Why Donald Trump should be worried about a road trip on Florida’s ‘Bellwether Highway’

Andrew Buncombe
·8-min read
Biden supporters wave at cars passing early voting station in Clearwater, close to the I-4 (Getty)
Biden supporters wave at cars passing early voting station in Clearwater, close to the I-4 (Getty)

It was a road trip, so who better to talk to first than a man who worked at a gas station?

Robert Barrett is 57 years old and says he has never seen the country so divided, with people at each other’s throats. It upset hims deeply. He says he is voting for Joe Biden in the hope he could shake people out of the toxicity.

“I’ve never seen Americans so against their fellow Americans,” he says.

Does Mr Barrett’s opinion count for anything? It may well do. In Florida, long considered America’s bellweather state, there is a part of the state, bisected by Interstate-4, considered more diverse, more shifting.

For years, political scientists have studied this I-4 corridor for clues as to the way its residents thought. If they work out what was happening here, they reckoned, they might be able to assess how the state, with its 29 electoral college votes, would vote.

“This has just always been a highly competitive part of the state,” says Michael McDonald, professor of political science at the University of Florida. “It's more of a microcosm of where Florida is. There would be more persons of colour than in  some of the more rural Florida.”

To try and tap into any wisdom the “Bellweather Highway” may offer, The Independent decided to drive its length, starting in Clearwater Beach and ending at Daytona Beach. The journey itself was not far, just 160 miles to the northeast, starting from the Gulf of Mexico and ending next to the Atlantic Ocean.

<p>The I-4 passes many of Florida’s most famous attractions</p>Getty

The I-4 passes many of Florida’s most famous attractions


But packed into those miles were a reported 43 per cent of Florida voters.

It would not be possible to speak to all of them, yet there would be insights from speaking to some of them.

And why does Florida matter so much? 

Simply put, how Florida votes, so the nation decides. The last person to win the White House without also winning the Sunshine State, was John F Kennedy in 1960. Especially for Republicans, whose electoral college “road map” is much tighter than that of the Democrats, winning Florida is seen as key.

One vote Donald Trump can surely count on is that of Miles Newton, a 60-year-old retired logistics manager. At a bagel shop 15 miles outside of Clearwater, he says he thinks the president is heading for victory. “I think Trump can pull it off. It’s going to be tough.”

Audrey McCrainie was locked out of her car. The 29-year-old also represented a rarity, someone who was undecided who to vote for.

Leaning on her vehicle, the key still inside, in the city of Lakeland, 60 miles east of Clearwater Beach, she says both Mr Biden and Mr Trump, and their parties, “were “part of the problem”. “They have become cliques,” says the nonprofit administrator. She was planing to vote for a third party.

Asked who she thought was going to win, she says: “I think Trump will win. I think that’s what will happen.”

Willie Cohen does not not agree. The unemployed construction worker says he had voted for Mr Biden. The 61-year-old did not have much enthusiasm for the former vice president – it was more a vote against the president – and says the most important challenge for a new leader would be “confronting the pandemic, and bringing back the jobs”.

Demetria Newkirk, a 32-year-old woman sitting in the sunshine in a park in the centre of Lakeland, says she would be voting for “Biden and Harris”.

“We don’t need a president whose going to have fits and making threats to go along with what he says,” she says.

The Independent gets back on the interstate. Traffic is pretty light, but the weather switches abruptly from sunshine to intense showers. On the radio – National Public Radio mixed up with conservative talk show hosts such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh – there is a lot of talk of what to expect from the final debate that evening between the two candidates.

On the conservative programmes, there are lots of claims made about unproven allegations about Mr Biden improperly helping his son’s business dealings in China and Ukraine. The former vice president has denied any wrongdoing, but in the Fox News/conservative talk show world those denials are widely derided. There is little talk of this on NPR. 

In Orlando, the showers keep coming, making it hard work to speak to people going to cast a vote at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections offices on Kaley Street. On the radio, it is announced that at nearby Cape Canaveral, SpaceX has again postponed its launch; we later learn this is because of a faulty camera, not the rain.

Tony Howard, 48, says he had just voted Democrat. An African American, Mr Howard says combatting racism in the country is among the most pressing challenges.

