Campaign

Trump, facing trouble in Florida, goes all in

ORLANDO, Fla. - President Trump is pulling out all the stops in Florida ahead of November as polls there show him trailing former Vice President Joe Biden. 

He's changed his official address to Palm Beach. He sought to move the GOP convention to Jacksonville before backing away from the idea on Thursday. He's visited the state since leaving quarantine conditions, and he's said he won't issue a national mask mandate - while Florida is the largest state yet to issue its own.

Trump is going all-in to repeat his 2016 success in the country's biggest swing state, but polls indicate he has an uphill climb ahead.

A Quinnipiac University poll released on Thursday showed Biden with a 13-point lead in Florida, 51 percent to 38 percent, his widest advantage yet in the state. Both Republican and Democratic operatives are quick to point out Quinnipiac's mixed polling record in Florida, but the survey is only the latest to show Trump falling behind in his adopted home state.

Another from the Florida-based St. Pete Polls also released on Thursday showed Biden opening up a 6-point lead in the Sunshine State. In an even more dire sign for Trump, the poll found the presumptive Democratic nominee ahead among voters in Florida's hotly contested I-4 Corridor, which runs through the middle of the state, and in the Fort Myers media market in Republican-leaning Southwest Florida.

Trump's campaign has reserved more in television advertising in Florida than in any other state - a staggering $40 million in airtime, more than he has reserved in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin combined, according to an analysis of advertising data by The Hill. 

And the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee (RNC) have unleashed a massive ground game in the state, with more than 180 staffers on the ground in every county. 

The campaign says it has made 10.4 million Florida voter contacts during the cycle, a substantial increase from the 1.5 million voter contacts it made by Election Day in 2016. 

"We're not taking anything for granted this year," said RNC spokeswoman Ellie Hockenbury. 

The president's response to the coronavirus pandemic will likely play into how Florida voters evaluate his job performance in November, given the rise in cases in the state. 

Thursday's Quinnipiac University survey showed Florida voters responding negatively to Trump's handling of the pandemic, with 37 percent saying they approved of his performance and 59 percent saying they disapproved. The latest findings mark a shift from April, when 46 percent of voters in the state said they approved of Trump's handling of the pandemic, while 51 percent said they disapproved. 

"The trajectory we're heading obviously spells trouble for the president," said Christian Ulvert, a South Florida-based Democratic consultant. "Florida on Memorial Day and in early June - it looked like the pandemic was more under control. Then everything changed over the last three weeks." 

"There's no strategy, there's no plan, so it's hard to imagine voters are going to forget all this 60 days from now," he added.

Trump claimed in an interview with Fox News on Sunday that the virus would eventually vanish despite record numbers of positive cases and deaths in the country.

"I'll be right eventually. I will be right eventually. You know, I said, 'It's going to disappear.' I'll say it again," the president said. 

However, Trump markedly changed his tone on the virus earlier this week during one of the first White House coronavirus task force briefings in months.

"It will probably, unfortunately, get worse before it gets better," he said from the White House podium. "Something I don't like saying about things, but that's the way it is."  

On Thursday, Trump abruptly announced that he would cancel Republican National Convention events planned for Jacksonville amid mounting public health and safety concerns.

The president has also become more vocal about the importance of wearing face masks in public spaces, posting a picture of himself wearing one on Twitter this week and calling it "patriotic." 

"I think where the Trump administration wants to improve their messaging is they want to make sure that Floridians, particularly seniors and those in the suburbs, [know] that the president is doing everything he can," Florida-based GOP strategist Ford O'Connell told The Hill. 

"He wants to make sure they know, and that he's putting the coronavirus front and center," he said. "I think if he gets over that hurdle in Florida with how they perceive him handling the coronavirus, which he can do from the White House bully pulpit, then he will be in a lot better standing in Florida."

Republicans have also emphasized the importance of Trump's messaging on the economy, an area where he has polled well since the start of his term. 

"The president built the strongest economy in the world once and is the only leader who can do it again," Hockenbury said. 

In Seminole County, which Trump won by roughly a single point in 2016, Republican officials say they are confident in the president's messaging, particularly on the economy. 

GOP presidential candidates have carried the county, which includes suburbs of Orlando, for decades, though Democrats were given new hope when Andrew Gillum, the party's gubernatorial nominee, and former Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) won there in 2018. 

"Each volunteer has their own reasons ... whether it is respect for the American flag, appreciation of law enforcement, the promises kept in growing the economy, the promises kept in protecting American jobs, Opportunity Zones, support for [historically black colleges and universities], and most recently the Hispanic Prosperity Initiative," Seminole County Republican Chairwoman Linda Trocine told The Hill. 

The Trump campaign and the RNC say they also plan to push Trump's law-and-order message amid nationwide calls to defund the police, as well as his anti-socialism message in South Florida, a region that has been shaped for decades by Cuban exiles who fled communist rule and is now also home to the largest Venezuelan population in the U.S.

The Trump campaign unveiled a new Spanish-language ad in the Miami media market this week seizing on a recent controversy over Goya Foods - whose CEO recently lauded Trump at the White House - while casting Biden as an "extreme" socialist. The ad was narrated by Cuban actress Susana Pérez. 

Democrats have largely dismissed Trump's cries of socialism. Ulvert said that president's latest ad spot amounted to little more than a scare tactic that ultimately acknowledges Trump's weakened position in the Sunshine State.

"They're trying to create fear among Hispanic voters in South Florida over socialism. If the president has to be in this position, creating fear, then he is already starting from a weak point," Ulvert said.

Despite low poll numbers in Florida and nationwide, the Trump campaign and the RNC say they are more concerned about maintaining voter enthusiasm. 

"If you believed every poll, we'd have a President Clinton running for reelection thanks to her massive win in Florida," Hockenbury said. "We are leaps and bounds ahead of where the Democrats are in Florida right now." 

Some Florida Democratic officials have complained privately about what they see as a lackluster campaign effort from Biden. During a caucus meeting last week, local party leaders expressed concern over organizational decisions made by the campaign and the state Democratic Party. 

But Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based pollster and Democratic consultant, said that Biden's low-profile campaign in the state has helped fuel his rise in the polls by making the presidential race a referendum on Trump alone.

"The one thing that the Biden campaign has done extraordinarily well is not allowing this to be anything but a referendum on Trump," Amandi said. 

"I'll be the first to also say that the election can change in three months. What happens at the beginning of the week is very likely to be forgotten by the end of the week," he added. "But with something like COVID, which is truly an existentially defining issue, a lot of Trump voters could very well lose their lives. That's not something that's very easily forgotten."

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