The buttoned-up Oxford Exchange coffee shop in downtown Tampa may seem like a place better suited for a fundraiser than a community event. Portraits of Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy line the wall up the staircase across from the popular café, where customers can feast on $10 avocado toast.
But Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum wasn't at Friday morning's Cafe Con Tampa meeting to ask for money. He was there to show the capacity crowd of about 100 that he is in the Democratic governor's race for keeps.
"There's always the question of viability," Gillum told the crowd as he wound down his brief, informal remarks and prepared to take almost an hour of questions from the crowd. "And I want you to know that we've got over 11 thousand — last I counted — individual contributors. We've got grassroots backing and support all across this state. And the reason why everybody else is going to need more money is because we've got more people, in my opinion."
That moment illustrated the central question of the Gillum campaign after eight months: Can a candidate who on paper might seem like he should be the darling of the Democratic base raise enough money to stay in the race long enough to make his case?
Gillum's campaign argues that voters are already responding to the candidate's ultra-progressive message. Staffers sent a memo to reporters Monday that highlighted Gillum's performance in two recent polls. One, an AIF survey, showed Gillum pulling 17 percent of likely primary voters, seven points back of former Congresswoman Gwen Graham. Another, a November St. Leo University poll, also had Gillum just behind Graham — although neither candidate cracked double digits in the poll.
In both polls the undecided voter reigned supreme: 44 percent of respondents in the AIF poll and 53 percent in the St. Leo University survey said they hadn't chosen a candidate. And with almost 9 months until the primary, voters aren't paying attention yet. Forty percent of AIF respondents couldn't name a Democratic candidate for governor.
Even if Gillum's polling momentum is real, his fundraising prospects are downright grim. In November — Gillum's worst fundraising month to date — the candidate raised about $51,000 less in monetary contributions than he spent between his campaign and political committee. (Gillum's new campaign director Brendan McPhillips said, "I got here on December 1st and I walked into a campaign that can and will win next year. Resources will follow ideas and a candidate who actually fires people up – not the other way around. You can't buy authenticity.")
Are his high poll numbers the real Gillum story? Or is it that his campaign is starved for cash? Will Florida progressives respond to Gillum's positions on universal healthcare, impeaching the president and climate change? If Gillum keeps burning through cash at this rate, we may never find out for sure.