TAMPA, Fla. — Voters consider everything from the pandemic and economy to the Supreme Court and race relations, among other topics, as they weigh who to vote for this election.
“The number one issue in Florida among voters is the health pandemic COVID-19. That is especially so among our large senior citizen population," said Dr. J. Edwin Benton, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida.
There have been more than 16,000 Florida deaths and more than 800,000 positive cases during the outbreak.
A survey from USF found Republicans were more likely to identify the most important issues as "jobs and the economy" while Democrats were more likely to point to COVID-19.
Both President Trump and former Vice President Biden talked to Tampa Bay voters about it leading up to election day. Biden criticized Trump's handling of the pandemic, and stressed his plan would include testing, tracing and mask use. Meanwhile, Trump said his actions saved lives, is looking ahead to a vaccine and spoke out against lock downs.
“By politicizing it, a good half our community may be under the impression that oh it’s not that big of a deal. Well it is that big of a deal. Even if it doesn’t hurt you today and spread it, we now know it can grab onto you and hurt you tomorrow,” said Dr. Jay Wolfson, a USF Health professor.
Surveys show the economy is one of the top issues on the minds of voters. According to a Gallup survey, nine in 10 voters considered it extremely or very important to their vote.
The pandemic has led to unemployment and strains on businesses.
"Unlike other economic downturns in American history, this is field by a pandemic and the struggling economy," said USF political science professor Dr. J. Edwin Benton.
Florida's unemployment rate was 4.7% higher in September 2020 than September 2019, while the national unemployment rate declined by 0.5% point over the month, though still higher than September 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"If you are thinking that your unemployment is in some way related to the political game that's going on, I think that could really weigh on your decision. Additionally, I know a lot of folks have not been particularly happy that this much needed second stimulus check has not yet arrived," said John Troncoso, a partner at Jaffe Tilchin Wealth Management.
"I think the gridlock in Washington is definitely front and center on a lot of consumer's minds, especially those who are having trouble paying their rents or the day to day expenses," said Troncoso.
However, last week the third-quarter GDP grew at a record rate.
"But when you look at year over year, we're still down about 3.5%. Additionally, consumer spending is still somewhat muted if you exclude the 3 or 4 trillion dollars of stimulus package that went out earlier this year. I think overall unemployment is going to continue to be a drag on the economy," said Troncoso.
The economy has been a topic on the campaign trail.
"Whereas perhaps Donald Trump thought the best way to boost the economy was through tax cuts to the middle and upper classes and to business specifically, I think Joe Biden thinks that a little bit more direct investment or tax savings to the American people is the better way to do it," said Troncoso.
In a pitch to Tampa Bay voters, President Trump pointed to job growth, the GDP and reopening, while criticizing lockdowns last week.
"Thanks to our policies, America is experiencing the fastest and biggest recovery. We're having the best recovery anywhere in the world," said Trump during a Tampa rally.
Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden also tried to appeal to the middle class, telling Florida voters he won't raise taxes for those making less than $400,000 but would ask the wealthiest to pay their share.
"We're gonna deliver tax relief for working families and middle class, to help you buy your first home, help you pay for healthcare premiums, for childcare, for caring for your aging loved ones, for eliminating college debt. We're going to take care of this," Biden said.
Another issue some say is also impacting the economy is healthcare.
According to some surveys, Trump supporters are more likely to rate the economy as very important, while more Biden supporters say healthcare is very important.
"It's a pocketbook issue. What is it going to cost people in terms of healthcare, and also what is the quality and accessibility going to be associated with that," said Steven Ullmann, Ph.D., a professor and director of the Center for Health Management and Policy at the University of Miami.
Ullmann said both parties are trying to get a handle on how to bring costs under control.
"The Biden campaign is essentially building on the Affordable Care Act and saying okay this is not a perfect policy by any means and therefore how can we build on this. So the concept gets into affordability," he said. "The Trump proposal is not too different from that. There's an awareness there's a lack of competition. There's an awareness costs are too high, the difference being the Trump proposal suggests competition to bring that about."
He said while Biden seeks a public alternative choice to employer-based health insurance, Trump seeks a private alternative.
"There's not a huge amount to difference. I think both parties are trying to deal with the same issue, cost, quality, access," Ullmann said.
Healthcare has also been tied into arguments surrounding the courts. The Supreme Court is expected to hear arguments surrounding the Affordable Care Act this month.
It comes after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in September.
The Senate confirmed Trump's third appointee to the court, Amy Coney Barrett just a little more than a month later, despite outcries from Democratic leaders.
"The fact that we had the vacancy so close to the election again has elevated it. If we didn't have that vacancy, it would be even less of an issue than it is now," said Steven Tauber, Ph.D., a professor of political science at USF. "I really think it is for the republicans more about the Supreme Court and then for democrats it's more tied into these other major concerns, civil rights, healthcare and the economy are really key concerns."
