Sarasota is known for its sunny skies and beautiful beaches, but two years ago, a terrible outbreak of red tide left Bruce Andersen a virtual prisoner of his waterfront condo.
“It was to the point where we could hardly go outside without smelling the dead fish, all of the dead animals that came from that,” said Andersen, 75, a retired school administrator.
Even before that, the environment was an important issue for him. A Republican, he voted for President Donald Trump in the Florida primary in 2016, but Hillary Clinton in the general election – in part because of what Trump was saying about the environment. Now he’s paying close attention to the Democratic candidates’ positions.
“They’re going to influence me a great deal,” Andersen said. “I’m going to be looking to see what the candidates are talking about as far as the environment is concerned. That will be one of the considerations. It isn’t the only consideration, but it’s a major one for me.”
In this important swing state, no region hangs in the balance more than the I-4 corridor, a stretch of highway spanning the state’s midsection where conservative north Florida blends with the more progressive South Florida. Trump announced his re-election campaign in Orlando last June, and since then his campaign has made multiple stops across the region.
Florida is the most populous swing state with more electoral votes – 29 – than any other. The state also is uniquely prone to climate change. Heading into the Florida primary March 17, the environment and climate change are on the minds of I-4 corridor voters.
Across the region, voters ranked the environment as their second-most important economic issue after health care, according to a non-scientific survey of more than 800 voters conducted late last year by WMFE and WUSF, the NPR affiliates in Orlando and Tampa.
“I feel like we’re at this critical tipping point, or maybe even a little bit past that tipping point where urgent action needs to be taken,” said Steven Madow, 30, another of the survey’s respondents who works at a financial technology company in Orlando. “Seeing a candidate who has that not just as an important part of their platform but as a top priority is really important.”
Overwhelmingly, among the survey’s respondents who identified the environment as their top economic issue, climate change and sea level rise were of specific concern, as the state has been menaced by increasing coastal flooding and three major hurricanes in three years. Others cited worries over water quality and water supply, and also toxic blue-green algae and red tide, which gripped the state in 2018, sickening Floridians and causing marine life to go belly-up.
For 75-year-old Bob Shaw, any candidate is better than Trump, who has described climate change as a “hoax,” rejected his own administration’s assessment of the risks posed by climate, and rolled back environmental protections.
“I’d vote for a labradoodle over Trump,” said Shaw, a retired Orlando Sentinel editor.
But he says he’d like to hear more from the Democratic candidates on the environment and climate. Bernie Sanders has presented perhaps the most ambitious plan, as it would involve declaring a national emergency over climate change.
“They all have climate change plans that I essentially agree with, but they don’t spend very much time talking about them and talking about how they can make them a reality,” Shaw said. “I’d like to hear a great deal more.”
The issue is more personal for Norma Fowler, 76, a sample cook at a Clearwater grocery store. She enjoys gardening in her spare time, but lately it’s hotter, and she spends less time outside. She would like to see stronger policies from the Democratic candidates on clean energy.
“It should be a requirement for municipalities when they issue permits for brand-new homes, single homes, make them be solar,” Fowler said. “Why not? I can’t think of any reason for that, but it doesn’t happen because they don’t have to.”
This story is part of I-4 Votes, a collaboration between the NPR stations in Tampa and Orlando. The project will spend 2020 focusing on the issues that matter to voters as they decide who they want to be president of the United States. The story also was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative founded by the Miami Herald, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, The Palm Beach Post, the Orlando Sentinel, WLRN Public Media and the Tampa Bay Times.