To win Florida’s governor’s race, Andrew Gillum needed Democrats to do what they never do in midterm elections — turn out in big numbers — and Republicans not to do what they usually do — turn out in big numbers.
The Democrats succeeded at the first part and, thanks largely to President Donald Trump, wound up sorely disappointed in the second. In the last week, Trump held two campaign rallies in the Republican strongholds of northwest and southwest Florida, which played a key role in spiking GOP turnout in an already nationalized state election and lifting Ron DeSantis to victory.
“This was a a base election on both sides, and the president is a very big motivator,” said Susie Wiles, the senior campaign adviser for the DeSantis campaign. “The fact that he was willing to come two times made a big difference.”
More than 8.2 million voters cast ballots — 62 percent of all registered voters — in an election where up until a few months ago most political professionals doubted 7 million would show up.
Not since the late Gov. Lawton Chiles barely held off a challenge from Jeb Bush in 1994 has Florida seen such strong turnout in a non-presidential election.
Democrats won that battle, and ever since, the conventional wisdom has held that the stronger the turnout, the better Democrats fare.
This year, however, Republican turnout surged along with the Democrats’. What’s more, the biggest Democratic stronghold counties of Broward and Miami-Dade failed to deliver nearly as many votes as they have.
The liberal Tallahassee mayor crushed DeSantis by 60 percent or more in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Osceola counties, and turnout jumped by more than 11 percentage points in those counties compared to the 2014 midterm.
Unfortunately for Gillum, those voters still cast votes at a lower rate than the state as a whole. Each of those counties had among the 10 lowest turnout rates among Florida’s 67 counties.
Republicans Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis, running for U.S. Senate and Florida Governor, won the same 54 counties in Tuesday’s election. While both claimed victory that night, the Senate race appeared poised for a recount. [LANGSTON TAYLOR | Tampa Bay Times]
Republican areas, like usual, turned out more. DeSantis won 26 of the top 30 counties by turnout. He kept it close in Pinellas, the most populous of those 30, which former President Barack Obama won in 2008 and 2012 and Trump in 2016.
The 10 counties with the highest turnout were all Republican strongholds, including Sumter County, home to the vast retirement Community The Villages, where Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis both won 70 percent of the vote.
Florida’s electoral map, like America’s, is overwhelmingly red, even in nearly tied elections. Gilllum and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson won 13 of 67 counties, including Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties. Outside of Florida’s urban centers, Republicans dominated.
Steve Schale, a longtime Democratic strategist, recounted talking to a reporter 14 years ago about Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Betty Castor’s narrow loss to Republican Mel Martinez. His 2004 quote about Florida Democrats, he said, holds true today:
“We cannot win the state of Florida if we continue hemorrhaging those kinds of margins in red counties,” Schale said.
Exit polls showed that Gillum won more than six in 10 voters under the age of 45, but those accounted for just 25 percent of the electorate. DeSantis won 54 percent of the vote among older Floridians making up three quarters of the electorate.
The exit polls found that DeSantis won 60 percent of the white vote and 14 percent of the black vote against Florida’s first African-American nominee for governor. Several Republican-leaning independent groups worked to win over black voters who disagree with Gillum’s criticism of private school vouchers.
Wiles said a big question mark concerned how many independent voters would turn out and if they would break for any particular candidate. In the end, they did not tilt the race to Gillum like polls suggested they would.
But Democrats should stop short of blaming their candidate in coming up short.
“He and his campaign were as good as anybody I’ve seen,” Wiles said of Gillum.