Joe Biden Florida
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Why Democrats Are Gambling On Florida

The Biden campaign is planning on ramping up in the state despite years of Democratic losses, and Florida Democrats see a path out of electoral misery.

Democrats have convinced themselves they have plenty of reasons to make a serious run at Florida in this year’s presidential race despite a barrage of recent losses. And they don’t even think they need to win the state outright for substantial investment to be worth it.

The surprise declaration this week from President Joe Biden’s campaign that it would seriously try to win Florida is a result of the 2024 election’s complicated electoral math, a potential backlash to the state’s rightward policy push and the incumbent president’s own prodigious cash advantage over presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, say Biden officials and political operatives in the state.

But more than any other reason, Florida Democrats say any rationale for trying to win the state is predicated on the belief — shared by many of the state party officials and strategists — that their blowout losses in 2022 were an anomaly, caused mostly by a lack of money and top-of-the-ticket appeal that the Biden campaign can easily fix.

“The Democratic Party doesn’t have a Florida problem; Florida Democrats have a turnout problem,” said Joshua Karp, a longtime Democratic strategist in the state. “And that’s something that can be solved by the right candidates and the right issues.”

According to Karp, the state party and Democratic candidates up and down the ballot spent about $200 million less in the 2022 midterm election than they had in the 2018 races, a drop-off party operatives and progressive organizers said severely depressed party turnout. With the support of the presidential campaign’s vast resources, he said, that’s a problem that shouldn’t exist this November.

“The election results in Florida in 2022 were a disaster for Democrats, but they were not a victory by Republicans,” Karp said.

Republicans dispute this view of the 2022 election, saying many of the state’s once-moderate voters have become converted conservatives, won over by the popular leadership of Gov. Ron DeSantis and repelled by what they see as Democrats’ leftward turn on social issues.

If the Biden campaign wants to try and win Florida, they say, Trump officials should let them spend money and time on a state they’ll never win.

“If you’re the Trump campaign, what you do here is call Biden’s bluff, and you move forward with a plan to invest in a bare minimum that you need in Florida to get across the finish line,” said Giancarlo Sopo, a Miami native who led Trump’s Spanish-language rapid response in 2020. “You focus your resources elsewhere.”

In 2022, DeSantis and Sen. Marco Rubio each won the type of blowout victory that once seemed unthinkable in a closely contested state. DeSantis won by nearly 20 points, while Rubio scored a nearly 17-point victory. It was the latest and most significant victory for Florida Republicans, who haven’t lost a U.S. Senate or presidential race since 2012.

That recent history hasn’t deterred Biden’s campaign. This week, it issued its most definitive commitment to investing in Florida.

“We’re clear-eyed about, you know, how hard it will be to win Florida, but we also know that Trump does not have it in the bag,” Biden-Harris campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez said during a call with reporters Tuesday.

The campaign’s call with reporters came a day after Florida’s Supreme Court upheld the state’s six-week abortion ban while also allowing a constitutional amendment protecting access to an abortion onto the ballot in November, a pair of developments Biden officials contend will help Democrats in the general election.

The Biden campaign has so far made limited commitments to Florida, including the state in its $30 million spring ad buy. Biden visited Florida twice in 2023 (half as much as Nevada) and once in January. Kamala Harris was in Florida in late March, her 10th visit since taking office, according to Florida Democrats. Rodriguez did not respond directly to a question during the call about whether Biden will increase his visits to Florida following the latest announcement, but she did acknowledge that part of the goal is to ensure that Trump’s campaign spends its limited resources in Florida and not elsewhere. “We’re going to compete, and we’re going to make sure that Donald Trump has to compete in the state of Florida,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve been continuing to raise money at the clip that we need to, to have multiple investments throughout the country and in key states like Florida — unlike Donald Trump.”

Democrats in the state say the Biden campaign doesn’t need to necessarily win Florida for the investment there to be worth it, especially if it can force Trump to defend the state. Any money the presumptive GOP nominee spends in Florida is money he can’t spend in battleground states he also needs to win, like Arizona, Wisconsin or Pennsylvania.

“Joe Biden doesn’t need Florida to win the White House, but Donald Trump does,” Steve Schale, a Florida Democratic strategist, said. “If they can put together an operation and force a real race here, that benefits us either way, win or lose.”

Biden officials say they think voters are pushing back against the state’s rightward turn under DeSantis, which has seen Florida’s government engage in protracted fights with the Walt Disney Company and take polarizing stands on some social issues, even beyond abortion. The campaign hopes to channel that energy into voter registration pushes and turnout operations, they say.

If the campaign is successful, that would represent a stark change from 2022, when party strategists say the party’s voters were demoralized and unwilling to turn out to vote.

“2022 was an anomaly,” Nikki Fried, chair of the Florida Democratic Party, told reporters last month.

Democrats point to the difference in vote totals from the 2018 midterms to the 2022 elections as proof of the collapse in their party’s turnout. In 2018, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum would win about 4 million votes — almost a million more votes than the party’s nominee four years later, Charlie Crist, would win. (DeSantis won about 500,000 more votes during his 2022 reelection than he did during the 2018 race.)

In 2022, DeSantis’ campaign and committee also raised more than six times as much as Crist. Even beyond the money, Democratic strategists in the state say the party’s candidates and campaigns did little to inspire progressive voters.

“As much as I love Charlie Crist, we had a candidate who didn’t run anything remotely looking like a credible statewide campaign,” said Schale, who blamed the candidate’s lack of money for the unimpressive showing.

Schale and other Democrats say even if they think a lack of money was a major reason for the party’s struggles in 2022, they’re still clear-eyed about the challenge ahead in 2024. No Democratic presidential candidate has won in Florida since Barack Obama in 2012, and the state’s electorate, including its Cuban and Hispanic population in South Florida, has become markedly more conservative since then.

Florida Republicans agree, seeing Biden’s push into the state as a chess move intended to keep Trump on his toes but not actually deliver a Democratic win in Florida.

That’s partly because Democrats have an additional hurdle: Republicans have 5.2 million registered active voters compared to Democrats’ 4.3 million. That’s a significantly worse scenario for Democrats than in 2022 — when Republican voter registration only led by about 300,000 registered voters during the general election. During the last presidential election, when Trump won Florida with 51%, Democrats led in registered voters by about 130,000 voters. “I don’t think we’re going to win by 22 points every statewide election from here until kingdom come,” Florida Republican political consultant Anthony Pedicini told NOTUS. “But I think Florida is trending red. I think it leans red. I think we will continue to see Republican successes, and I think the Biden administration — like they get everything else wrong — has this wrong. Florida is not in play.”

Florida state House Democratic leader Rep. Fentrice Driskell hearkened back to the heyday of Florida Democratic politics more than a decade ago, the Obama campaign in 2012, when there was an anti-abortion ballot amendment, as evidence of why Florida is worth investing in this year — despite the party’s challenges.

“It’s tough to ignore the electoral implications,” Driskell told reporters after Monday’s abortion ruling. “The last time that a Democratic presidential candidate won Florida was when there was an anti-abortion measure on the ballot, so this is something that Floridians pay attention to.”

Alex Roarty is a reporter at NOTUS. Claire Heddles is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.