“The state of the country – the problems faced by the LBGT community, civil rights, the police brutality, gun violence. I want someone in office who is going to address those things,” he says.

Trevor Hall, 34, a videographer is heading to cast his vote for the Democrats too.

<p>Annie Harrell – speaking at the Pulse shooting memorial – says she hopes Biden can tackle gun violence</p>Andrew Buncombe

Annie Harrell – speaking at the Pulse shooting memorial – says she hopes Biden can tackle gun violence

Andrew Buncombe

“I think there’s this very binary way of thinking right now that's very dangerous. And while there’s only one choice for myself, I feel this is the only way we can actually have our voices heard,” he says. “This way we can tell whoever it is we vote for, whether we approve of them or not.”

On the way back to the highway, The Independent passes – unintentionally – the memorial established to honour and remember the 49 people killed and at least 53 injured in the June 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting. At the time it was deadliest mass shooting in the US, until the massacre of 60 people the following year in Las Vegas.

At the memorial, Annie Harrell, 62, and Charlie King, 70, an African American couple, are paying their respects. Ms Harrell had moved to Orlando some years ago, while Mr King still lives in Michigan. Both had voted Democrat.

Mr King, a veteran of the Vietnam War, is disgusted by Mr Trump’s language when talking about individuals such as John McCain, whom the president infamously said he did not consider a war hero because he was captured by the Vietnamese.

Asked why the US had not managed to get a better grip on gun violence despite incidents such as the incident at Pulse, and the 2018 shooting at Florida’s Parkland School near Miami, and what Mr Biden might do to stop it, Ms Harrell says: “I think that assault rifles and stuff like that don’t have any place in people’s homes. I don’t have a problem with registered weapons or the concealed carry.”

She adds: “I just wish there was more training for people to understand that these guns are serious and you should be taken seriously.”

On the issue of the racial justice protests that have shaken the US this year, Mr King says he believes a ”different breed, a different type of younger generation” had become involved, that was made up of different ethnicities, unlike perhaps in the past. “Everyone’s tired of being called out by the law enforcement.”

<p>Orlando Rivera says many Latinos would be voting for Biden</p>Andrew Buncombe

Orlando Rivera says many Latinos would be voting for Biden

Andrew Buncombe

About 30 miles from Orlando, Orlando Rivera, a barber in the town of Deltona, says he is also backing the Democrats.

“Trump is too racist,” says the 44-year-old. “Many Latin people like Biden.”

It should be made clear not everybody The Independent approached agreed to be interviewed. Some said they were too busy. Some did not appear interested in talking to the press.

And it should be pointed out that earlier in the week, large numbers of older Trump supporters – a key constituency in Florida – spoke very strongly in favour of him at The Villages, a retirement community of 150,000 that may be among the largest in the world, and which in 2016 voted approximately 70 per cent for the president.

Also, worth mentioning, the number of car signs and stickers on the journey appears roughly evenly divided between Mr Trump and Mr Biden.

<p>Sheryl Yocom says she is not political but would be voting for Trump</p>Andrew Buncombe

Sheryl Yocom says she is not political but would be voting for Trump

Andrew Buncombe

Nevertheless, in a very unscientific poll involving a dozen or so random Americans living along this crucial stretch of a crucial state, perhaps just two say they are voting for Mr Trump.

An average of Florida polls collated by RealClearPolitics scores the race for Florida a 48-48 tie between the two men.

(It appears much closer than in 2004, when John Kerry lost Florida – and by extension, the White House – 52-47 to George W Bush, having been told he struggled to connect with working class males, dubbed Nascar Man, whose most celebrated race, the Daytona 500, is hosted at the Daytona International Speedway, located just a few miles from the beach.)

It is perhaps with a little relief then, to run into Sheryl Yocom, who is splashing in the water at Daytona Beach with her daughter. Ms Yocom says she is not political and was not going to watch that night’s presidential debate.

She is not even from Florida, but rather is on holiday from a small town near Terre Haute in Indiana, where Mike Pence was once a congressman and governor.

As the waves roll in, she says: “I will be voting for Donald Trump.”

Read more

When will we know the US 2020 election result?

How does the US 2020 election work? Everything you need to know

Polls, predictions, and what’s at stake in Florida

Is ‘macho man’ Trump too tough to beat? The battle for the Latino vote