ORLANDO — Florida’s economy, already considered one of the strongest in the nation, hit a high note at the end of the year, as the Sunshine State’s unemployment rate fell to just 3.3 percent, below the national average.
That vibrant economic performance could have major political implications in the next two years. In 2016, Donald Trump carried the state of Florida as the Republican Party nominee, but he got less than half the vote, winning 49.02% to 47.82% for Democrat Hillary Clinton, a margin of only 100,000 votes out of more than 9 million cast. Trump won after Democrat Barack Obama had twice carried the state.
Florida’s booming economy was considered a factor in November when Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, succeeded in defeating three-term Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., by an even more razor-thin margin of 10,000 votes.
On Friday Scott, who remains governor until January, was touting the state’s latest economic numbers as reason for tremendous holiday cheer this December.
The governor’s office announced today that Florida’s unemployment rate had dropped in November from 3.4 to 3.3 percent, the lowest level in 12 years. Every one of the state’s 67 counties has experienced a drop in the unemployment rate since December 2010, a month before Scott took office.
“I am excited about the economic success that Florida has been able to achieve over the past eight years,” Scott said in a news release. “Our unemployment rate being at 3.3 percent and nearly 1.7 million jobs being created since December 2010 has allowed so many Floridians the opportunity to live their dreams in the Sunshine State.”
This economic boom is expected to make the Sunshine State a magnet for newcomers, increasing the state’s population — and offering an even larger electoral prize than the state’s current 29 electoral votes that Obama and Trump won in 2012 and 2016, respectively.
That means Florida is certain to be one of the top competitive states in 2020.
How Did the Economy Do in November?
Florida businesses created 23,000 private-sector jobs in November, meaning Florida’s annual job growth rate outpaced the nation for 79 of the past 80 months. And two of the fastest growing cities in Florida, Orlando and Tampa, appear to be on economic steroids.
The Tampa area added 28,400 new private-sector jobs in the last year, and Tampa’s unemployment rate is below the state average at 3.0 percent.
Tampa Bay remained first among the state’s metro areas when it came to job demand in November, with 56,469 job openings, while Tampa also ranked first in the state in demand for high-skill, high-wage STEM occupations.
Orlando, meanwhile, spent the past 44 consecutive months maintaining the highest job creation rate in the state. The Orlando area added 60,800 new private-sector jobs in the past year — for a total of 315,400 jobs since December 2010. The unemployment rate in Orlando fell to 2.7 percent in November, a historically low rate.
Several industries have been performing particularly well in the Orlando area, including:
* Leisure and hospitality, with 16,200 new jobs;
* Professional and business services, 15,700 new jobs;
* and construction, 11,100 new jobs.
In November, the Orlando area ranked second among the state’s metro areas, after Tampa, in job demand, with 46,128 job openings.
What is the Florida Job Growth Grant?
In addition to announcing the unemployment rate numbers, Gov. Scott on Friday announced four awards totaling more than $29 million in funding from the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund, which was established in 2017 to provide money for improving public infrastructure and enhancing workforce training programs throughout the state.
One of the awards goes to Orange County Government for $16 million to extend Kirkman Road to six lanes, with two dedicated bus lanes. This extension is intended to create a single interchange at Sand Lake Road and Kirkman Road, which will intersect with Universal Boulevard. This is expected to help relieve a congested corridor that feeds into the Orange County Convention Center.
To learn more about the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund, visit Florida Jobs Growth.
What Are The Political Implications?
During his Senate campaign this year, Scott frequently boasted about the health of the Florida economy, but even that wasn’t enough to give the governor more than a razor-thin margin of less than 1 percent. President Trump, who has a home at Mara-Lago in Palm Beach County, is counting on carrying Florida a second time, although Democrats are expected to make a major push for the state as well.
Florida, in fact, has voted for the winner in every presidential race since World War II, except in 1960, when Republican Richard Nixon carried the state over Democrat John Kennedy, and in 1992, when President George H.W. Bush narrowly defeated Democrat Bill Clinton here.
Since 1992, the margins in the state’s presidential votes have been exceedingly close — including in 2000, when Republican George W. Bush carried Florida by a mere 537 votes over Democrat Al Gore.
Republicans have viewed Trump’s victory in the state in 2016, along with Scott’s win last November and Republican Ron DeSantis winning the governor’s office, as a sign that Florida may be turning a brighter shade of red. But it’s also worth remembering that every Democratic president since World War II — Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama — carried Florida at least once, with the lone exception being John F. Kennedy.
Florida is expected to become a bigger prize than in 2016. Florida’s congressional delegation is projected to expand to 29 seats, two more than today, since the state has added 2.5 million new residents since the last census.
And that means the state will have 31 votes in the electoral college, behind only California and Texas. Since California has been reliably Democratic since the 1990s, and Texas has been solidly Republican for at least as long, that means Florida will be the largest competitive state in the nation — the top “Purple” state.
If Florida’s economy continues booming over the next two years, attracting more residents to the state and keeping the growth rate on an upward trajectory, the state could actually pick up three congressional districts after the 2020 Census.
On the other hand, if the nation slips into recession, all bets are off. During the Great Recession that hit in September 2008, Florida was one of the hardest hit states and the unemployment rate here soared to double-digits.
That lead to the notion that when the nation’s economy is booming, Florida is doing exceptionally well, but when the nation’s economy gets a cold, Florida has a severe case of pneumonia.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Of Cats And Wolves.” Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.