Why you should care
Because as this county goes, so could Florida … and the nation.
Jonathan Martin remembers attending the Republican National Convention as a Florida delegate and getting calls from conservatives “all over the country,” telling him to vote for anyone other than Donald Trump as the nominee. This despite the fact that Trump had overwhelmingly carried the Sunshine State, and many others, in his 2016 march to the presidency. “Republicans thought by nominating him we were automatically going to lose,” Martin says.
But Martin, who has led the Lee County Republican Party since just after the 2014 elections, was seeing a grassroots surge in this Gulf Coast region dominated by Fort Myers and Cape Coral. It was no longer just Midwestern retirees or country club conservatives, traditionally reliable Republican voters the area was already known for. No, the population was booming, with younger migrants filling up the robust health care and construction industries.
Those working families, who maybe wouldn’t have bothered turning out for a traditional politician, seemed motivated by a smash-mouth businessman willing to take a sledgehammer to the system. Trump won the county over Hillary Clinton by more than 20 percentage points … and inspired a massive swell in voter participation.
Lee County saw an 8 percentage point leap in voter turnout in 2016 — the largest of any big county in the nation.
That data comes from an exclusive OZY voter participation analysis with Washington, D.C.–based data and consulting firm 0ptimus, showing Lee County with the biggest turnout jump (adjusting for population growth) of any county where more than 100,000 votes were cast in 2016. It is particularly noteworthy given that the 2016 election was marked by low voter turnout in many major markets nationally — another major county in a swing state, Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, saw overall turnout drop by nearly 41,000 votes from 2012, for example.
But as others wilted, Lee County saw its voter participation boom, with 60,000 more people casting ballots than in 2012. Why?
Candidates matter, for one. Trump beat Clinton by 66,000 votes here. Mitt Romney, four years before, beat incumbent President Barack Obama here by just 44,006 votes. What allowed Trump to succeed is that he was still able to draw on the Romney base but had an extra appeal that brought new voters to the table too.
“We always saw this area as a region, a place to potentially steal some Republican votes, because it was more Midwestern, more center-right,” says Steve Schale, who was Obama’s 2008 state director and served as a Florida senior adviser in 2012.
Two of the top four industries in the region are construction and health care -— industries with workers who may have responded to Trump’s real-estate maven background and criticism of Obamacare. Despite his scandals and the threat of impeachment, now there is no doubt whether he would advance a conservative agenda (he has), which could make these suburban voters even more comfortable backing him again in 2020.
Plus, the demographics of Lee County, which has a slightly smaller percentage of college graduates than the state average, fit with a candidate who appealed to less educated demographics nationwide. Look at neighboring Collier County, which has a higher share of college-educated voters and saw Trump win by a few hundred votes less than Romney.
Yet Schale argues that the increase of voters has much more to do with pure population growth than hidden voters suddenly emerging for Trump. The Fort Myers media market — which includes Lee, but also neighboring counties Charlotte, Collier, DeSoto, Glades and Hendry — saw an increase from just under 525,000 total voters in 2012 to close to 620,000 in 2016. That designated market area is the fastest growing in the state, Schale adds, with almost 20 percent growth expected between the 2010 and 2020 census. “If you look at the actual voter data, the only real change was just that there were more people that lived there now,” he says.
Martin agrees that the Lee County area has undergone major growth. “It was almost like the gold rush of the 1840s in California; people … came here looking for an opportunity,” Martin says. But in his view, the type of demographic changes also matched well with a Trump-like candidate rather than, say, a Romney. These newer residents of Lee County have gone through a recession, seen a real estate market that many of them participated in burst in painful ways and were often forced into bankruptcy themselves. “Which candidate filed bankruptcy in the 2016 election? Who was the candidate involved in construction, real estate?” Martin says, arguing for Trump’s special resonance with these voters. And a higher proportion of them hit the polls: 69 percent of Lee County’s estimated voting-age population came out in 2016, compared to 61 percent four years earlier. (Nationwide, turnout was between 61 and 62 percent in both years.)
That increasing population, plus the area’s conservative leanings, make Lee County an important battlefield in 2020 for Trump supporters hoping to keep the state red. In raw voters, Lee had the highest margin of victory for Trump of any of the most populous 100 counties in the United States, according to an analysis of voter data submitted by Martin and examined by OZY. Including all counties, it ranked third, behind just Montgomery County, Texas and Ocean County, New Jersey.
Lee remains high on GOP minds, says Christian Ziegler, a vice chair for the Florida Republican Party, who notes that conservatives need to make up for areas like Miami and Palm Beach that lean heavily Democratic. “Lee County is a vital part of our strategy,” Ziegler says. “We depend on southwest Florida to make up for the counties we’re bleeding in and help areas like the I-4 corridor that are really in the middle.”
Attention will remain on that aforementioned Interstate 4 corridor, running across the middle of the state from Tampa Bay to Daytona Beach, known as a pivotal swing area in a crucial purple state. “Fort Myers, not the Panhandle, is why Trump won. He won because he blew up the score in the exurban counties around Tampa and Orlando,” Schale says.
But given how every vote counts in Florida, this county will play a major role in 2020. If Trump is reelected, he may very well have his loyal, and rapidly growing, fanbase in Lee County to thank first.