Donald Trump rode his phenom candidacy into a triumphant Florida victory Tuesday night, amassing a coalition of voters who embraced his populist message of upending the political establishment.
It was still too early to call the national presidential race between Trump and Hillary Clinton. But Trump needed a Florida win to have any hope of reaching the White House, and he had already been declared the winner in another all-important swing state, Ohio. Those triumphs could portend similar results elsewhere: The last person to win the White House after losing Florida and Ohio was John F. Kennedy, in 1960.
Trump led in projected Electoral College votes when Florida, a state President Barack Obama carried twice, was called shortly before 11 p.m.
Unofficial Florida results showed Trump narrowly edging Clinton thanks to record support in deeply red media markets, such as Jacksonville and Fort Myers. His biggest strength, though, appeared to be in bellwether Tampa: Despite losing the city itself, Trump and his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, posted robust numbers in the Tampa suburbs and exurbs.
In essence, Trump — propelled by white voters acting as a bloc — won big in places where, four years ago, Mitt Romney won small. And it added up.
In the Tampa area, Trump led Clinton by 225,000 votes, more than three times the margin of Romney’s victory over Obama. He closed the gap on Clinton in solidly blue Palm Beach and Tallahassee. He flipped the Orlando area from blue to red.
Trump trailed Clinton the most — by some 568,000 votes, an even bigger margin than Obama had over Romney — in the Miami media market, the state’s largest, which comprises Miami-Dade, Broward and Monroe counties.
As of 10:30 pm, the tickets of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein had collected nearly 267,000 votes in Florida. Clinton trailed Trump by 135,000.
Plagued by long lines in 2012, Election Day in South Florida generally ran smoothly. Most voters cast their ballots through the mail or during early voting. Lines on Tuesday were short, and outside of some complaints about mail ballots never being received, relatively few hiccups were reported.
Miami-Dade, the only county Trump lost in the March 15 Florida primary, was projected to report more than 1 million cast ballots, after breaking its 2012 record of 888,033. Broward County also surpassed its 2012 record of 827,385.
Trump, like Clinton, visited Florida — his second home, as he liked to say — more than any other state after the summer’s nominating conventions, campaigning in Republican Sarasota as late as Monday. He owns a lavish estate, Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach, and golf resorts in Jupiter and Doral.
“I’m very excited,” Trump said Tuesday when he voted at Manhattan’s PS 59, which was lined with hundreds of voters and curious onlookers. “There is tremendous enthusiasm from everybody. You see it all over the place.”
In Florida, Trump relied not on a traditional field operation built by his own staff, but rather on the Republican National Committee, which laid groundwork in the state for three years. Clinton boasted a robust network of 81 state offices, working in coordination with the national and state Democratic parties. But the GOP insisted — and ultimately showed — it didn’t need brick-and-mortar offices to reach its voters.
Early Tuesday afternoon, the Republicans noted they trailed Democrats in Florida by 78,000 fewer ballots cast going into Election Day than they did at the same point in 2012.
Clinton, who last campaigned in Florida on Saturday, called into radio shows in the state Tuesday, as did her daughter, Chelsea Clinton; her running mate, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine; President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and Vie President Joe Biden.
Clinton, 69, would have been the most disliked presidential candidate in history were it not for Trump, 70, who was even more unpopular. But in purple Florida, one of the states most traumatized by the 2008 economic recession, voters said they saw Trump as a refreshing truth-teller.
“He is honest,” said Florin Bucutea, a 57-year-old Republican and financial adviser who emigrated from Romania 37 years ago. He cast his ballot for Trump on Tuesday morning at the Coral Ridge Mall in Fort Lauderdale: “He will change this country.”
South Florida drove a Hispanic surge that seemed like it would nudge the state in Clinton’s direction. No-party-affiliated Hispanics who made up much of the uptick tended to lean Democratic, according to public-opinion polls.
“Trump is against immigrants,” said 18-year-old Erick Rodriguez, who voted for Clinton at Robert King High Towers in Little Havana. His parents, Honduran immigrants with temporary protected status, are “scared to see who wins,” he added: “If Trump wins, they’ll probably get deported.”
“This guy is like a ticking time bomb — he has no filter,” said his brother, 23-year-old Kevin Nunez. “It’s all about power for him.”
Most polls, however, showed Florida remained a tossup heading into Election Day. And the record turnout made it difficult for political analysts to accurately predict what each candidate’s margins needed to be to clinch the state.
Tuesday’s results served as a reminder that Florida has more white voters than minority voters. And whites made up the core of Trump’s base. And many said they just couldn’t trust Clinton, a figure they’ve known from her decades in the public eye. Her candidacy was marred by a scandal over emails she kept on a private server as secretary of state, which prompted an FBI investigation that twice closed without any criminal charges.
Voting at Century Village at Pembroke Pines, 80-year-old Lloyd Liles sported a lanyard with a weathered piece of paper reading: “Adorable Deplorable Trump Voter,” a reference to Clinton’s infamous remark at a fundraiser in which she referred to Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables.”
“I’ll be very disappointed,” he said, “if Hillary gets elected.”
Miami Herald staff writers Cresonia Hsieh, Jordan Levin, Nicholas Nehamas, Amy Sherman and David Smiley contributed to this report.