ST. PETERSBURG — In a crammed living room on Friday night, Lisa Perry welcomed 18 men and women to the fight to capture the Democratic presidential nomination for Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Over fried chicken and eggplant parmesan in Perry’s home, they learned the app to use when a barista asks about their Warren tumbler. And the best way to call voters if they have a few free minutes. And the 5-digit number to text for help remembering Warren’s many plans.
“This is something we all have to invest in,” Perry, the volunteer community organizer, told the room over the pitter-patter of kids playing upstairs. “Invest in her the way she has in us.”
This is what the Democratic presidential primary looks and sounds like in Tampa Bay and Florida. It’s volunteers huddling up at a Seminole park before knocking on nearby doors. It’s deep-pocketed supporters gathering in a South Tampa home to pledge donations. It’s a few people meeting in a St. Petersburg bar to call voters in faraway states.
Compared to the large apparatuses getting all the attention in early nominating states like Iowa and New Hampshire, the campaign efforts so far in the nation’s largest battleground are minuscule. And they don’t come close to the massive, well-funded machine to reelect President Donald Trump. But the footprints for the Democratic candidates are growing here as their campaigns grapple with the likelihood that the nomination won’t be decided by the time Floridians cast ballots March 17.
It means Florida’s Democratic voters could be in a strange position: They might have a say in picking the party’s nominee. That hasn’t happened since 1992.
“This is new for Florida,” said Scott Arceneaux, former executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. “So I don’t think anybody knows what it’s going to take to win this.”
The candidates are employing strikingly different strategies to capture this large, diverse and populous state.
Of the front-runners, former Vice President Joe Biden and Warren have the most substantial campaign operations in Florida. Last year, Biden introduced an experienced Florida team that includes veterans of his past campaigns with President Barack Obama and endorsements of elected state Democrats.
In September, Warren unveiled a staff that was larger than what most other campaigns were committing to March primary states. Her campaign plucked from the ranks of activist organizations like Planned Parenthood, ACLU and the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. Many are assigned to minority communities.
The zealous backers of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders never really went away after 2016, but they are now supported by a better organized campaign than four years ago. Volunteers for former Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg are active as well.
Then there’s former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who made a late, splashy entrance into the race. The billionaire has promised to spend millions of his fortune in Florida before the primary and his campaign plans to open 20 offices across the state by the end of the month. He is already running 60-second television commercials. Despite entering the race in late November, he has easily outspent the rest of the field in Facebook ads targeting Floridians.
After failing to qualify in early nominating states, Bloomberg is betting big on states like Florida.
“Florida is crucial," Bloomberg spokesman Marc LaVorgna previously told the Tampa Bay Times. "It fits into both categories of delegate rich states not getting a lot of attention now while being a key battleground as well.”
In a drab back room at Harvey’s 4th Street Tavern, realtor Kimberly Crail bit into a potato skin alongside her fellow Sanders supporters: a recent University of South Florida graduate with an affinity for Marxist writings and a man who said he enjoyed falling down conspiratorial rabbit holes.
Crail’s first call wasn’t to a neighbor or even a Floridian. It was to someone named Ashley in Iowa.
No answer. On to Edith, also in Iowa. “Smile while you dial,” Crail’s training suggested. She struck up a cheerful conversation about Bernie Sanders with her new acquaintance.
“Who would you rank first, Bernie or Warren?" Crail, reading from a prompt, shouted into her headphone mic, over cheers from a child’s birthday party and someone ordering chicken nachos. “He’d be first? Ok. And are you undecided or pretty much leaning — undecided? Ok.”
Sanders’ operation is much more sophisticated than his previous campaign for presidents. In 2016, volunteers like Crail often operated independently. If they managed to link up with the campaign, they were making phone calls without much direction. Today, they have scripts for how to talk to prospective voters, and their phone calls are targeted to places where help is needed.
Right now, that’s Iowa, not Florida.
The Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3 are the first test that could separate the field, which explains all the attention it is getting.
“We need to call voters in the early states and let them know how much support is coming out of Florida,” Perry told her group of Warren volunteers. She outlined their plans to send 2,000 post cards to Iowa voters from Tampa Bay.
