Florida Democrats confident at halfway point as Andrew Gillum rides high in the polls

Andrew Gillum knows it’s one thing to be ahead in the polls and another to win on election day.
Gillum (left) and DeSantis (right).
Gillum (left) and DeSantis (right).
Published Sept. 30, 2018|Updated Sept. 30, 2018

Ahead in the polls, a confident Andrew Gillum predicted victory in the Florida governor's race Saturday night during a soiree at The Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables.

"We're gonna flip this country blue in 2018 and it's gonna start right here," Gillum, the 39-year-old mayor of Tallahassee, said confidently during a gala for the Miami-Dade Democratic Party. "We've got the firepower, energy and momentum to get this thing done."

Gillum had good reason to feel good.

For all the questions following Gillum's nomination of whether a right-leaning swing state would embrace a staunchly liberal candidate, every poll that has gauged the temperature of the race over the first month of the campaign has found him ahead of Republican nominee Ron DeSantis. Particularly notable, two polls released last week showed Gillum ahead by double digits with independents, a crucial voting bloc in a state where the governor's race is often decided by a point or less.

Read more: Pulling away? Andrew Gillum leads Ron DeSantis by nine points in latest poll

Read more: Poll: Andrew Gillum leads DeSantis by 4, Rick Scott and Bill Nelson tied

While Florida Democrats have recently courted centrist candidates for governor and lost, Gillum argued during his primary campaign that the path back from the wilderness in Florida for Florida Democrats lay through an unabashedly progressive agenda that would speak to disenfranchised voters. The first black major party gubernatorial nominee in the state's history has campaigned on a $15 minimum wage, repealing the stand-your-ground law, expanding Medicaid and boosting education spending by hiking the corporate tax rate by 40 percent.

And so far, Florida voters appear to be responding, although Gillum knows it's one thing to be ahead in the polls and another to win on election day. There wasn't a single independent poll that found Gillum, who stunned even himself by winning the Aug. 28 Democratic primary, ahead in the race.

"He's following the winning model for Democrats: break even among men, dominate among women and win the independents," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, which had Gillum up 16 among independent voters last week.

In a state that has consistently elected Republicans in statewide elections, DeSantis has tried to cast Gillum as a socialist — a characterization Gillum called "reckless" Saturday — and warned that his policies would wreck a humming economy. Speaking to the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce Friday at the Hilton Miami Downtown, DeSantis drew applause when he said he's "the only candidate running for governor who's an unabashed capitalist."

"Florida has recognized that being a low-tax state is central to our economic success," said DeSantis, a former north Florida congressman. "What you don't want to do is say the first thing you're going to do when you get into office is raise taxes by 40 percent. That is not going to continue our economic momentum. That's basically telling people who are thinking about relocating to Florida to think twice."

Read more: Four questions you need answered about Andrew Gillum's corporate tax plan

Gillum has also had some hiccups, including the firing this week of a recently hired youth outreach director after a blogger unearthed old offensive tweets.

Read more: Gillum campaign fires staffer who wore explicit anti-Trump shirt after offensive tweets surface

But DeSantis has some factors working against him.

He's been fighting off charges of racism ever since the first day of the campaign when he said voters would "monkey this up" by adopting Gillum's economic policies, and is inextricably tied to President Donald Trump, whose abrasive politics appears to be motivating Democrats to turn out at the polls. Tom Steyer, a billionaire Democratic hedge fund manager who's pushing $5.2 million into the Florida elections, said in an interview Saturday that most the 400,000 people in Florida who've signed his impeachment petition "don't normally vote in a mid-term."

"It is true that we support Andrew because he's a positive person and talks about the most important issues frankly and thoughtfully," said Steyer, who later called the Florida governor's race the most important in the country as he introduced Gillum to the crowd Saturday night. "But it's also true that in any mid-term election it's also a referendum on the administration."

Steyer and Michelle Obama are among the big Democratic party names rallying voters, in particular left-leaning young voters, to register and vote in South Florida. Meanwhile, Gillum, who ends most his public appearances by snapping selfies with supporters, is drawing enthusiastic crowds, and had to slip out the back of a Calle Ocho club Friday night to avoid the crush of fans.

On Saturday, Miami-based Republican pundit Ana Navarro compared DeSantis' campaign to "a hand-me-down scooter versus [Gillum's] little red corvette" after viewing pictures of a crowded Gillum event in Delray Beach and a seemingly sparsely attended DeSantis event in Kissimmee.

But Gillum knows that even the best polls only capture where the race stands, and now where it will be on election day.

"I know what the polls say. They all got us up," he said Saturday. "Let me disavow you of this. The only poll that matters is the one on election day."

Brown, the Quinnipiac pollster, said it's clear that Gillum has a lead, but no one knows if he can hold it.

"I'm not suggesting he won't," Brown said. "I'm suggesting we've still got close to six weeks until the election."