Florida Used to Be a Swing State. Now Democrats Cling to Glimmers of Hope.

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Florida Used to Be a Swing State. Now Democrats Cling to Glimmers of Hope.


Donald J. Trump and Ron DeSantis made Florida the red-hot center of the Republican universe again, turning the state into a bastion of power for their party.

But now recent polls showing a tightening presidential race in Florida have given some Democrats glimmers of hope that they could get back into contention in what was once the most closely contested of all battleground states.

This movement in public opinion, along with the announcement that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. will appear on the ballot in Florida this fall, has brought a new sense of unpredictability to the wild world of state politics. And yet some Democrats engage in a kind of political magic thinking, flirting with the idea that small signs of improvement might mean the state might turn back to their party. The reality is much more sobering: It will be difficult to wrest Florida from Republican control in key races.

Some Democrats see opportunity in state ballot measures that would enshrine abortion rights and legalize marijuana for recreational use, believing both issues could boost liberal turnout in November. Others point to President Biden’s growing advantage among seniors, a key demographic group in the state, and polls showing Sen. Rick Scott, a Republican, facing an increasingly competitive re-election campaign.

“Florida is a very difficult state for Democrats to win,” said Dan Kanninen, the Biden campaign’s battleground states director. “We know that with our eyes open, but this time there are some special factors that make Florida much more interesting.”

Politically interesting is anything but politically competitive. Even if Mr. Kennedy is on the ballot, Republicans and Democrats say his presence is unlikely to be decisive.

Mr. Trump won the state twice, nearly tripling his lead in 2020 to three percentage points. Two years later, Republicans won the state in the midterm elections, with Mr. DeSantis winning by the largest margin of any Republican gubernatorial candidate in modern Florida history.

Since then, all hints of a Democratic comeback have been limited to the party’s smallest bright spots. Last year, Democrats won a surprise mayoral race in Jacksonville, Florida’s largest city. In January, Democrats flipped a Republican state House seat near Orlando with a focus on abortion rights.

Democrats have found other sources of optimism in recent polls. A Florida Atlantic University poll released last week showed Mr. Trump with a six-point lead among likely voters, a decline from his nine-point lead in April. Polls conducted earlier this spring showed Mr. Trump with a lead of as much as 15 points. The most recent poll found a Democratic-leaning sample that many Florida political observers found unrealistic.

The same poll showed Mr Scott with a slim two-point lead over former MP Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a dramatic change from his 17-point lead in April. She remains unknown to many voters. Mr. Scott is much better known but has won narrow electoral victories. However, his personal wealth has helped him dominate the airwaves; His campaign rejected any notion of a competitive race.

Party officials in the state believe they can push back against some of Mr. DeSantis’ controversial policies, including a parental rights law that critics have called “Don’t Say Gay,” his expansion of gun rights and his public feud with Disney, the state’s largest party State private employer.

On Saturday, The state Democratic Party announced it had candidates for all of the state’s legislative seats for the first time in three decades – a recruiting victory that the party attributed to resistance to conservative “extremism.”

“It’s a record-breaking achievement for the Florida Democratic Party and a stark contrast to the party we inherited after 2022 – a party that Republicans declared ‘dead’ just a year ago,” said Nikki Fried, the chairwoman the party. “Now we have the momentum.”

Few Democrats dispute that they face significant structural disadvantages: a moribund Democratic state party, a significant voter registration disadvantage and continued disinvestment from the national party. Some Democratic strategists in the state say the chatter amounts to little more than headcount.

“It’s a state that both sides want you to believe is in play, but in reality it’s not,” said Fernand R. Amandi, a Democratic pollster in Miami. “We can safely say that Florida is once again a swing state after Democrats won several statewide elections.”

Mr. Trump’s campaign has close ties to the Florida Republican Party and is led by Susie Wiles, one of the state’s most successful political activists. Campaign officials say they are not worried that either ballot measure could change the makeup of the electorate against them. Brian Hughes, a senior adviser to the Trump campaign in Florida, predicted that Mr. Trump would drive his own “significant” conservative turnout.

He said Mr. Trump had expanded the support base he had won in 2020, when he won the state by the largest margin for a presidential candidate since George W. Bush in 2004.

“We are enjoying growth in a base that is not typically viewed as conventionally Republican,” he said. “Young voters, black voters, Hispanic voters.”

In recent weeks, the Biden campaign has expanded its presence in Florida, opening three offices. The plan is to expand to a dozen by the end of the summer. Both the president and vice president have appeared in the state and criticized Mr. Trump over Florida’s six-week abortion ban.

The Biden campaign’s operation in Florida pales in comparison to the tens of millions of dollars the campaign is spending in battleground states. In total, Mr. Biden and allied Democratic groups have spent $328,000 on television advertising in Florida this year, a tiny amount in such a large state. That total was just a fraction of the $33 million spent on ads in Arizona and $47 million in Michigan, according to AdImpact, the advertising tracking firm.

Much of Mr Biden’s hopes rest on the two amendments, particularly the abortion referendum. Florida’s ban is more restrictive than what polls show most voters, including many Republicans, support.

In all seven states that have imposed abortion directly on voters since the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade fell, the abortion rights side won. In Michigan, the measure also led to an increase in liberal turnout, which helped Democratic candidates win midterm elections.

Still, Michigan may not offer much foreshadowing for Florida. Since 2012, voter registrations in Florida have changed so dramatically that Republicans, who had a deficit of about half a million voters 12 years ago, now face a deficit of nearly a million voters.

“The headwind for the marijuana and abortion amendments — and for any candidate who is not a Republican — is simple math,” said Nick Iarossi, a lobbyist and long-time supporter of Mr. DeSantis. “When Democrats are dealing with a million more registered Republicans, the math doesn’t work relatively in their favor.”

Given the 60 percent approval threshold required for constitutional amendments in the state, both measures will require significant bipartisan support to pass. Organizers of Yes on 4 Florida, the abortion change campaign, say they are focused solely on building a diverse coalition — and not on Democratic politics.

“We have the 60 percent threshold that we need to reach, and to do that we need people who will vote for all possible candidates in November,” said Natasha Sutherland, the campaign’s communications director.

The abortion issues approved in other states came before voters in off-year or midterm elections, and in only two of those states — liberal bastions California and Vermont — did support exceed 60 percent.

“No one is trying to say that abortion doesn’t motivate their base to get involved — we’ve seen that everywhere,” Ryan Tyson said. a Republican pollster based in Florida. “However, we did not see them produce voters who had not already done so, as in a presidential year.”

But Florida voters have supported previous liberal ballot measures while electing Republicans. The Florida GOP has opposed both amendments. Last month, Mr. DeSantis created a political campaign committee to defeat both measures.

Some Democrats, who say Florida has become exponentially more Republican, worry that their leaders’ failure to set realistic expectations will lead to further demoralization after a tough election day. The only question, these Democrats say, is how much Mr. Trump and Mr. Scott will improve their margins of victory over previous elections.

Mr. DeSantis seems to agree: “Florida is a Republican state,” he said while discussing his new political campaign committee last week. “It used to be a swing state. No longer.”



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2024-06-17 19:51:20

www.nytimes.com