County to watch: Pinellas voters often mirror overall presidential outcome

All eyes will be on the Sunshine State Tuesday night. An important battleground state for presidential elections, Florida is known for razor-thin election margins and within Florida, when the returns start rolling in, Pinellas County is the place to watch. 

Over the last 40 years, the candidate that wins in Pinellas generally goes on to win the White House.

The Pinellas peninsula is the most densely populated county in the state. Registered Democrats slightly outnumber Republicans, with no party affiliation voters not far behind.

“Pinellas County has always had very close elections, just as Florida has always had close elections,” said Darryl Paulson, emeritus professor of government at the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg.

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He says the county flips between red and blue, and every race has very narrow margins.

“Pinellas County is a great predictor of what is going to happen in the state of Florida. Since 1980, the past 40 years, Pinellas County has voted for the winning presidential candidate in all of those of elections with the exception of one,” Paulson explained.

President Donald Trump won the county by just 5,500 votes in 2016. Pinellas voters accurately picked former President Barack Obama in both 2012 and 2008, and former President George W. Bush in 2004.

“You want to know how many people are voting, and you want to know where those votes came from within in Pinellas County, and if you have that information you’ll have a real good sense of how the election is gonna turn out,” said Paulson.

Paulson explains the Pinellas electorate varies based on regions. Generally, St. Pete and the southern and of the county leans left, North Pinellas and the beach areas skew right, while mid-county is up for grabs.

As of Monday night, nearly 63% of registered voters in Pinellas already cast their ballots. That is almost 90% of the total turnout for the last presidential election. 

However, that leaves more than 250,000 people who could still head to the polls Tuesday.

“When you have new people voting it’s much more difficult to predict how they’re gonna vote if they’re first-time voters,” Paulson said.

Election officials across the state have already tabulated most of the early voting and mail ballots they have received.  When the polls close Tuesday at 7 p.m., those numbers will be announced.