Dems' Florida flop: Turnout, rural success propelled Trump in Florida

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Former Vice President Joe Biden may have won the presidency after days of counting, but Election Day was a flop for Democrats in Florida.

© JOSEPH FORZANO / THE PALM BEACH POST President Donald Trump, who carried Florida by far more votes than four years ago, cast his ballot during early voting on Oct. 22 at the main branch of the Palm Beach County library on Summit Boulevard outside West Palm Beach.

Much has been made of how the Democrats hemorrhaged support from Hispanic voters in Miami-Dade. But that alone doesn’t explain why Biden lost the state by about 375,000 votes, a substantial gap in a state known for paper-thin margins.

An analysis of post-election data shows that several factors played into the Democrats’ bad day.

Biden did underperform in heavily Hispanic Miami-Dade County, as Republicans were successful in casting the former vice president as a socialist threat in communities where people have up close and personal memories of socialism and communism.

© Andrew Harnik, AP Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, accompanied by his granddaughter Natalie Biden, arrives at Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020, to attend a drive-in rally at Broward College in Coconut Creek, Fla. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Turnout in areas that went for President Donald Trump surpassed turnout in areas that went for Biden. The urban-rural divide colorfully illustrated in the red and blue maps deployed by television networks played out on the ground in Florida.

More: Trump bet big on winning the Hispanic vote in Miami and Florida … and it paid off

And then there’s the enthusiasm factor. Nothing — not his impeachment, not the 230,000-plus coronavirus deaths, not the cratered national economy and not his litany of falsehoods — moved Trump’s supporters away from him. They waved placards on overpasses, flew flags from the back of their trucks and wore T-shirts with the president’s signature phrase, “Make America Great Again.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Mike Coleman, vice chairman of the Democratic Party of Palm Beach County.

Trump cruised to a margin of victory that was more than twice the combined margin from the past three gubernatorial elections. Trump beat Biden three times more decisively in Florida than he beat Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Democrats lost congressional and other down-ballot races, too.

Democrats were successful in boosting turnout overall from 2016, but those bigger numbers were trumped by the GOP.

“We just didn’t keep up,” Coleman said. 

More: 2020 vs. 2016: Presidential Election Results Comparison

More: Trump wins Florida: Gets boost by strong turnout by Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County

205,000-vote drop

There will be much hand-wringing over what happened in Miami-Dade.

The strategy for any Democrat trying to win statewide in Florida is to run up big margins in South Florida and limit the margins in more conservative parts of the state.

Clinton almost pulled it off, beating Trump in Miami-Dade by 290,000 votes in 2016, when she lost the state by just over a percentage point.

Biden, though, couldn’t match Clinton’s success there. Initial returns show he won Miami-Dade by about 85,000 votes, nowhere near enough to offset Trump’s margins elsewhere.

Just as they did with Clinton and just as they did when former Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum ran for governor, Republicans cast Biden as a Trojan horse for socialism. It was a potent pitch, particularly among Cuban Americans in Miami, many who are personally familiar with the toll Fidel Castro-style socialism took on Cuba.

“It’s easy for Trump to pick that scab,” Coleman said. “I’m not sure how long that’s going to last.”

Democrats tried to fight back, hoping Biden’s long record in the U.S. Senate would dispel any socialist fears, and even deploying former President Barack Obama to make the former vice president’s case.

Will any Democrat campaigning in South Florida always be tarred as a socialist in waiting? 

“I think it can be countered,” Coleman said. “I don’t think it’s been countered well.”

More: Florida election: 5 key takeaways from Trump’s impressive win in the Sunshine State

Trump’s Cuba crackdown

Obama tried to ease the chill between Cuba and the United States, restoring diplomatic relations and liberalizing trade. But in September, with the election weeks away, Trump cracked down on Cuba, barring American travelers from staying in government-run hotels in the island nation or bringing home rum or cigars. 

Trump’s move will make it nearly impossible for many Americans to visit Cuba because the government controls most of the hotels there.

“I cancelled the Obama-Biden sellout to the Castro regime,” Trump said.

A return to strict sanctions against Cuba will keep its government isolated, but it will also make it harder for Cuban Americans to visit relatives and send them money.

Coleman said the way to counter the socialist label among Cuban Americans is to “remind them of what they’ve lost.”

Break up Florida Dems?

Jody Young, a political strategist who has worked for Democratic candidates, said Democrats should have been better prepared to offer counter arguments.

“Paying taxes to have a police department is socialism,” he said. “Paying taxes to have health care is socialism. It’s not your grandfather’s socialism. I mean, look at Social Security. We failed in that messaging.”

Tuesday’s struggles have opened fissures in the party.

