TALLAHASSEE — Two months ago, Andrew Gillum's unconventional path to the Democratic nomination for governor of Florida benefited from a fortuitous gamble: that enough African-American, young and progressive voters would buy in to his unapologetically ideological campaign to eke out a win over the type of moderate candidates nominated in years past.
He prevailed — and now the Tallahassee mayor, aided by a windfall of national dollars and Democratic star power, is banking the strategy underlying his upset primary win might yield a back-to-back victory by boosting voter turnout enough to win the governorship outright.
But whether it succeeds depends on how many voters heed his call to turn out to the polls. President Donald Trump is returning to Florida to campaign twice for Gillum's Republican rival, Ron DeSantis, and the long-simmering FBI investigation in Tallahassee has dogged headlines in the final fortnight before Election Day. The election in Florida is turning into the simplest of numbers games: who can get more of their own voters to turn out?
Though polls have consistently showed Gillum with a narrow lead, often within the margin of error, the mayor has said on the stump he isn't taking it for granted. He is focusing much of his final push on boosting the youth and minority vote in an election that — should it mirror those of recent cycles — is likely to come down to a margin of 1 percent or less.
"This is important because I consider you all a part of the start of the cavalry," he told college-aged voters in Tallahassee last Friday as he kicked off his final campaign bus tour. "That means you all are standing in the spaces leading the way that your classmates are going to follow."
It's a message he's repeating in Gainesville, in Miami, in New Port Richey, Fort Myers and the rest of the state. Gillum hopes to capture the Orlando area and put up a fight in heavily African-American Duval County, where Jacksonville is the focal point. And it's all anchored by votes in the liberal haven of South Florida. DeSantis, on the other hand, is campaigning with the president's backing and banking that the state's Republican tilt of the recent decades will be enough to course-correct Gillum's much-vaunted "surge."
Gillum is not repeating the early vote call alone. His reinforcements include former President Barack Obama, who is to campaign with him in South Florida on Friday, and Joe Biden, who has already barnstormed a handful of rallies on Gillum's behalf. A who's who of national Democrats, including U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California and former Attorney General Eric Holder, have also lent their time on the trail.
Gillum's campaign and associated groups have reinvested heavily in the same triad of voters that anchored his primary win, using millions in digital ads and campaign events in small communities across the state to try and reach voters who historically have been less likely to turn out. Even in red areas where Democrats have regularly ceded ground, Gillum has said that he hopes he "can lose them less."
The encouragement is necessary. By Thursday's end, about 4.1 million Floridians had voted in person or absentee — record numbers for a midterm election — though Republicans had a narrow lead in turnout over Democrats, as they have had in years past. The state's voter rolls include more registered Democrats than Republicans, though the latter have consistently turned out in higher numbers in recent elections.
But Gillum cast the narrowing gap — smaller than it has been in past midterm elections — as good news for the Democratic ticket in an interview with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Monday night.
"We're usually double digits behind in early vote and absentee vote at this juncture," he said, adding that he expects they may close the gap by Election Day. "The one who wins is the one who gets one more vote, and that vote may come from anywhere throughout the length and breadth of my state."
Among the wild cards may also be the state's vast segment of no-party-affiliation voters, who are unrepresented in the state's closed primaries but make up more than a quarter of the state's voting population.
It's those voters who may not be consistent party voters that Gillum's campaign is also hoping to reach. On the Monday evening of the last full week of the campaign, his wife R. Jai — herself familiar with student politics when the couple attended FAMU — appeared in a campaign Facebook video "tagging" five other people (including her husband) to "vote it forward by challenging five more people" — echoing the "Arrive With Five" campaign strategy that had helped Gillum win election to Tallahassee City Commission early in his political career.
"I am voting it forward because this is the most important election of our lifetimes," she said.