Inside the battleground that will decide Trump's fate

Inside the battleground that will decide Trump’s fate: How the eyes of the world will be on Florida’s bitterly divided Pinellas County – the most accurate bellwether of how millions of Americans will vote

America is on edge as the nation goes to the polls, but in downtown St Petersburg yesterday there was extra tension in the humid Florida air.

A roiling mass of flag and placard waving Trump and Biden supporters surrounded the polling station while others manned stalls, handing out car stickers which most people declined.

It’s not the best time or place to be advertising which side you’re on.

From 100 yards away, two police cars sat watchfully as voters filed in to make their vote and get an ‘I voted’ sticker.

Officers were there because last week two armed security guards suddenly appeared at the Trump stall, prompting the city’s Democratic mayor and his allies to complain of possible voter intimidation.

Campaign signs are posted near the Supervisor of Elections Office polling station while people line up for early voting in Pinellas County ahead of the election in Largo, Florida

Peering out from under a pink diamante Trump baseball camp as she stands next to a life size cut-out of the great man, Melody Stang, a local estate agent who set up the stall, told me it was all a misunderstanding that was distorted by the liberals.

And she doesn’t even want to begin talking about the awful things ‘scowling’ Biden supporters have shouted at them as they drive past.

‘We tell them we love them. We aren’t the aggressive ones,’ she said.

A block away, some of her confederates were bickering with a Democrat supporter over which of the candidates passing cars had been honking support for.

Fractious encounters such as this are being played out across the US but they are particularly significant in Pinellas County, of which St Petersburg is the most populous part. 

Everything is significant in Pinellas now, identified by many election number crunchers as the single most important battleground in the country.

With the US finally in the home stretch of a momentous election after four of the most chaotic years in the country’s history, millions will head to the polls today – with a record 95 million having already voted – in what is expected to be the one of the highest ever turn outs.

A Trump campaign volunteer waves a banner outside of the Supervisors Election Office in St. Petersburg, Florida

Voters must choose between two drastically different 70-something men with wildly conflicting visions for the US and the world in what for many is by far the most decisive election they will ever face in their life.

And Pinellas County – population 974,996 – is where it might all end for The Donald.

If Pinellas goes Biden blue, so does Florida and then so does America. 

The swing state of all swing states, Florida offers more electoral votes than any state bar California (Democratic) and Texas (Republican), both of which are unlikely to shift. Presidential elections here are always like the weather – stiflingly close.

Florida, which has crowned president after president, delivered victory to Trump in 2016 over Hillary Clinton by a tiny 1.2 per cent margin. Since 1928, this state has failed to vote for the winner of a presidential election only twice, and Pinellas is regarded as a key bellwether.

It voted twice for Barack Obama, flipped to Trump in 2016 but flipped back again to the Democrats in the 2018 governor’s race. Most important, Trump won the county by just over a single percentage point, about 6,000 votes out of half a million that were cast four years ago.

The significance of Pinellas came as news to the majority of voters I spoke to and, away from the polling stations, it hardly smacked of a desperate battleground.

A cardboard cut out of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is seen on the hood of a car before the arrival of former President Barack Obama for his drive in campaign rally in Miami, Florida 

Palm-fringed, sun-drenched St Petersburg, located half way up Florida’s Gulf Coast, is in the Guinness Book of Records for having the most consecutive days of sunshine (annual average of 361) of anywhere in the world.

It has become hipper and younger in recent years, but it still hasn’t quite shaken off its reputation as a sleepy retirement community.

Trump supporters were far more in evidence than Biden fans. Yet in theory, the people of Pinellas – and in Florida generally – have good cause to be unhappy with Trump’s chaotic handling of coronavirus.

The state’s high number of elderly are particularly vulnerable to infection, while the working population has been hit hard by the closedown of a tourism and hospitality industry on which they heavily depend. Unemployment has gone through the roof here.

And yet as of today, Biden was only ahead in Florida by two percentage points – not enough say pundits to guarantee him victory. There is, it seems, everything still to play for.

Like many swing counties, Pinellas is geographically split between a pro-Democrat city, St Petersburg, and a Republican suburban sprawl further north, as well as Clearwater, a holiday mecca and HQ of the Church of Scientology. Three quarters of the population is white and the county is sufficiently polarised that it has two Jeep owners clubs – one for Republicans, one for Democrats.

However, if ‘St Pete’ is regarded as reliably pro-Biden, I certainly didn’t find that among the early voters walking out of the polling station on Monday, of whom about 60 per cent of those I asked in my own straw poll said they’d voted for Trump.

