MIAMI — Joe Biden has a marginal lead over Donald Trump in polls here. Last month, for the first time in at least a decade, more Florida Democrats cast primary election ballots than Republicans. Democrats also dominated voting by mail and became competitive in several red districts where they didn’t have a prayer before.
Yet for all of those promising signs, they’re haunted by the uneasy feeling that Trump will win anyway in November.
“I haven’t spoken to one Democrat, informed or uninformed, that is not terrified of losing the election,” said Kevin Cate, a veteran Democratic strategist. “The more positive the news about how we’re going to win, the more terrified we get.”
Unexpectedly close losses in 2014, 2016 and 2018 will do that to a party. The last election was particularly cruel for Florida Democrats, whose gubernatorial and Senate candidates lost by less than a percentage point after holding large leads in polls before Election Day — including Cate’s former client, Andrew Gillum.
This year, the coronavirus — which ravaged the state and dragged down the poll numbers of Trump ally Gov. Ron DeSantis — has added another dose of uncertainty to a state accustomed to electoral drama.
Following Biden’s lead, the Florida Democratic Party and its allies have essentially stayed indoors and virtually campaigned this year, neither door-knocking nor holding any big voter registration drive. That’s hurt Democrats since both were key ingredients in President Obama’s 2012 and 2008 wins here.
Today, the gap between registered Republicans and registered Democrats is smaller than it has ever been in modern times, a margin of 1.8 percentage points.
Yet after three straight narrow wins, Republicans privately confess to a creeping fear that the polls could be more right than ever this year as Trump does little to help his cause.
The president’s notoriously inflammatory and false rhetoric about elections show signs of backfiring on him in Florida. Republicans once dominated voting by mail in the state, but Trump’s opposition to the practice led the Republican Party of Florida to go to great lengths to clean up his rhetoric in a mailer to GOP voters ahead of the Aug. 18 primary.
Democrats, meanwhile, encouraged their voters to cast vote-by-mail ballots during the coronavirus pandemic. The result: a record 68 percent of all Democratic ballots were cast by mail in the August primary — blowing away their numbers from the March 17 presidential preference primary, when 40 percent of all Democratic votes were cast by mail, according to an analysis by Republican consultant Ryan Tyson.
Slightly more than 1.7 million Democrats voted overall in the primary, about 42,000 more ballots than Republicans cast — a first in modern times for Democrats, who typically get outvoted in primaries — Tyson estimated. Of new voters who had never cast ballots before, Democrats outvoted Republicans by about 25,000.
However, Tyson chalked up some of the Democratic advantage to competitive races in blue counties; he and political scientists caution that primary election turnout shouldn’t be used as a predictor of general-election performance.
One reason why: more than a quarter of voters are not registered with any major party, making party turnout of more limited value in evaluating the entire electorate.
Yet other Republicans are nervously eyeing the Democrats’ performance in the primary.
“The absentee ballot numbers are ominous,” said Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidante and Florida resident. “We need to make sure that voters who voted absentee in the past, and decide not to now, show up at the polls on Election Day.”
Stone notes that the polls are tightening, with the most recent ones giving Biden an inside-the-error margin lead over Trump.
Republicans point out the party is running Cuban-American Republicans in two contested congressional campaigns, two state Senate races and the Miami-Dade County mayoral race to boost conservative turnout and eat into Biden’s expected winning margins. Democrats, meanwhile, are on offense in unexpectedly competitive races in conservative communities across the state after notching two big wins in populous Orange County’s commission races.
“Our goal is to continue to run up the margins in Democratic strongholds and lose by less where the Republicans traditionally run up margins. If we do this we win,” said Terrie Rizzo, the state Democratic Party’s chair. “Democrats executed this strategy in the primary, now we need to execute it in November.”
With Florida and its 29 Electoral College votes essential to Trump’s chances for reelection, there’s a growing discussion behind the scenes among Democratic donors and operatives about pouring more money into the Sunshine State, Trump’s newly adopted home, to make it the campaign’s burial ground.
“Florida is supposed to save our democracy?” Juan Cuba, a longtime Democratic operative and former chairman of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party, asked rhetorically. “God help us.”