But Nate Silver, the guru behind the data-driven politics website fivethirtyeight.com, recently tweeted that March 17 is the fourth most important date on the primary calendar. It’s more critical than the early contests in New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, Silver said.
Florida shares the date with Ohio, Illinois and Arizona. At 248 delegates, the Sunshine State is the biggest prize of the day.
But Florida also holds a strategic if not symbolic significance, too. None of those other states carry the same weight in the general election. Demonstrating success here would be a convincing argument to carry into subsequent primaries or a contested convention, an unlikely but not impossible outcome.
The recipe for a Florida victory is almost entirely devoid of a vital ingredient: candidates. The last Democratic presidential contender to swing through Florida was Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota in mid-December. Before that, no one in the field had made a public appearance in the state since September.
“I think we’re just too low on the totem pole right now,” said Ione Townsend, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County Democratic Party.
The presidential contenders are ramping up activities here in other ways. A quick search of MobilizeAmerica, a website that tracks campaign volunteer events, yielded dozens of opportunities for people to meet up across Florida with other supporters for Warren, Sanders, Buttigieg and New York businessman Andrew Yang.
Latinos in South Florida could recently meet with Warren’s community organizer in Miami and there are 12 opportunities to canvass for her in Tallahassee over the next month. Almost every night, there are phone banks in Florida cities large and small to make calls on behalf of Sanders. There are ample opportunities to join the Yang Gang.
In addition to “Pete-Ups" where Buttigieg supporters can meet and strategize, the campaign also encourages his backers to make their presence known locally by volunteering. This week they’re teaming up with local nonprofit Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful to clean up River Tower Park.
There are few events, though, for Klobuchar, who is heavily invested in Iowa, or for New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, whose campaign is struggling to pull in resources to remain viable. Klobuchar’s campaign spokesman C.J. Warnke didn’t deny the campaign isn’t as active here, but he said the Minnesotan’s strong debate performance last month would soon translate to a larger presence.
“Our team is seeing a major upswing in momentum, including in Florida, where we plan to continue ramping up operations in the state,” Warnke said.
Nor are there many events registered for Biden. His campaign said not to read too much into that.
“We have a candidate that Floridians know because he’s been on the ballot before and has delivered on issues very critical to the state, like the Affordable Care Act,” said Biden spokesman Kevin Munoz.
Biden’s supporters in October gathered at the South Tampa waterfront home of state Sen. Janet Cruz for a fundraiser featuring Jill Biden. They munched on a spread of grapes, nuts and exotic cheeses and sipped white wine while they waited for the vice president’s wife to arrive.
Cruz’s daughter, Democratic strategist Ana Cruz, remarked on the new faces in her mother’s home since the last presidential campaign.
“Many of you have been here for fundraisers in the past and many of you haven’t,” Cruz told the guests. “It shows a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of diversity and a lot of support for the man we know can and will and is ready to lead our country."
Biden is the front-runner in Florida and the only candidate that would beat Trump head-to-head here if the election were today, according to the most recent poll. His campaign credits this to Biden’s popularity among the state’s Democrats and the well-known current and former elected leaders who have endorsed the former vice president and lent their political machines to his campaign.
But party activists are starting to notice the lack of Biden backers at local events. Though the Biden campaign flexed big-time support at last year’s state party convention, hints of it are invisible at the monthly gatherings of some of the state’s largest local Democratic Party chapters.
Miami-Dade County Democratic Party Chair Steve Simeonidis said Yang’s supporters have been speaking at their meetings for a year, but Biden’s surrogates haven’t shown up once. Townsend said people representing Warren, Buttigieg and Sanders have spoken to Hillsborough Democrats, but Biden’s team hasn’t yet.
“We have a pool of folks to tap into for candidates to make their pitches, not for funds, but for the volunteers," Simeonidis said, “which are going to be far more important than dollar donations.”
Tell that to Bloomberg, who Democrats have accused of trying to buy the nomination. He says he is the only candidate who has the bankroll to target Trump now with general election ads in swing states like Florida.
Arceneaux, the former state party leader, said he understands why the rest of the field isn’t focusing more attention on Florida yet.
“It’s like the NFL playoffs,” Arceneaux said. “You have to win the first game to get to the next game.”