After Saturday’s Nevada caucus, there’s no question who the Democratic front runner is. Bernie Sanders won across the board: Men and women. Union and non-union workers. There are even signs that moderates and conservative Democrats broke his way. Vegas odds are now 7-to-10 that he’ll lock up the delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination for president.
And yet, with Florida’s presidential primary a little over three weeks away, the Vermont senator doesn’t have a physical presence in the state yet. At least, not in one of the ways it’s traditionally measured: field offices.
That also goes for former Vice President Joe Biden, ex-South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar. None of them have rented space in Florida to coordinate staff and volunteers.
Meanwhile, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has 14 offices across the state, from Tallahassee to Little Havana and in both St. Petersburg and Tampa, with plans to open six more in the coming days. It’s a demonstration of the billionaire’s deep, deep pockets and his campaign’s must-win approach to Florida after entering the race too late to qualify for the first four nominating contests.
The only other candidate with any real footprint here is Elizabeth Warren. The Massachusetts senator was the first to open a field office in the state and she now has two: in Orlando and Miami.
Without the unlimited resources of a Bloomberg, the campaigns just can’t afford to spend precious resources in Florida yet, said Scott Arceneaux, the former executive director of Florida’s Democratic Party. Though early voting here begins March 2 and more than 183,000 Democrats have already voted by mail, there are 16 states that will vote before Florida’s March 17 primary.
“It’s trench warfare right now,” Arceneaux said. “And they’re going trench by trench.”
If structural space equated to votes, Donald Trump wouldn’t have won the Republican nomination in 2016 and he definitely wouldn’t have defeated Hillary Clinton. His fly-by-night 2016 campaign had almost no physical infrastructure and he certainly wasn’t in an arms race with his GOP counterparts to see who could rent the most tables, phones and internet routers.
Until the focus shifts to Florida, the presidential campaigns will rely on other ingredients that are harder to measure — but are much more important — than square footage.
Sanders, for example, has been recruiting passionate volunteers since his last campaign for president. They have assembled in living rooms and bars, calling voters and making their presence felt at progressive and community events all over the state since 2016. This week, volunteers will door knock in Clearwater on Tuesday before gathering in St. Petersburg for a debate watch party. They’ll also canvass neighborhoods in St. Petersburg, Oldsmar and Dunedin throughout the week while also working on making calls.
A group from Tallahassee is carpooling to one of South Carolina’s counties with the highest concentration of black voters this weekend to help mobilize support for Sanders ahead of that state’s primary on Saturday, according to a volunteer page.
That mobilization of neighborhood activists is an example of how the Sanders campaign has built-in advantages over Bloomberg, who has an army of paid staff he has assembled on short notice.
“Our network of grassroots supporters has been organizing across the state of Florida since the senator kicked off his campaign last year," Sanders spokesman Kolby Lee said. “We have an unrivaled network of grassroots supporters and our dedicated volunteers have held 1,200 events across the state.”
Biden’s campaign has also downplayed its structure — or lack thereof ― in Florida. He has the goodwill from eight years as President Barack Obama’s No. 2 and he has more endorsements from current and former elected officials in Florida than any other candidate. Those politicians have vast networks that Biden can tap into.
Momentum and enthusiasm are likely much more important to Buttigieg, Warren and Klobuchar at this stage, all of whom are focused on coming out of Super Tuesday, if they survive that long, still viable. Whoever is left standing on March 4 will then turn their attention and resources to Florida, Arceneaux expects.
“Everyone would want to have field offices. It’s just not a luxury everyone can have,” he said. “If Super Tuesday doesn’t deal somebody a death blow or put somebody way ahead, then March 17 becomes the biggest day, and Florida has too many delegates to ignore.”