there is no concrete definition of sanctuary cities, they are broadly described as jurisdictions that have policies limiting cooperation with federal authorities in immigration enforcement actions.
Most analysts say there are no sanctuary cities in Florida. Even the Center for Immigration Studies — which favors less immigration — lists only Alachua County as a sanctuary area in the state. It's reasoning: Officials there won't detain suspected undocumented immigrants without a court order or criminal warrant.
A sign of things to come?
Trump's Orlando rally likely will set the tone for future such events around the state: Crowded, boisterous and a draw for protesters.
The official capacity of the Amway Center, site of Tuesday's rally, is 20,000. But Wednesday, Trump tweeted that 74,000 had already requested tickets. At the point Trump's website was still issuing tickets.
The Trump campaign later clarified that having a ticket did not guarantee entry into the event, and that admission would be on a first-come, first-served basis.
Friday, the campaign announced that an "inaugural 45 Fest" would be held outside the arena beginning at 10 a.m. Tuesday. The tailgate-party-style event will feature food trucks, live music and jumbo TV screens so that those who didn't make it inside the arena can watch the president's speech.
Meanwhile, protesters from around the state are also expected to converge on downtown Orlando.
Peñalosa said at least 4,000 anti-Trump protesters have told the state party they are going to Orlando.
The LGBQT community is planning a "Win with Love" rally at the Stonewall Bar, a few blocks away from the Amway Center.
“Hate, division, and greed have no place in Florida,” said Christopher Cuevas of Orlando, one of the rally organizers. “The Trump administration has demonized our most marginalized communities to distract from their own blatant corruption and incompetence."
Still, Gruters said he is confident Trump will take Florida again in 2020.
"This is President Trump's country," he said. "This is President trump's state."
Contact McCarthy at 321-752-5018 or email@example.com