Former Vice President Joe Biden is in the lead. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is not far behind. Ex-New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg is out. And a contested convention is a real possibility.
Nothing was decided after 14 Super Tuesday states and one U.S. territory went to the polls, but one thing is almost certain: Florida Democrats are going to have a big say in who their nominee is for president.
The Sunshine State is one of the biggest prizes remaining in this too-close-to-call Democratic primary, with 219 delegates up for grabs on March 17. Only New York, which doesn’t vote until late-April, has more delegates to be won.
Florida has rarely played kingmaker in presidential nominating contests, but the race appears headed toward a dragged out, state-by-state fight for delegates that will end in a convention where neither candidate has secured the nomination with pledged delegates alone. A decisive win here could put Biden, at 566 delegates as of Wednesday, out of reach — or help Sanders, who is currently 65 delegates behind, play catchup.
Prior to Super Tuesday, neither front-runner devoted much time or resources to Florida. They didn’t have any campaign offices here, weren’t running television ads and hadn’t campaigned in the state since the calendar turned to 2020. That’s changing.
Biden announced he would send his top surrogate, his wife Jill, to campaign in Orlando and Miami later this week. Sanders does not yet have travel planned for Florida, but his campaign said Sunday it would begin running television ads in the state after raising $46 million in February.
The ad popped up on television Wednesday morning. It features former President Barack Obama and is eerily similar to the one that Bloomberg aired for months that confused some voters by implying that the country’s first black president had endorsed the billionaire businessman.
“Bernie is somebody who has the virtue of saying exactly what he believes,” Obama says in footage used by the ad. “Great authenticity, great passion, and is fearless.”
Obama has not backed a candidate in the race, but many of his former aides and advisers have aligned with the 44th president’s two-time running-mate: Biden. Meanwhile, Sanders has frequently maligned establishment Democrats, making his embrace of Obama on Florida airwaves a surprising twist in the race.
Next week, one of the country’s most powerful labor groups, the AFL-CIO, will host a candidate forum in Orlando, bringing the Biden-Sanders fight for union households to a Republican-run state with anti-union policies. Biden has warned that Sanders’ Medicare-for-All plan would end the health insurance plans unions successfully bargained for, though that didn’t stop Sanders from winning a majority of the union vote in Nevada.
Biden’s tide-turning Super Tuesday performance neutralized one potential wild card in Florida: Mike Bloomberg. The billionaire dipped into his vast wealth to blanket the Florida airwaves with ads, hire dozens of field staff and open 20 offices across the state. And when Biden looked to be floundering, Bloomberg also convinced establishment Democrats, like ex-Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn and former state Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, to support his campaign.
But Bloomberg dropped out of the race after an underwhelming finish Tuesday and he endorsed Biden on Wednesday morning. By the afternoon, Bloomberg’s St. Petersburg field office on Central Avenue was mostly empty. Tissue boxes and Clorox wipes were scattered over folding tables and boxes of LaCroix sparkling water and Ring Pops were near the entrance while scavengers picked over keepsakes. A lone field worker declined to speak with a reporter and didn’t have a business card — the office hadn’t been open long enough, she said.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has also put resources into the state and had a well-organized volunteer team and two field offices long before any other candidates arrived. But the future is uncertain for Warren, who has only managed to win 61 delegates.
More than 374,000 Democrats have voted early or by mail in Florida, and almost one-third of all mail-in-ballots have already arrived in county election offices. That might not be a good sign for Biden. In Super Tuesday states, Bloomberg fared better and Biden slightly worse among early voters, signaling some Democrats likely cast ballots before Bloomberg’s poor debate showing and Biden’s South Carolina surge.
There are also likely plenty of ballots turned in for candidates no longer in the race, including ex-South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who dropped out and endorsed Biden.
Florida shares its primary date with three other states: Illinois, Ohio and Arizona. Those states have sizable delegate counts, too, making March 17 a critical slate for the remaining candidates. Six states will also be voting Tuesday, but only one of those states, Michigan, will award even half as many delegates as Florida.
Biden enters this stretch with significant momentum after winning primaries in South Carolina and in most Super Tuesday states, including a sweep of the south and taking two states Sanders won in 2016: Oklahoma and Minnesota. He surprised by also taking Texas, where it might take weeks to divvy up the delegates between Biden and Sanders.
Florida Political Insiders, the state’s top politicos regularly polled by the Tampa Bay Times, predicted last month that Biden would win the nomination and he has long been their favorite to take Florida. The limited number of polls in Florida have consistently shown Biden with a lead here, though primary voters have flirted with Bloomberg too.
Biden’s support in Florida continued to grow Wednesday. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, the Tampa Democrat and the chairwoman of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, endorsed Biden, the Times reported.
Ahead of the South Carolina contest, Biden Super PAC strategist Steve Schale said Florida’s diversity bodes well for Biden, the resounding choice of most black voters so far. But Schale ultimately expected Democratic voters here to follow wherever the momentum of the race was headed after Super Tuesday.
“We are very much alive,” Biden said at a campaign rally in California. “And make no mistake about it, this campaign will send Donald Trump packing. This campaign is taking off.”
Sanders, meanwhile, carried the largest state on Super Tuesday, California, giving his campaign the delegates it needs to remain within reach of Biden. He also won Colorado, Utah and his home state of Vermont.
“I am excited about where we are,” Sanders told his supporters in Vermont. “We have come a long, long way.”
Times reporter Kavitha Surana contributed to this report.