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Will Donald Trump or Joe Biden win Florida? Here’s how either could do it

Trump has voters giving him high marks for the economy and a stellar ground game. Biden has Trump fatigue in polls and a killer air attack.
Three reasons why Joe Biden wins Florida and three reasons why Donald Trump wins Florida.
Three reasons why Joe Biden wins Florida and three reasons why Donald Trump wins Florida. [ Photo illustration by RON BORRESEN | Times ]
Published Oct. 29, 2020
Updated Oct. 29, 2020

Twenty years after the late NBC political reporter Tim Russert famously predicted that “Florida, Florida, Florida” would decide the 2000 election, the Sunshine State remains the most coveted Election Night prize. And it’s just as divided as it was at the turn of the millennium.

Who will win Florida’s 29 Electoral College votes, the Republican, President Donald Trump, or his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden? Polls, at this stage, give a slight edge to Biden, though most are within the margin of error. Trump has few paths to victory without Florida. Biden has other routes but would love to deliver a first-round blow to the president.

What will make the difference in a state where elections are typically decided by 1 percent of the vote? Here are three reasons why Biden ends up on top and three that explain a Trump victory.

Joe Biden wins Florida because...

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Mountain Top Inn & Resort, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, in Warm Springs, Ga. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at Mountain Top Inn & Resort, Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, in Warm Springs, Ga. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) [ ANDREW HARNIK | AP ]

The silent middle is sick (and tired of Trump)

The myth of Trump’s silent majority died long ago. His supporters, draped in MAGA merch and fiercely loyal, announce their allegiance with the subtly of an air horn. The loudest, most energetic base in the history of modern American politics cannot claim to be camera shy.

Polls indicate, however, that the less vocal members of the coalition behind Trump’s 2016 win are quietly shifting toward Biden. Trump’s actions, once considered a political strength, have grown increasingly tiresome to a majority of Floridians, including potential swing voters, polls say. Seven in 10 self-described moderates said in a CBS-You Gov survey that they dislike the way Trump handles himself. About as many said they don’t find him truthful.

Biden has capitalized on that discontent by running on a campaign to unify the country — a “president for all Americans,” as Brad Pitt said in a recent commercial. Polls suggest it may be working. In parts of the state Trump won four years, the president is struggling to maintain support among women, college graduates and older voters.

“A lot of those are registered Republicans who say they’re going to vote for Biden,” said Matt Florell, the pollster behind St. Pete Polls. “We didn’t see anything like that four years ago. This is a pretty big change.”

Trump’s handling of a once-in-a-century pandemic has further strained his relationship with voters here. Florida is approaching 800,000 cases and 17,000 deaths from the coronavirus. Though Trump insisted at the last debate that Americans are “learning to live with it,” many of the state’s seniors do not feel that way. Trump’s lead among voters over 65 is shrinking. According to a recent CNN poll, 54 percent of seniors said Biden would have tackled the coronavirus better.

“What do you do if you lost a good friend or a spouse to COVID or you’ve been locked in your house for six months?” said Michael Binder, a pollster at University of North Florida. “Biden doesn’t need them all to go one way, you just need 10 percent to switch and that’s the election.”

Trump still enjoys a more enthusiastic base than Biden. More Biden voters said they were casting a ballot “mainly to oppose Donald Trump” than because they like Biden, they told CBS-You Gov.

In a different year, that could’ve spelled trouble for Biden. But most polls show a highly motivated electorate. Ninety-nine percent of respondents told CBS-You Gov they were going to vote or already have.

Democrats shift to vote by mail worked

When the coronavirus arrived in Florida, the state Democratic Party stopped registering voters and instead intensified efforts to get existing voters to request mail-in ballots. Trump’s subsequent summer-long attack on mail-in ballots complicated a longstanding Republican reliance on the popular method.

By the time registration closed, more Democrats than Republicans signaled they wanted to vote via postal service, a first in Florida. Early returns give Democrats reason to be optimistic: More Floridians have already voted by mail than in all of 2016. A week before the election, 615,000 more Democratic ballots have arrived than Republicans.

But every day, Republicans have narrowed the gap, and they’re voting in-person at a higher clip. More than 850,000 Democratic ballots also have yet to be returned, and it’s nearing the point where votes sent by mail may not arrive in time to be counted.

Skeptics think Democrats merely changed how their voters cast ballots. But Michael McDonald, a University of Florida expert on voting, said: “This isn’t just a shifting of people voting, more people are voting as well.”

At the same time, McDonald said the party breakdown “looks similar to past elections in terms of overall early vote.” Meaning? “It doesn’t look like it’s going to be a blowout election for Biden. It’s going to be close.”

Florida is a TV state, and Biden won the air war

Republicans have a long track record of winning close elections here. Trump is more popular in his home state than in other battleground states. Swing voters nationwide turned away from Trump during the 2018 midterm elections, while Floridians put the president’s handpicked candidate, Ron DeSantis, in the governor’s mansion. Some suggested Biden should spend his money in less-expensive states that are easier to flip.

Instead, Biden’s campaign drew Trump into a $250 million battle over Florida’s airwaves, the country’s most expensive ad war, at a time when people are stuck in their homes watching television. And Biden won it.

As of Oct. 17, Biden had outspent Trump by $19 million in Florida, and in each of the state’s seven media markets, according to a New York Times analysis of ad tracking data. That doesn’t include commercials paid for by outside groups, like Independence USA, a Super PAC created by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg that pledged $100 million to help Biden win Florida.

