The Memo: Democrats feel rising tide in Florida

Democratic hopes are rising for a victory in Florida in November’s presidential election — an outcome that would make President TrumpDonald John TrumpHR McMaster says president's policy to withdraw troops from Afghanistan is 'unwise' Cast of 'Parks and Rec' reunite for virtual town hall to address Wisconsin voters Biden says Trump should step down over coronavirus response MORE’s path to reelection vanishingly narrow.

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe BidenJoe BidenCast of 'Parks and Rec' reunite for virtual town hall to address Wisconsin voters Biden says Trump should step down over coronavirus response Biden tells CNN town hall that he has benefited from white privilege MORE is leading Trump in polls of the nation’s largest swing state. Biden leads by 5 points in the RealClearPolitics polling average in the Sunshine State, and a late June poll from Fox News put him ahead by 9 points.

The state’s struggles with the coronavirus are another hurdle that Trump will have to clear if he is to win its crucial 29 electoral votes.

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Florida reported more than 11,000 new coronavirus cases in daily figures released Friday. The total for the state is nearing a quarter-million. Friday’s numbers also saw the biggest one-day rise in new hospitalizations, with 435 patients admitted.

Trump’s handling of the pandemic is coming under increasing scrutiny nationwide. In addition, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisFirst death reported from Hurricane Sally in Alabama Trump tells Gulf Coast residents to prepare for 'extremely dangerous' Hurricane Sally Polls show trust in scientific, political institutions eroding MORE (R) is a close Trump ally whose push to reopen the state from lockdown early is also being questioned as cases spike.

Trump journeyed to the state Friday but — tellingly — made only a brief reference to the pandemic. He instead focused on efforts to counter illegal narcotics, and his opposition to Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro. Trump also held a fundraiser that reportedly raised about $10 million.

The president is staking a great deal on his ability to draw members of Florida’s Venezuelan American and Cuban American communities to his side. During his event focused on Venezuela, Trump accused Biden of being a “puppet of … the radical left,” noted that his administration had imposed sanctions on Maduro’s government and accused Biden and former President Obama of being part of a “sellout” to Cuba and the late Fidel Castro.

But Biden is pressing his advantage.

In a statement hours before the president arrived in the state, Biden accused Trump of mangling the response to the pandemic, and of being weaker on Venezuela than he wishes to suggest.

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On the pandemic, Biden said, “Trump’s response — ignore, blame others, and distract — has come at the expense of Florida families.”

He also noted Trump’s past hints that he would be willing to sit down with Maduro.

Biden characterized Trump’s approach both to the pandemic and to Venezuela as “unreliable and self-centered.”

Even Democrats do not expect Biden to win by anything like the 9-point margin projected in last month’s Fox News poll.

In the past six presidential elections, Florida has gone for the Democratic nominee three times and the Republican three times. The winner in the last three of those elections has had a margin of victory under 3 percentage points. Trump defeated Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillicon Valley: FBI chief says Russia is trying to interfere in election to undermine Biden | Treasury Dept. sanctions Iranian government-backed hackers The Hill's Campaign Report: Arizona shifts towards Biden | Biden prepares for drive-in town hall | New Biden ad targets Latino voters FBI chief says Russia is trying to interfere in election to undermine Biden MORE in the state by 1.2 points in 2016.

“Things are looking good in Florida, but I know Florida too well,” said Democratic state Sen. Annette Taddeo. “It will come down to 1 percent, one way or another.”

Taddeo did say, however, that Biden is “in really good shape,” even as she expects there to be a narrowing in the polls toward the race’s end.

Among the anecdotal evidence she cited was the mood of the callers to Spanish-language radio stations on which she appears.

“You learn so much from all these people calling in, really angry. They know I’m a Democrat and they say, ‘I’m a Republican but I’m done.’” she said.

Like others who spoke to The Hill, Taddeo cited not just the rising number of coronavirus cases but long-standing problems with the state’s unemployment benefit system, which has stymied many laid-off workers from getting the assistance to which they are entitled.

Susan MacManus, a professor emerita at the University of South Florida, agreed that the unemployment problems were a political liability to DeSantis, and there was a chance of that frustration percolating through to Trump.

But she also cautioned pundits and Democrats against overconfidence.

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“I think it is still very fluid. So many people are saying it is set in cement but I still see it as fluid,” she said.

MacManus argued that some of the disorder that has occurred around street protests in recent weeks could yet redound to Trump’s benefit, especially among older socially conservative voters. And she expressed some skepticism with polling.

“A lot of people are leaning toward Biden, but I am always leery of a poll where the lead is just 4 or 5 percent. I suspect there are a lot of people who are going to vote for Trump who are not saying so,” she added.

Republicans believe they still have leverage in the state, and not just because a general economic comeback is possible.

GOP strategist Ford O’Connell, a native of Naples, Fla., acknowledged that Biden was not as “toxic” as Clinton had been for some Florida voters in 2016. But, he argued, Trump still had time to “draw a contrast with Biden and really define him” — especially on the issue of immigration.

The idea that a hard line on immigration would doom Trump in Florida is not necessarily true, as the 2016 result showed. A new poll from Latino Decisions on Friday found the president’s job approval with Florida Latinos at 45 percent and his approval at 55 percent — not spectacular but not disastrous either.

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Much can change in the next four months. But the stakes are in no doubt. When it comes to the election, Florida could be the whole ballgame.

“If Trump loses Florida, he’s done,” said O’Connell. “If he wins, he keeps on fighting.”


The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.