How Donald Trump won Florida

Trump’s campaign targeted groups of voters who don’t traditionally vote Republican but could be persuaded to the other side for this election — like Jewish voters, Latinos and Hispanics and Black voters who identify as Christian or socially conservative.
President Donald Trump walks to a Make America Great again rally at Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport in Opa Locka, Florida on Nov. 2.
President Donald Trump walks to a Make America Great again rally at Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport in Opa Locka, Florida on Nov. 2. [ BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI | Getty Images North America ]
Published Nov. 5, 2020|Updated Nov. 5, 2020

As early voting places opened this October, a piece of mail featuring a smiling President Donald Trump arrived at the homes of Florida households with Jewish last names, regardless of their party registration.

“President Donald Trump and the Republican Party have gone to extraordinary lengths to fight anti-Semitism," the piece of mail said.

Paid for by the Republican Party of Florida, the flier included pictures of Democratic U.S. Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan as well as Trump’s opponent, Democrat Joe Biden.

On Tuesday night, as results favoring Trump poured in, Miami-based Democratic operative Evan Ross peeked at the results in Aventura, a Jewish community where Democratic registrations far outpace Republicans. Biden carried it by just five points, he said.

“I wasn’t shocked. I felt it,” said Ross, who is Jewish. “Trump did a really effective job of messaging to Jews. He understood he could win over a lot of Jewish support, which could swing the state in his favor.”

Trump’s 3.4 percentage victory in Florida — a landslide by Sunshine State standards — was built on dozens of smaller wins like this one. In a state often decided on the margins, Trump’s campaign targeted groups of voters who don’t traditionally vote Republican but could be persuaded to the other side for this election — like Jewish voters, Latinos and Hispanics and Black voters who identify as Christian or socially conservative.

Parents of children who use school vouchers, for example, were sent mailers that said Biden was against those kind of programs.

Susie Wiles, who headed Trump’s reelection efforts in Florida, said outreach like this drove Republicans to their biggest win by a presidential candidate in Florida since George W. Bush in 2004. It’s not the kind of campaign Trump deployed in most other swing states, but Trump, who was intimately involved in nearly every decision about his Florida strategy, afforded Wiles the latitude to run a very different race here, she said.

“Florida’s population is dynamic, we all know how quickly it is growing and importing people from all over the country and the world,” said Wiles, who has now successfully guided Republicans to statewide wins in four straight cycles. “What it is today, isn’t what it was yesterday, let alone four years ago. The president is a non-traditional candidate with crossover appeal and to not capitalize on that would have been a missed opportunity.”

The example dominating post-election headlines is Trump’s successful conversion of South Florida Cubans into Republican voters by bombarding them with messages tying the Democratic Party to socialists. After losing Miami-Dade County by 30 points in 2016, Trump trailed Biden there by just 7 on Tuesday.

But Trump would have carried Florida even if Biden matched Hillary Clinton’s support in Miami-Dade four years ago, demonstrating his unique appeal to voters of very different stripes in all quadrants of the state.

Newsart graphic:
Newsart graphic: [ STEVE MADDEN | LANGSTON TAYLOR | Tampa Bay Times ]
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Exit polls indicate Trump won four in 10 Jewish votes, the best performance by a Republican this century. In Osceola County, home to a large Puerto Rican community, Trump outpaced his 2016 finish, suggesting non-Cuban Latinos were also moved to vote for the president.

Trump matched his 2016 voter share in the Tampa and Orlando media markets — known as the Interstate 4 corridor — despite expectations he would lose support among older voters and suburban woman who populate the region. He also grew his advantage in 15 of the 16 smallest counties, once again signalling his strength among rural and small town voters.

“I fear for a time when he’s not on the ballot for us because he has a unique approach to get blue collar Democrats,” said Brian Ballard, a fundraiser and lobbyist close to Trump. “That doesn’t come along very often.”

There were other strategic decisions made in the past year that Republicans credit for buoying Trump to victory while Democrats second guess the choices made by the Biden campaign.

In July, his reelection team decided to put people back in the field in the middle of the pandemic while Democrats remained locked down. Joe Gruters, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, said that statewide effort ultimately knocked on 4.5 million doors, though that number could not be confirmed.

Republicans insist those in-person contacts helped stave off an onslaught of spending on television ads by the Biden campaign and his allies, including a $100 million investment from former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

“Standing on someone’s door, when you’re being outspent, just cuts through the noise,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Waltz, R-St. Augustine.

Knocking on doors brought another benefit: rebutting polls that said they were losing Republican to Biden. “Never Trump” GOP groups like the Lincoln Project were running ads that insisted Trump was bleeding support from Republicans tired of the president’s leadership style, but Tom Piccolo, a Republican strategist who led the Republican House campaign efforts, said they weren’t seeing that on the ground. “It was not matching the conversations we were having,” Piccolo said.

The state Republican Party also paid an outside firm, Stampede America, $337,000 to find new voters, an investment they said paid off when Republicans narrowed its deficit with Democrats to 134,000 registered voters, a historically slim margin.

In the closing weeks of the race, Trump, his children and Vice President Mike Pence campaigned as if the coronavirus pandemic didn’t exist, packing thousands of his supporters into rallies across the state. The barnstorming started with an October rally in Sanford; the final stop came Monday in Opa Locka.

“The extent to which campaigning matters, generally I don’t know, but in his case, doing these big events, the electricity generated ... it’s really an incredible thing to do,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday.

But Trump’s intense focus on Florida, his home state, and its 29 Electoral College votes also pulled his attention from other battlegrounds. And his victory here will be a blip in the history books if he ultimately loses to Biden after ceding Wisconsin, Michigan and perhaps Arizona, states he won four years ago.

On Monday, Kevin Sheekey, a senior advisor to Bloomberg, said that was their strategy all along.

“It was a two-part goal. Make Trump fight for a state that he was taking for granted that would draw resources from blue wall states, allow Joe to become more competitive in those states and make him fight like hell for this state," Sheekey said. "So that’s exactly what we did.”

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