Biden’s unexpectedly strong fundraising has allowed him to flood the zone both with ads critical of Trump’s coronavirus response and those with sunnier messages. Trump’s campaign, once marketed as a $1 billion juggernaut, has resorted to an almost entirely negative aerial attack.

Republican media strategist Brad Herold said Trump has offset his deficit by nabbing local news coverage — “earned media” — with numerous rallies across Florida. He questioned the late effectiveness of advertising when 5.4 million people have already voted. Trump’s campaign similarly downplayed the ad totals.

“Joe Biden can spend as much as he wants on ads in Florida, but he’ll soon learn the same lesson Hillary Clinton did in 2016 — overspending on ads does not win elections,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager said. (According to AdAge, Clinton spent $94 million on television and radio time in Florida to Trump’s $34 million.)

Kevin Sheekey, a senior political adviser to Bloomberg, said their ads have made a difference.

"What Mike did is basically say, ‘I’m going to force the Trump campaign to defend Florida, I’m going to force them to spend more heavily in a state he didn’t expect to have to,’ " Sheekey said. “And that’s going to make the Biden campaign much more competitive in those other states.”

Donald Trump wins Florida because...

President Donald Trump delivers remarks to supporters at a campaign rally Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in The Villages, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
President Donald Trump delivers remarks to supporters at a campaign rally Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in The Villages, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux) [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

It’s the economy, stupid

The public health crisis may dominate the news, but polls show more Florida voters are thinking about their financial situation as they turn in their ballots. CBS-You Gov found 85 percent of likely voters say the economy is a major concern, higher than healthcare (76 percent), the pandemic (69 percent) and personal character (58 percent).

That’s good news for Trump. Poll after poll shows Floridians believe Trump would be a better steward of the economy than Biden. Many voters don’t blame Trump for the current recession, even as he torpedoes negotiations on further stimulus money that Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, among others, says would help prevent future hardship.

This polling trend may not just reflect a longing to return to the pre-pandemic days of full employment, says Ryan Tyson, a top Republican pollster in Florida. It also could signal growing fatigue with the tight restrictions placed on the economy that public health experts and Biden said are needed to prevent more outbreaks. Working adults are more receptive to Trump’s message that “the cure cannot be worse than the problem,” Tyson said.

“It’s quite possible that some of the things that have occurred in response to coronavirus might have made the 65-plus crowd more gettable for Biden but hurt him with people under 65,” Tyson said. “As you look at the electorate, it’s easy to focus on one thing that’s true, but there are a lot of moving parts to it.”

As is often the case, though, Trump has struggled to stay on message. His own hospitalization from the virus refocused the race on his handling of the pandemic. Since returning to the campaign trail, Trump has waged a war with 60 Minutes, bemoaned that Fox News has turned on him, publicly feuded with Dr. Anthony Fauci, downplayed the sharp rise in COVID cases, spread misinformation about voting, attacked the Democratic governor of Michigan after she was the target of an assassination plot and obsessed over the foreign business dealings of Biden’s son, Hunter.

“If he was able to stick to issues he does well on, he would be in better shape,” said Binder, the University of North Florida pollster. “But on the flip side, his inability to stick to issues helped propel him in 2016, so it’s hard to let go of it. It’s who he is.”

The ground game advantage

Trump’s campaign likes to say it never left Florida after 2016. His election team, once considered inexperienced and underfunded, has spent the last four years building up to this moment.

There were missteps. Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale of Fort Lauderdale, was demoted earlier this year after questions about his spending practices. Trump’s Florida general, Susie Wiles, was pushed out in 2019, only to be brought back earlier this year.

But summer presented opportunities. The Biden campaign and Florida Democratic Party pulled back amid the pandemic and stopped registering new voters. Republicans initially did the same, but soon after had party operatives and volunteers knocking on doors.

The state Republican Party also paid an outside firm, Stampede America, $337,000 to register voters. The company hired people at $20 an hour to canvas door-to-door during the pandemic, according to emails. The payoff came last month. By the last day to register voters, Republicans netted 619,000 new voters ahead of Nov. 3, narrowing its deficit with Democrats to 134,000, a historically slim margin.

Biden’s campaign counters that its digital outreach was as effective without risking public health.

“Since day one, we’ve understood that this pandemic requires us to think in new, creative ways to meaningfully reach, engage, and mobilize voters – all with a focus on Joe Biden’s plans to address this pandemic and build our economy back better," Biden spokeswoman Jackie McGuinness said.

Democratic strategist Reggie Cardozo, though, said if it turns out Democrats failed to expand the electorate, “then we’re in a lot of trouble.”

Calling Democrats “socialists” worked

Much has been written about Trump’s strong support among Cuban voters in South Florida. Some have suggested it could offset Democratic gains with older voters and women.

Trump’s campaign has relentlessly compared Biden and other Democratic figures like Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont to the socialist dictators of Latin America. That resonates for Florida voters from Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia and Nicaragua, said Monica Rodriguez, the former national committeewoman from Florida for the Republican National Hispanic Assembly.

“There’s a fear that if you elect the radical left, you’re electing what you left your country for,” Rodriguez said.

Democrats have fretted over Biden’s lower polling among Hispanic voters. Last week, the Biden campaign sent former President Barack Obama to Miami for damage control.

“Don’t fall for that garbage. Joe Biden is not a socialist,” Obama said. “He was a senator from Delaware. He was my vice president. I think folks would know if he was a secret socialist by now.”

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WHY A FLORIDA CITY’S BLACK VOTERS BEAT NATIONAL AVERAGES: Turnout is 10 percent over the national average. That’s been true for generations. The story of Chester James Sr. helps explain why.

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