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It’s the pandemic, stupid: Florida election comes down to COVID-19, strategists say

A recent AARP poll of Florida voters ages 50 and older conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group indicates that 25 percent of them know someone who has died from COVID-19.

Democrats, buoyed by gains in the 2018 elections, at one point saw the future of Obamacare — with health coverage for millions of Floridians at stake — as a driving issue in this year’s campaigns.

But with less than two weeks left before the Nov. 3 general election, Republican and Democratic strategists say the election isn’t about broad policy issues like health care, the environment, gun control or immigration.

Instead it’s about fighting the coronavirus, which means different things for different Florida voters based on their political affiliations, ages and livelihoods.

That poses a challenge for Republicans — especially since President Donald Trump has in many ways tried to downplay the impact of COVID-19, which has killed more than 200,000 people in the United States. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has countered Trump with persistent criticism over his handling of the virus. Recent polls have shown Biden with a narrow edge in Florida, but within the margin of error.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, appearing Wednesday on Fox News, insisted that most people are not blaming Trump.

“The vast majority of people understand the president didn’t create this virus, the president didn’t bring this virus to America,” Rubio, R-Fla., said on the show Fox and Friends.

The net result of the back-and-forth, said Tallahassee-based political strategist Ryan Tyson, is that fighting the coronavirus is now “hyper, hyper partisan.”

“When it comes to the singularly most important issue, it’s extremely partisan. Everything that people are acting on is for partisan purposes is how it appears to me,” he said.

Tyson, owner of The Tyson Group, has recent polling data indicating that 33 percent of voters identified fighting the coronavirus as a top priority. That’s in line with a recent Florida Chamber of Commerce poll from early October that found the biggest issue voters wanted addressed by the governor and Legislature was COVID-19.

Tyson, however, said there’s no clear-cut indication of what exactly that means, though the surveys showed that the handling of COVID-19 also has created an age divide among Florida voters.

“What’s interesting is, it’s different for different age groups and for different people’s health care needs,” Tyson said.

He said people under age 50 are largely supportive of children returning to school amid the pandemic. Also, if people are economically impacted by the pandemic or cannot work from home, they are supportive of reopening of the economy as promoted by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“If you are someone who is younger, you really don’t see what the big deal is,” Tyson said. “The majority of the people they know who have this would have had flu-like symptoms.The way this virus has made its way through their friends and whatnot hasn’t been the killer they were told it would be. … It’s created a political disequilibrium, that’s the best way to describe it.”

Longtime political analyst Susan MacManus agreed that how people view COVID-19 is based on experiences that can differ with age.

“If you have a loved one that’s passed away, you have a different issue than a young person who got diagnosed and felt bad for a couple of days,” MacManus said. “A lot of this depends on your life circumstances and the people around you that you love and care about.”

A professor emeritus at the University of South Florida, MacManus also said the 2020 election is “the biggest generational divide we’ve ever witnessed in a political environment, and it’s really deep here in Florida.”

A recent AARP poll of Florida voters ages 50 and older conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group indicates that 25 percent of them know someone who has died from COVID-19.

Florida has had more than 760,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 16,000 deaths since the pandemic began, with most of the deaths involving seniors. State and national data indicate that the virus also disproportionately affects Hispanics and Blacks.

Steve Schale, a Tallahassee-based Democratic strategist with the pro-Biden PAC called Unite the Country, said his group has targeted political advertising in Florida to communities hit hard by the virus.

COVID-19 has the potential of causing long-term problems with people’s lungs or hearts, essentially leaving them with pre-existing conditions. The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to hear a challenge to Obamacare, more formally known as the Affordable Care Act. If the challenge, supported by the Trump administration, is successful, protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions that are included in the law will be repealed.

Schale argued that is one reason Trump has insisted he will protect people with pre-existing conditions, though the president has not produced a comprehensive health-care proposal during his four years in office.

“I would argue one of the reasons why President Trump found Jesus on pre-existing conditions is how much he’s struggling with suburban women,” Schale said. “If it weren’t an issue with the voters, he wouldn’t be talking about it.”

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