South Florida, that blue electoral island separating the rest of the state from the Caribbean, was supposed to hand the nation’s biggest political prize — and therefore the presidency — to Hillary Clinton.
The votes poured in on Election Night Tuesday: about 575,000 more for Clinton than Donald Trump in Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties. That was more than 100,000 votes better than President Barack Obama, who defeated Mitt Romney by about 472,000 votes in the same media market four years ago.
Trump took Florida, in spite of record Miami-Dade and Broward turnout and a Hispanic voter surge across the state. The two developments, revealed in demographics of voters casting early ballots, had suggested an insurmountable Clinton advantage in a state Trump simply could not lose.
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Both trends were real. But after all the stories about the dying Cuban-American Republican vote in Miami and the rising Puerto Rican Democratic vote in Orlando, other Florida factors proved to be more important.
“It’s a math equation,” Susie Wiles, Trump’s Florida campaign chief, said Wednesday. “If you’re a Republican and you want to win, you have to figure out a way to have an urban and suburban strategy. But that only works if you can run up the score.”
If Clinton was going to make South Florida her play, Trump would look to the state’s other top population centers.
He walloped Clinton in Tampa and squeaked out a win in Orlando, both crucial swing markets. (Media markets are a better political indicator than counties because that’s how campaigns allocate their advertising money.) He surged past Romney’s 2012 numbers in Southwest Florida and the Panhandle.
In the end, the hotly contested race was all but over by 9 p.m., two hours after polls started to close in most of the state, though cautious news outlets didn’t call Florida until almost 11 p.m.
“The state of South Florida has always been very different than the state of Florida,” Miami Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi quipped Wednesday.
Trump’s win came from older white voters, including white women, who didn’t back Clinton the way her campaign had hoped.
“Hispanic Election Day turnout was strong. That wasn’t the issue,” said University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith, who analyzes Florida election data. “From my view, it appears that Trump over-performed with white women, including educated Republicans and independents, especially in suburban areas from Orlando and to South Florida.
“Her campaign suffered, ultimately, by not being able to persuade independents, and even Democrats, who had unfavorable views of her.”
Exit polls from CNN and Latino Decisions polling firm showed Clinton won 62 percent and 67 percent of Florida Hispanics, respectively. That was better than Obama, who received 60 percent in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center.
Nationally, it was a different story Tuesday: Trump outperformed Romney among Hispanics by 2 percentage points, CNN found. Clinton underperformed Obama by 6 points.
As a proportion of the electorate, Hispanics made up 18 percent of Florida voters, CNN found. That’s not much more than in 2012, when Pew found they comprised 17 percent.
State Rep. Carlos Trujillo of Miami, the only elected Republican who campaigned frequently in South Florida with Trump, acknowledged the campaign didn’t have a juggernaut staff or internal polling operation. Even GOP pollsters warned people like Trujillo that Clinton would win.
“Then I spent two weeks in the Hammocks,” Trujillo said, referring to a West Kendall early-voting site. “I was there for Mitt Romney. I never saw African Americans showing up with Mitt Romney T-shirts or hats. This election I saw African Americans, I saw gay people, I saw non-Cuban Hispanics voting for Trump.”
There was a dedicated crew of volunteers, unsanctioned by the campaign: “Honestly, I think they were printing the stuff at Kinko’s,” Trujillo said. “It was the most grassroots campaign for president.... I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The Florida story might have had a different ending for Clinton if Cubans had broken her way, as exit polls reported they did for Obama in 2012. CNN and Latino Decisions found Trump claiming 52 percent and 54 percent of the Florida Cuban-American vote — compared to the 47 percent support for Romney.
“The Cuban-American community in Miami won the state of Florida for Trump,” declared Miami lawyer Tom Spencer, a Republican who worked for the campaign during early voting and on Election Day. “A lot of them were part of the silent majority who voted for Trump. They were afraid to put bumper stickers on their cars because of all the vicious attacks during the campaign.”
Trump explicitly targeted the Cuban vote, mentioning Miami exiles even when he campaigned in parts of Florida almost completely devoid of Hispanics, such as Panama City and Sarasota. The reason? To grab a few seconds of airtime back in Miami.
“It’s statewide coverage,” Wiles said. “If he’s in Sumter County talking about things that are important to the Cuban community, it’s going to get to them.”
As for Puerto Ricans, they were expected to give Clinton an Orlando cushion. As the island’s economy imploded, Puerto Ricans fled to Florida: Their population soared past 1 million last year, a 24-percent gain since 2010, according to the U.S. Census. (The state’s population as a whole grew about 8 percent during the same period.)
Clinton handily carried the Puerto Rican vote with 72 percent, according to Latino Decisions. But Trump still managed to flip the Orlando market in his favor. It had gone blue in 2012, but Trump won it by 15,000 votes.
Zoraida Ríos-Andino, president of Misión Boricua, an Orlando-based nonpartisan civic-engagement group that helped organize voter-registration drives, said Clinton should have talked more about statehood for the island and how to relieve its overwhelming debt burden.
Though Clinton won Puerto Rico primary, she supported a bipartisan bill in Congress to address the territory's debt crisis that was unpopular with many residents.
“Hillary failed to address a lot of the issues that Puerto Ricans care about,” Ríos-Andino said. “If [Democrats] want to get more Puerto Ricans involved in the party, they have to start talking about more of our issues.”
Miami Herald staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this report.