In one year, millions of Floridians will decide whether President Donald Trump deserves four more years in office or if it’s time for a change.
Trump has few paths to victory without the Sunshine State. Democrats would love to end his election night early, but they can also secure a win through the Midwest.
The highest midterm turnout in a century helped Democrats pull in big wins across the country last year — though not in Florida. With Trump on the ballot in 2020, both sides are expecting near-record turnout as a motivated opposition meets the president’s energetic fan base.
Here’s what to watch in Florida over the next 365 days as the campaign marches toward another inevitably narrow finish.
1. Hispanic and Latino voters
There was a historic jump in midterm turnout across all major ethnic groups in 2018 — especially among Latinos.
Outside Florida, this surge in Latino participation helped fuel the so-called blue wave, with 7 in 10 voting Democrat, according to CNN exit polls. But here, the Democratic edge was much slimmer: 54 percent of Latinos went for Democrat Bill Nelson in the U.S. Senate race versus 45 percent for Republican Rick Scott.
Scott won. And in a race decided by 10,000 votes, that made all the difference.
Heading into the 2020 election, Florida’s Hispanics are the state’s fastest-growing demographic and both parties believe many of their votes are up in the air. Hispanics are more likely to register as a no-party affiliation voter rather than as Democrats or Republicans.
“The maddening and thrilling thing about Florida statewide elections is how close they are, so every voter demographic group can be the decisive one,” said Fernand Amandi, a Democratic pollster and expert on Hispanic voting trends. “Republicans have mastered the margins in Florida.”
How did they do it? Scott spoke Spanish on the campaign trail, spent millions to air Spanish-language ads during the World Cup and made frequent visits to Puerto Rico to help with storm recovery. He criticized Trump, a friend, for disparaging Hurricane Maria victims on the island, while labeling any Democrat — even a moderate like Nelson — as a socialist in the mold of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro.
Meanwhile, Democrats expected Latino voters couldn’t possibly support the party of a president who pushed draconian immigration policies, labeled Mexicans as “rapists” and tossed paper towels at Puerto Rican hurricane survivors. By the time they realized they were wrong, it was too late.
“We know we can’t show up in communities two months before the election and expect them to vote for our candidates,” Florida Democratic Party executive director Terrie Rizzo said Friday.
For 2020, Democrats have hired 91 staffers, many of them bilingual, to engage with Latino voters. They now have a Spanish-language radio program and trained surrogates who can speak on Spanish media outlets. They are also optimistic that Hurricane Maria victims who relocated to Central Florida have settled into their communities and are more likely to vote than they were last year.
Trump has continued to build on the inroads Scott made. His campaign launched a national Hispanic outreach effort in Florida. On Twitter, he has appealed to Puerto Ricans frustrated by corrupt island politicians. Urged by Sen. Marco Rubio, Trump was quick to speak out against Maduro, endearing him to Cubans and Venezuelans who closely support a hard line against oppressive governments.
The Trump campaign also is betting the improved economy will be a net gain across all demographics.
Trump is “the best friend that Latino and Hispanic businesses have ever had in the White House," Vice President Mike Pence recently said in Orlando.
2. Amendment 4 fallout
The fate of hundreds of thousands of potential voters remains unsettled.
In response to Amendment 4, Republican lawmakers and Gov. Ron DeSantis decided felons would have to pay fines, fees and restitution to get back their voting rights. By one estimate, it shrunk the pool of eligible new voters from more than 1 million to about 300,000. The courts have since intervened, and some changes are likely.
It’s too early to say how many previously disenfranchised people would vote, or how many will even register. But since Amendment 4 passed, black men are registering to vote at a faster rate than they were before. The previous system disproportionately affected them more than any other demographic.
“You love something a little more when you lose it," said Neil Volz with the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, “and we anticipate a lot of returning residents to take that view.”
The march toward an impeachment vote now appears inevitable, creating an unprecedented situation of a sitting president facing a congressional probe and re-election.
Of all the potential outcomes — from the House failing to muster the votes to Pence replacing Trump on the 2020 ticket — the most likely scenario ends with Trump escaping impeachment thanks to the Republican-led Senate.
How damaging will the impeachment hearings be — and who will take the hit?
Public sentiment has changed in the wake of the Ukraine scandal. Americans, overwhelmingly against impeachment just a few months ago, are now divided, and most believe the president has acted out of line.
In the battleground states that will determine the election, impeachment remains a polarizing topic. In Florida, voters are split and few are undecided — just 5 percent, according to a recent University of North Florida survey.
The Trump campaign believes it has the public on its side. “This stunt will backfire,” Trump daughter-in-law and campaign surrogate Lara Trump said last week. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign aired its first TV ad, a seven-figure commercial that ran during Game 7 of the World Series and focused on his difference in style.
“He’s no Mr. Nice Guy,” the narrator says, "but sometimes it takes a Donald Trump to change Washington.”
As long as Republicans stick with Trump, that strategy could prove effective. On Thursday, House Republicans were united in voting against a resolution to formalize the impeachment process.
But one Florida Republican remains open to impeachment: Rep. Francis Rooney of Naples. In a recent interview, Rooney said, “using the power and prestige of our country to bring pressure on a foreign government to deal with political activities, not American security interest activities, is bothersome to me. And it’s a big deal.”
If Rooney suddenly turns impeachment into a bipartisan endeavor, it could change everything.
4. Who is the Democratic nominee
Floridians will weigh in on the Democratic field on March 17 — the 24th state to vote on the most diverse field of candidates ever put forward by a major party.
By then, one candidate may have swept Iowa and New Hampshire and secured the nomination, like John Kerry in 2004. Or, Florida and its 248 delegates could put someone over the top, as it did for Trump in 2016. Maybe the night will be inconclusive, pushing Democrats toward an unprecedented convention floor war.
Whoever it is, the Florida Democratic Party vows to turn over a much more robust campaign apparatus than it did for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Democrats "never had a campaign this early and without a candidate,” Rizzo said.
So far Democrats have struggled to articulate what they want in a candidate, other than someone who can beat Trump. But what that means looks different to a lot of people.
A recent survey of Iowans found deep divisions among Democrats on whether they want a nominee who can return Washington “back to normal,” as Joe Biden has promised, or someone pushing fundamental change, like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. About 85 percent of people under the age of 30 wanted fundamental change; while most senior citizens wanted a return to normalcy.
Amandi, the Democratic pollster, is worried that fight could derail the main objective.
“The 2020 election is a referendum on Donald Trump. Period,” Amandi said. “And if Democrats don’t allow that to be what the election is about, then they almost deserve to lose.”
5. Election security and Russian interference
Facebook has already removed fake accounts originating from Russia and Iran. Meanwhile, recent elections in Africa appear to have been influenced by social media campaigns started in Sochi in what some worry is a warmup act for 2020.
Florida should watch these developments closely. It’s here that Russians penetrated up to four supervisor of elections offices, according to a Senate intelligence report. And it’s where fake groups started by foreign accounts instigated a pro-Trump rally featuring a Clinton impersonator in a cage.
The state’s elections systems are under “daily” attack, Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee said last week. Though she added Florida and its 67 county elections offices have spent millions beefing up security, diagnosing vulnerabilities and replacing outdated systems. Rubio, who previously suggested Florida elections leaders had their heads in the sand, has now worked with them to secure money for more fixes.
Still, the threat is out there, and it may not be as sophisticated as hackers breaking into an elections office.
“All you need is a computer and some shrewd, smart, social engineering-type people to get inside the heads of the Americans," said Larry Keefe, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Florida, “and you can wreak havoc on a free and open society.”
Times/Herald staff writers Langston Taylor and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.