Only 3% of respondents in a University of South Florida survey said the Supreme Court would be the most important factor in choosing who to vote for. A Pew Research Center survey, however, found a majority rated Supreme Court appointments as very important.
"It's not unusual for new justices to have the opportunity to make a big impact. What's unusual about this is how starkly it shifts the balance of the court. So the court is more weighted towards a conservative court than in recent memory," said Louis Virelli, a law professor at Stetson University, ahead of Barrett's confirmation.
Other experts noted the impact court appointees can have.
"Amy Coney Barrett who is 48 I think will be around long after our kids don’t know who Donald Trump or who Joe Biden are when they are long gone, when they have exited the scene Amy Coney Barrett will be there," said Charlton Copeland, aprofessor of law and dean’s distinguished scholar at University Miami School of Law, following the confirmation.
The months leading up to the election saw protests around the country and in the Tampa Bay area following the killing of George Floyd. People called for equality, justice and reform in police policies and funding, while others called for law and order.
“On the political side we saw protestors finally winning a case before a grand jury for Breonna Taylor. On the economic side, we see cities like New York and Los Angeles and Minneapolis divesting money from police departments and putting them into social welfare programs," said David Ponton III, an associate professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies at USF.
“In this case and all cases throughout history, I think what we see is this trend of a call to action and people really becoming impacted for their fellow Americans, but also retrenchment on the other side," he said.
Ponton said historically, these types of movements have effects on elections.
“I think we’re already seeing the effects of, we’re already seeing the impacts of these protest movements. We’re seeing massive voter turnout all across the country. We’re seeing greater Black voter turn out than we saw in 2016," he said.
The issue of national security is also playing a role in voters choices.
Just weeks before the election, national security officials revealed Iran and Russia tried to influence public opinion surrounding the election. The Director of National Intelligence said the countries got a hold of voter registration information, using the data for misinformation.
"It’s interesting to see how fragile our society is because we can take guidance from something that we read and just act without vetting that information to see if it’s absolutely true or not," said Stacy Arruda, a former FBI agent and now owner of the Arruda Group, a risk mitigation consulting firm. "And with disinformation it’s something that’s intentionally false, it’s meant to mislead, it’s meant to basically get people to do something that they wouldn’t necessarily do."
Law enforcement warned about the potential for misinformation and disinformation by foreign actors leading up to the election.
"I think it’s shown the world around us that our society is very fragile and COVID has also played into that. People have a lot more time on their hands so they’re reading more, they’re looking more," said Arruda.
A USF survey found two thirds of respondents were very concerned or somewhat concerns about the possibility of foreign government interference in the presidential election.
"Clearly his intent is to disrupt the alliances that the United States currently enjoys. He would like nothing more than to cause NATO to not function as a collective alliance. I think that’s his intent, not only intent to disrupt elections of the United States, cause some concern about the outcome or sow discord, his attempt also is to cause discord among the United States and our current alliances," Mike McConnell, the executive director of Cyber Florida and former director of national intelligence, said of Vladimir Putin.
Some experts said the country is at an inflection point.
"I think the inflection point here has to do with the ambiguity of our alliances and our adversaries and our relationships with both. And next administration, whether it’s a second Trump term or a new term with Biden, is gonna have to choose. I think it’s essentially a fork in the road, do we go one way or the other," said Ron Sanders, the staff director at Cyber Florida.
They agreed Russia is probably the best at disinformation, but also pointed to China.
"I believe that the cyber threats to the country are an existential threat and let me just summarize that quickly by saying not only would Russia attempt to sow discord and anything to disrupt a democratic process to cause conflict among our allies or even internal to the United States whether issues race or nationalism or whatever it might be. The other side of the world, China is engaging in very aggressive economic espionage," said McConnell, noting China could become the world's largest economy in the future. "China in particular is after economic information and in particular, technology, innovation, creativity, business plans, the results of research and development, they’re doing that and doing it on a daily basis and capturing information in a terabyte level."
"The end in their case is becoming the dominant economic power at least in the pacific rim and in Asia if not beyond, whereas Russia is not an economic competitor it’s more just the former Soviet Union and trying to preserve its sphere of influence," said Sanders.
Experts said national security hasn't been the prominent feature is should be this election cycle, though.
"I wish our citizens would pay attention to these international relations issues and press the candidates to tell us what they would do when some of these hypotheticals become reality because they’re gonna become reality and but I think we need to know in advance where the red lines are," said Sanders.
"The United States needs to think not only in national security terms it needs to think in economic terms as to the right way to run our economic process so that those are the issues that I’d recommend citizens worry about think about," said McConnell.