On election night in 2016, the battlefield for the 2020 election was established. Donald Trump became president because he had flipped three traditionally Democratic-voting states — Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — into his column.
To win reelection, Trump needs to win these states again. Conversely, if Democrats want to deny Trump a second term, they must find a way to take those places back. The electoral vote math is that simple.
Yet over the past month, there has been an urgent debate at elite levels in the Democratic Party about whether “the big three” strategy needs to be reexamined. Maybe the path to an electoral college victory in 2020 begins in the original of all swing states: Florida.
Jumping into Florida with its 10 television markets would be a risky $100 million decision for Joe Biden. And making that call might be the most pressing question for Biden’s campaign, outside of who to pick for vice president, in order to build out the needed campaign infrastructure.
Competing in the Sunshine State would be a huge investment for Biden, who far trailed Trump by nearly $200 million in the money race when he become the presumptive Democratic nominee last month. But if Democrats can pull it off, and they have a real shot of doing so, it could kill off another four years of Trump almost in a single shot. (Florida has 29 electoral votes, more than Wisconsin and Michigan combined.)
Bob Crew, a Florida State University political science professor and author of three books on Florida politics, said Democratic leaders shouldn’t write off the state.
“There is great enthusiasm to defeat Trump and the votes are there to do so. An all-out presidential campaign, including an aggressive ground game, can win in Florida,” said Crew.
Respected Democratic consultant Doug Sosnik said in a recent memo that there might be an easier path for Biden to get to the needed 270 electoral votes than just with the big three. The cleanest option he lays out is this one: win all the states Hillary Clinton did in 2016, flip Florida, the largest of all swing states, then just pick off any of the remaining six swing states you want.
“I am open to any path that gets us to 270,” said Addisu Demissie, who managed Democrat Cory Booker’s presidential campaign and worked on a Florida governor’s race in 2014. “Yes, Florida is complicated, hard, and expensive to win, but it definitely should not be taken off the map.”
Demographically, Florida residents are Biden’s people: skewing old and diverse. He beat Bernie Sanders there by 44 percent, his largest win at that point in any Democratic presidential primary. And since the coronavirus began dominating American life in mid-March, Biden has led all polls against Trump in Florida except one last month showing the contest tied. In the latest poll, from Florida Atlantic University, Biden was up 6 points. A recent Fox News poll had Biden up by 3 percent.
Yet a number of Democrats feel that Florida has become like Charlie Brown and the football, where a victory is always snatched away at the last minute. Barack Obama won the state twice, but Republicans have had a good run since.
In 2018, when Democrats were having a good year nationally, Republicans won an open seat for governor and defeated a Democratic US Senator who has basically served in public office for nearly 50 years. Republicans also won all other statewide offices except for agriculture commissioner, which narrowly went to a Democrat.
Even Alex Sink, a longtime Democratic donor in the state and one-time Democratic nominee for governor, said after the 2018 elections that Florida had slipped away. She declared it a red state.
But a number of important voices in the Democratic Party say that while Democrats are on a losing streak of late, the fact the contests were so close proves the state isn’t red but a swing state colored purple. In 2012, Obama won the state by less than 1 percent. In 2016, Trump defeated Clinton by only 1.2 percent.
“I just don’t understand people who say Florida is some kind of lost cause for Democrats,” said Steve Schale, a Florida-based Democratic strategist who ran the state for Obama and now heads up a national Super PAC for Biden. “Democrats only narrowly lost these major races and Biden is doing well here lately for reasons that just don’t go away. These are the same people from the Midwest who move here to retire.”
However, Trump’s reelection campaign points out it has a huge head start. In April, for example, Democrats claimed they made 430,000 calls in-state. During the same period, Trump’s campaign boasted supporters made 3.3 million calls.
“Unlike the broke DNC, we have long been investing in cutting edge technologies to run a modern campaign,” said Emma Vaughn, the Trump campaign’s Florida spokeswoman. “Thanks to our top-notch virtual ground game coupled with President Trump’s ‘Promises Made, Promises Kept’ agenda, Floridians are energized and ready to reelect President Trump and Republicans up and down the ballot come November.”
It’s not as if Florida has suddenly emerged on the campaigns’ radar. Trump held his first reelection rally in Tampa. Biden held his first general election “virtual event” aimed at Tampa and African-Americans in the Jacksonville area. Further proof of how Biden and Democrats are thinking about Florida: Representative Val Demings, from swing area Orlando, is rising in the veepstakes.
But what has changed is the urgency in which Democrats are now coming around to the idea that the path starts in the land of the hanging chad 20 years ago.
“We are Florida. It’s always going to be close,” said Jon Ausman, the longest-serving member of the Democratic National Committee in Florida history. “I understand the anxiety around the country about my state, but it is a place Democrats can win again.”