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Trump wins Florida, picks up a critical piece of 2020′s electoral map

The choice for voters on Tuesday to tackle the pandemic and future challenges were two white septuagenarian men who reached this moment amid a chaotic 2020 that tested their mettle.
President Donald Trump leaves his campaign rally at Opa-Locka Executive Airport, early Monday, Nov. 2, 2020, in Opa-Locka, Fla.
President Donald Trump leaves his campaign rally at Opa-Locka Executive Airport, early Monday, Nov. 2, 2020, in Opa-Locka, Fla. [ JIM RASSOL | AP ]
Published Nov. 4, 2020|Updated Nov. 4, 2020

President Donald Trump has won Florida once again.

Within two hours of polls closing, Trump had jumped out to a commanding lead that appeared insurmountable. The race in Florida was finally called by the Associated Press at 12:38 a.m. Wednesday for Trump, giving him 29 critical electoral votes and securing an important state in his path toward reelection.

Trump performed exceedingly well in Miami-Dade, where Cuban voters are reshaping politics to the benefit of Republicans. As of 11:30 p.m. he trailed former Vice President Joe Biden there by only 7 percentage points. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won there by 30 points.

The nation once again finds its fate tied to Florida. Of all the swing states, only Florida, with its 29 Electoral College votes, could have ended Trump’s night early.

Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris of California now will need to look elsewhere to overcome this early defeat. Focus will shift to the Rust Belt, where the so-called Blue Wall collapsed four years ago, and to Arizona, a state Democrats have not won since 1996.

Still, Biden urged patience when he spoke to his supporters in Delaware minutes after Florida was called for Trump.

“It’s going to take time to count votes, but we’re going to win Pennsylvania,” Biden said. “Keep the faith guys, we’re going to win this.”

At about the same time as Biden’s plea, Trump tweeted, without evidence, that “they are trying to STEAL the Election. We will never let them do it.” It was flagged by Twitter as being possibly “misleading about an election or other civic process.”

Trump spoke at the White House at 2:20 a.m. to imply his campaign was victorious in several states that were still tallying votes, including Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan and Pennsylvania. He also challenged the integrity of the results.

“This is a fraud on the American public,” Trump said. “This is an embarrassment to this country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.”

He said his team will now work to protect the integrity of the vote. “We will be going to the U.S. Supreme Court,” he said. “We want all voting to stop.”

It’s not clear what fraud the president was talking about or what voting he wants to stop. Vote counting continues in several states, even Florida, where Trump has been declared the winner. It has been said for months that vote counting would take longer this year because so many people voted by mail. Not every state could start counting mail ballots before Election Day. Florida elections supervisors could.

“It’s a very sad moment,” he went on. “We will win this, and as far as I’m concerned, we already have.”

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The choice for voters on Tuesday to tackle the pandemic and future challenges were two white septuagenarian men who reached this moment amid a chaotic 2020 that tested their mettle. Trump, 74, started the year as the third president to be impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives and then confronted a deadly pandemic and sudden economic collapse. Biden, 77, overcame a Democratic primary where his fitness for office, a 47-year career in public service and progressive bonafides were challenged by two dozen other contenders.

Neither entered the final stretch as exceptionally well-liked by the electorate. Nevertheless, Floridians for weeks have voted at a record-breaking pace, a level of participation that reflected a public deeply moved by their feelings about White House’s current occupant. On the minds of many voters, too, was the country’s ongoing public health crisis. Florida on Tuesday surpassed 17,000 coronavirus deaths and cases are trending upward once again.

Jennifer Miselis, 41, voted for Clinton in 2016 but was much more politically active in this election, calling and texting prospective voters on behalf of Biden.

“I normally don’t try to show my partisanship,” Miselis said at the Thomas “Jett” Jackson Recreation Center in St. Petersburg after casting her ballot. “But in this election it felt very important.”

First-time voter Kaila Medero, 39, came to Tampa from Puerto Rico three years ago after Hurricane Maria. She voted for Trump, citing his “conservative values.”

“He can be rude or unconventional but he’s real,” Kaila Medero said. “I know that many Puerto Ricans don’t like him but, honestly, it’s not my problem.”

Biden outperformed Trump in Tampa Bay’s two largest counties. Pinellas County, a surprise red county in 2016, went to Biden by about 1,000 votes. Meanwhile, Biden won neighboring Hillsborough by about 47,000, slightly better than Clinton’s performance four years ago.

But in the large counties along Interstate 4 the story was largely the same: Biden fared well, but not well enough to offset Trump’s strength in rural counties or the Democratic loses in Miami-Dade.

Winning Florida is never easy — or cheap. This year was no exception. The two campaigns turned Florida’s airwaves into the most expensive ad war in the country, surpassing $250 million in television and radio commercials by one estimate. More ads were run in the Tampa Bay, Orlando and Miami media markets than just about anywhere in the country, according to the Wesleyan Media Project.

Despite a three year head start and promises of a $1 billion campaign juggernaut, Trump was ultimately outspent in his home state by the Biden campaign. From Oct. 12 through Oct. 25, Biden aired 23,000 more ads than Trump in Florida.

