Despite the economic struggles of ’flyover Florida’, no one expects voters in Okeechobee County or other reliably red rural areas to vote for anyone other than President Trump in November.
Okeechobee County, the rural slice of Florida known for farming, fishing and voting Republican, has one of the state’s weakest economies.
Its economic output contracted by 9.6 percent in 2018, ranking dead last among Florida’s 67 counties, according to statistics released in December by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Even so, no one expects voters in Okeechobee County or other reliably red rural areas to vote for anyone other than President Donald Trump in November.
“I think this county is by far satisfied with the current politics,” says Phillip Berger, broker at Coldwell Banker Berger Real Estate in Okeechobee.
Okeechobee is one of just six counties in Florida where economic activity shrank during the first two years of Trump’s presidency.
Other laggards include Hendry and Hardee counties, pockets of the state that Berger refers to as “flyover Florida” — places overlooked by residents of more affluent coastal areas, not to mention most of the millions of tourists coming to the state for theme parks and beaches.
Brad Coker of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research in Ponte Vedra Beach sees little chance that rural Florida’s economic struggles will change the deep-red hue of its electoral map.
With the Florida electorate increasingly polarized, voters in Okeechobee County are unlikely to blame Trump for a moribund local economy.
“It’s not going to change many minds,” Coker said.
In 2016, Trump won Okeechobee County by 40 points. He took Hardee County by 41 points and tiny Union County, another place with a shrinking economy in 2017 and 2018, by 62 points.
Yet Trump’s base in flyover Florida looks at the economy and, instead of hard times at home, sees record stock prices and rock-bottom unemployment across Florida and the nation.
“I don’t think it’ll hurt him that much,” Coker said. “The voters in those counties are more tied into social issues, and they’re not the types to buy into big-government solutions.”
Despite the grim economic statistics from Okeechobee County, the county seat of Okeechobee (population 5,596) presents an image that’s more bustle than misery.
One Realtor in town reported a flurry of closings during the final two days of 2019. The clerk at the Rustic Store, a downtown shop selling furniture and knickknacks, said the place was mobbed during Small Business Saturday, the day after Black Friday.
There are vacant buildings and empty storefronts, but Okeechobee also sports a new Aldi, and a Wawa is in the works. The recently opened juice shop downtown charges $10 for an acai bowl, the same price coastal Floridians pay.
“We’re doing good,” said David Hazellief, a broker at Century 21 Hazellief & Prevatt Realty in Okeechobee.
Not as good as the rest of the state, Hazellief allows. The Florida economy expanded by a robust 3.2 percent in 2018, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
But by one metric, Okeechobee County is doing just fine. Its official unemployment in November was 2.8 percent, a microscopic level that matched the jobless rate in Palm Beach County.
With results like that, no one expects voters in Okeechobee County will have a change of heart in November.
“I don’t see anybody out there strong enough to go against Trump,” Hazellief said.
A late December poll of Florida voters by Mason-Dixon found Joe Biden was the only Democratic candidate who would beat Trump in a head-to-head race. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg all would lose to the incumbent, the poll found.
Democrats dream of winning the nation’s biggest swing state, but that hope is complicated by the reality that Florida’s $1 trillion economy is booming in the Trump era.
The state’s jobless rate fell to 3.1 percent in November, an all-time low and below the national average of 3.5 percent.
The state’s employers added jobs at a 2.5 percent pace from November 2018 to November 2019, one of the nation’s best showings. Tourism continues to set records, and construction cranes dot skylines across the state.
In one unusual twist, the metro areas that have been among the biggest winners under Trump resoundingly rejected the president in the 2016 election.
The state’s five largest counties — Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Orange and Hillsborough — all have unemployment rates of 2.8 percent or lower. Clinton won all of them easily.
Among Florida’s large counties, the tourism mecca of Orange County has the state’s most robust economy. The unemployment rate was an almost impossibly low 2.4 percent in November.
Orange County’s economy grew at a 4 percent pace in 2017 and 2018, much higher than the national average. Trump lost Orange County to Clinton by nearly 25 points.
As he tries to win over the skeptics in urban Florida, Trump has stressed such favorable economic readings as a jump in holiday spending and the stock market’s record run.
Of course, Trump’s support in Florida isn’t confined to struggling rural counties. He posted double-digit wins in such places as Brevard, Sarasota and St. Johns counties, all of which experienced strong economic growth during Trump’s first two years in office.
“NASDAQ UP 72.2% SINCE OUR GREAT 2016 ELECTION VICTORY! DOW UP 55.8%,” Trump tweeted just before Christmas. “The best is yet to come!”
His pitch to Florida voters has included a steady dose of such statistics.
“Trump’s trying to run on the economy,” Coker said. “That’s his biggest strength.”