More: What Trump, Biden need from Palm Beach County to win Florida

Young said Democrats need a change in party leadership in Tallahassee. On his Facebook page, he shared an acrimonious text message exchange with state Rep. Matt Willhite, a Democrat who represents parts of Wellington, Royal Palm Beach and Loxahatchee Groves.

Willhite disagreed with the assessment that the party needs new leadership.

The Young-Willhite dispute was a window into a broad set of concerns many in the party have about its direction.

Young said part of the problem is consistent messaging.

“You can’t run a political party on hope yearlong,” he said. “You can’t go into the minority community only at election time.”

In addition to winning Miami-Dade by 205,000 fewer votes than Clinton, Biden’s margin of victory in Palm Beach County was smaller by about 4,300 votes, with just a 98,000-vote margin in his favor. Trump exceeded local party expectations by taking 43.2 percent of the county vote.

Biden fell short in Broward County of Clinton’s 2016 performance as well, winning by a margin of 7,600 fewer votes.

All told, though, the South Florida “wins” weren’t enough to give Biden a shot at beating Trump, who swamped him by 841,000 votes in areas outside of South Florida, about 40,000 more votes than in 2016.

Trump’s victory margin grew because South Florida didn’t deliver for Democrats as it has in the past. Clinton rode a 685,000-vote wave in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. With slippage in all three counties, Biden’s winning margin barely topped 467,000. 

More: Hours before polls open, Obama returns to Miami to stump for Biden; poke at Trump

Urban-rural divide

Florida’s counties are experiencing the same trend seen across the country this century, with dense urban counties becoming increasingly Democratic, rural counties voting more Republican and suburban areas somewhere in between. 

That trend is illustrated in Duval County.

The last time voters there selected a Democrat for president was 1976, when southerner Jimmy Carter ran. But in 2018, for the first time in 42 years, Duval voters backed Gillum and Bill Nelson in statewide races. And Biden won the majority of votes there this time around.

In Seminole County, the northern neighbor to populous Orange County, voters have trended toward Democrats, who won the county in 2018 statewide races for the first time since 1948. Biden won a majority there, too.

Meanwhile, once reliably blue St. Lucie County continues to trend red. Trump won a majority of votes there.

In 2016, he won a plurality, 49.9 percent. Before then, Democrats won the majority there going back to 1996.

Typically, the candidate who wins Pinellas County, home to St. Petersburg, wins the state. But Biden took the county by a slim 1,200 votes, the first time since Al Gore won Pinellas in 2000 that the winner of the county and the state were different.

In all, Trump won 55 of Florida’s 67 counties, with Biden winning the more populous urban counties and Trump winning the more rural. Collier County, which Trump carried by 50,000 votes, had the highest turnout at 90 percent. Overall turnout reached 77 percent.

More: Biden, Trump to barnstorm Florida as race remains a nail-biter

Florida no longer a bellwether?

Biden and Trump came into the race understanding the importance of winning Florida and its 29 Electoral College votes.

If Biden’s win withstands likely court challenges from the Trump campaign, it will be the first presidential race since 1992 that Florida’s voters did not select the Electoral College winner.

Of course, the 1992 race included a wealthy third-party contender, Ross Perot.

Before 1992, the last time the majority of Florida voters was out of step with the national electorate was 1960, when they selected Republican Richard Nixon over Democrat John F. Kennedy.

Coleman said the areas in Florida where Democrats need to be strong are shifting. The Interstate 4 corridor, home to an increasing number of Hispanic voters who are not Cuban Americans, is emerging as an opportunity for the party.

“When the I-4 corridor becomes the power center for Hispanic voting, Miami-Dade’s going to slip down a notch,” he said.

Coleman estimates that, by the end of the decade, Hispanics in the I-4 corridor will carry as much if not more clout than GOP-leaning Cuban Americans do in Miami-Dade. 

“The right personality could accelerate that much more quickly,” he said.

For the past four years, it’s been the GOP with the right political personality.

Trump has been impervious to scandal and drew thousands to rallies even as the coronavirus set grim records for sickness and death. The president inspired fear and acquiescence among other elected Republicans who knew not to cross him. And Trump consistently pounded Democrats rhetorically.

That constant stream of invective made it tougher for Democrats to appeal to moderates and voters who have no political affiliation, Coleman said.

“He has used every opportunity to denigrate and demonize Democrats,” Coleman said. “He’s had a bully pulpit that allowed him to preach incessantly in a way that demonized Democrats.”

More than anything else, Coleman said, Biden lost Florida for one reason: Donald Trump.

“He built up a cult of personality, and we just experienced it,” he said.

wwashington@pbpost.com

cpersaud@pbpost.com

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Dems’ Florida flop: Turnout, rural success propelled Trump in Florida

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