Amanda Searfoss is a 26-year-old nurse whom one might expect to be dismayed by America’s surging coronavirus case and a mask-averse president who has suggested using bleach and sunlight to treat patients.

‘A lot of it is made up,’ she said, revealing she voted for Trump. ‘A president who can kneel for God gets my vote.’

And she was hardly alone in making clear that she simply doesn’t believe much of the criticism of Trump.

Leah Barnum, a 29-year-old bartender claimed Trump had been ‘spectacular’ on coronavirus, adding: ‘I don’t feel we need to be locked down’. Biden, on the other hand, was a ‘pervert’, she said, citing a particular (and entirely innocent) photograph that has fired up Trump supporters of the Democrat leaning down to a boy, his hand cupping the child’s face.

A supporter of President Donald Trump waves campaign flags near the Pinellas County Courthouse early voting polling station in Clearwater, Florida

Other Trump supporters are a little more politically clued-up. Elizabeth, a Latino servicewoman who didn’t want to give her full name, said Biden had been a good senator but added: ‘But it’s not going to be him, it’ll be Kamala after a few months. Biden’s physically and mentally not up to it.’

Terry Smith, a retired sales manager, predicted it would be close and said there were a lot of ‘shy’ Trump voters who keep quiet about it as they’ll ‘get a lot of grief’.

He and his wife refused to vote for either Clinton or Trump four years ago as they considered her a ‘crook’ and him a ‘buffoon’. Now, they’ve voted for Biden, says Mr Smith. ‘Trump’s still a buffoon,’ he said. ‘The biggest thing for us has been the coronavirus…..People are dying because of his leadership.’

Young people are also coming out for Biden after failing to back Hillary Clinton in 2016. Student Anya Hannan, 19, estimates three quarters of her friends in a student-heavy city have voted Democrat.

‘I don’t think many of us went out [to vote] in 2016,’ she shrugged.

Sam Rimes, a 29-year-old veterinary assistant, was one of those Hillary-refuseniks who has voted Biden now.

‘It’s mainly about women’s rights,’ she said. ‘When women support Trump, it’s like slugs voting for salt.’

Sensitive to accusations of racism, Trumpists are keen to trumpet that they have black supporters and that includes Leslie Parker, a pharmacist accompanied by three of her four children.

‘I think there’s something wrong with Biden’s brain,’ she told me.

‘There’s something wrong with Trump’s brain,’ her nine-year-old daughter Madison interrupted.

That’s her father talking, said Ms Parker.

Former US President Barack Obama speaks at a drive-in rally as he campaigns for Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden in Miami, Florida on November 2

She admitted she wouldn’t put a Trump sign in her garden – a common sentiment among voters who say the election has brought out the Sunshine State’s dark side.

An hour’s drive away from Pinellas is The Villages, America’s biggest retirement community – home to 115,000 people and 50 golf courses and a place that claims to be ‘Florida’s Friendliest Hometown’.

The Disneyfied colony is staunchly Republican but a few brave Biden supporters have been decorating their golf carts – the standard local transport – with his placards although they fear reprisals.

Some report being ostracised at their golf clubs and one man who put a Biden placard outside his house woke up the next morning to find someone had spelled out ‘TRUMP’ with weedkiller on his lawn.

Back in Pinellas, it’s the Trump supporters who claim to be the oppressed ones.

In the sprawling town of Largo is Conservative Grounds, a coffee shop that offers ‘coffee, donuts, pastries and patriotism’ and which is a shrine to the president. One wall dedicated to the Second Amendment – the right to keep and bear arms – is decorated with rifles and handguns.

Customers can choose from an impressive stock of Trump memorabilia, including $20 ‘I’m Deplorable’ T-shirts, or sit behind the president’s desk in an impressive mock up of the Oval Office.

It’s co-owner, Cliff Gephart, said many outlets discriminate against conservatives.

‘If you go into a McDonald’s or Burger King, you’ll get your Trump hats grabbed off you. There’s a liberal bias in all businesses in America.’

His customers agreed that they felt too intimidated to wear Trump paraphernalia anywhere except here. African-American Trump supporter David Christian complained he’s ‘expected’ to support Biden by both blacks and whites. He said a Starbucks assistant once refused to serve him as he was wearing a red Trump wristband.

Both sides insist they are the victims and the others the aggressors in what has, by any measure, been one of the nastiest campaigns in U.S. election history.

But now it’s over and all eyes tonight will be on Florida, usually one of the first states to announce its results. Defeat for the Democrat favourite will make his route to the White House harder. Defeat for Trump makes it almost impossible.

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