Trump countered Biden’s aerial assault by barnstorming through the state in the closing weeks of the campaign, packing thousands of supporters into rallies that flouted his own administration’s coronavirus guidelines. He made more than 50 visits in Florida throughout his first term, the final one being a midnight event Monday in Opa-locka that violated a local curfew set by the Republican mayor of Miami-Dade County.

In his closing appearances in Florida, a pugnacious Trump appeared increasingly aggrieved at the prospect of losing to Biden, whom he called “the worst candidate ever to run.” He pleaded for voters, especially women, to show up for him. He also promised a vaccine and a robust economic recovery, something he insisted Biden could not deliver. On Monday Trump hinted that he would soon fire the nation’s top disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, after the election.

He repeated what he has for weeks about the virus even amid a third wave of cases: “We’re rounding the turn.”

Biden, meanwhile, defied conventional wisdom of presidential politics by running one of the least visible campaigns in modern history. He held his first campaign rally in Tampa, typically a hotspot for presidential candidates, last week. He stuck to the same talking points about unity that he said inspired him to enter the race, drawing a contrast to Trump’s divisiveness. H

In recent days, his message packed an added urgency that America needed to make a change before the virus took another turn for the worst.

“Donald Trump has waved the white flag, abandoned our families and surrendered to this virus,” Biden said. “But the American people never give up. … and neither will I.”

The remoteness of Biden’s campaign was necessary because of the health crisis, his advisers repeatedly said, though it also seemed that lying low benefited the former vice president with the spotlight focused on Trump. Yet that the lack of activity troubled Biden’s backers in Florida, who watched in frustration as Trump’s supporters knocked on doors and crammed the waterways with flotillas all summer.

There will be much second guessing of Biden’s campaign strategy here if he does not secure a victory through other states, and Democrats in Florida must now confront their own failures at the top of the ticket in four consecutive statewide races.

The calls for change began Tuesday night.

“I’m saying it now," tweeted state Rep. Anna Eskamani, an Orlando Democrat. "We need a whole new direction for the @FlaDems. We are losing too many incredible down ballot elected officials and candidates right now and it’s not ok.”

With Biden’s defeat in Florida, Democrats, pundits and the media will also have to reckon once again with a polling industry that is imperfect, if not broken entirely. For all their predictive power, it is Republicans who appear to have correctly assessed the state of the electorate here as more pro-Trump than pollsters suggested. Trump’s unmatched crowds did, in fact, signal enthusiasm that could not be captured in surveys.

Those polls showed Biden’s support in Florida remained remarkably consistent since he emerged from a crowded field of Democratic contenders to secure the party’s nomination. He hovered between 47 percent and 50 percent in the Tampa Bay Times polling average dating back to May and led Trump until the closing weeks when the race tightened considerably.

Opinions on Trump, however, swung considerably in Florida over the past year. The low point came in summer as a second wave of coronavirus cases besieged the Sun Belt, killing as many as 200 Floridians a day. Trump, pent up in the White House, struggled to project command of the response. He ceded control to the country’s governors — and then attacked them for closing businesses and requiring masks.

As the surge of cases peaked, Trump unexpectedly canceled the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville, just weeks after moving it there from Charlotte, blaming the uncontrolled outbreak in Florida.

His standing, though, improved as Florida’s cases flattened — until October, when lack of White House safety protocols led to Trump’s own hospitalization from the virus. Once again, the president was out of the game, this time fighting for his life.

Within two weeks, Trump returned to the campaign trail in Sanford where he declared himself stronger and possibly immune.

Trump has made Florida the focal point of his re-election almost since the day he took office. A month after his inauguration, Trump landed in Melbourne for a campaign rally where he promised a health care plan within weeks and a $1 trillion infrastructure plan, neither of which materialized. Two years later, Trump launched his second campaign from the Amway Center in Orlando.

He further cemented his roots in the Sunshine State one year ago when he changed his residence from his iconic Manhattan address to his resort in Palm Beach, Mar-A-Lago. The visits here quickly piled up, surpassing 50 in his first term, more than any other state.

The candidates, their running mates and their surrogates crisscrossed Florida frequently in the closing weeks as the fight for any remaining undecided voters intensified.

The man who oversees the state’s decentralized elections system just happens to be a man that Trump tapped to be one of his most important political allies. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis owes his job to Trump’s early championing of his prospects. By 2020, DeSantis seemed to be taking his cues on handling the coronavirus directly from the White House while attending nearly every campaign rally. Trump made clear to those attending his rallies what he expected from DeSantis, joking he’d fire the governor if he didn’t win Florida.

In declaring victory Tuesday night, DeSantis called the results “the culmination of our efforts to drive historic Republican voter registration, mobilize a grassroots get out the vote initiative, and raise more than $20 million to support President Trump’s campaign, as well as congressional, legislative and down ballot races.”

Trump has repeatedly suggested that his reelection fight will not end with the results of the ballot box. In recent weeks, Trump has laid the foundation for lawsuits in multiple states to challenge votes or halt the tally.

“As soon as that election is over,” he told reporters over the weekend, “we’re going in with our lawyers.”

Times reporters Bailey LeFever and Juan Carlos Chavez contributed to this report.

Tampa Bay Times elections coverage

FLORIDA’S ELECTION NIGHT — AND BEYOND: Here’s what you need to know.

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