DUNEDIN, Fla. ― When President Donald Trump moved his Republican nominating convention to Florida after yanking it from North Carolina last month, the extra hassle and cost at least carried the benefit of shoring up his support in the country’s highest-value swing state.
Four weeks later, with coronavirus cases flaring across the state, the move may instead make it that much harder for Trump to win Florida’s 29 electoral votes ― votes that, if he loses them, would almost certainly guarantee his loss nationally.
“If they move forward with that convention, with the numbers the way they are, people are just going to think they’re crazy,” said Kim Nymeyer, president of the North Pinellas County Democratic Club, adding that Trump’s insistence on holding an in-person coronation amid a pandemic gives her side yet another argument. “I do think Trump is taking the rope and hanging himself without any help from us.”
Trump seemed to back away from his demand for a packed house in an interview with Voice of America on Tuesday. “When we signed a few weeks ago, it looked good. And now all of a sudden it’s spiking up a little bit and that’s going to go down. It really depends on the timing. . . . We can do a lot of things, but we’re very flexible.”
Plans for the three days of rallies at a minor league hockey arena in Jacksonville in late August, meanwhile, continued moving forward Wednesday.
One top Republican close to the White House acknowledged things could, indeed, go badly and wind up hurting Trump’s chances of winning the all-important state.
“It could be OK. If he has a decent crowd, and he gets up and knocks the speech out of the park. That’s the best case,” he said on condition of anonymity. “Worst case? No one comes, it looks empty and there’s a bunch of protests, which becomes the big story in the middle of a pandemic.”
Complications for that best-case scenario are already apparent. Under Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s standing executive order, indoor facilities cannot be filled to beyond 50% capacity, meaning, in the case of Jacksonville’s VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena, only 7,500 would be admitted inside, just 1,300 more than were in the sparsely attended Tulsa, Oklahoma, campaign rally on June 20.
The Republican National Convention is currently planning to test every single one of the attendees daily for the coronavirus, but if cases are still surging in Florida, daily tests of Trump delegates and supporters would raise questions about why so many medical resources were being devoted to an unnecessary celebration.
Finally, there is the choice of the day itself, Aug. 27, the anniversary of “Ax Handle Saturday,” the day in 1961 when Blacks conducting a lunch counter sit-in were brutally attacked by about 200 white people wielding ax handles and baseball bats.
“It’s one of the lowlights of Jacksonville’s history,” said Mike Binder, a University of North Florida political science professor whose recent poll showed that Jacksonville residents, by a 58-42 margin, opposed having the convention there right now. “It’s hard to imagine this going well…. Nobody else had their hand up wanting this thing.”
Trouble For Trump In His New Home State
Even before the pandemic swept all else aside, there were signs that Trump ought not to have been counting on his newly adopted home state to deliver for him.
At a late January meeting of Nymeyer’s Democratic club at the Dunedin Scottish Arts Foundation’s meeting room a few blocks from the town’s main drag, volunteers had to set out extra rows of folding chairs to accommodate all the arrivals.
Nymeyer asked for first-timers to raise their hands and explain why they had come. To a person, they mentioned Trump.
“I’m just pissed off,” said an African American woman.
“I’m here to make sure we win this year,” said a white male retiree.
Added an older white woman: “I’m just here because I’m mad as hell.”
Nymeyer thanked them for coming. “We need you to stop yelling at your TV and start volunteering.”
At the time, she and other Democrats in the area worried that a favorite of the party’s progressive wing, such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) could win the nomination, making it hard to win a more moderate swing state like Florida.
But with former Vice President Joe Biden leading the ticket, that worry is gone. Even better, Nymeyer said, the former Sanders and Warren supporters appear to agree that the overarching goal of removing Trump is paramount. “The votes are out there. The key is to go get them,” she said.
Steve Schale, the Democratic consultant who ran former President Barack Obama’s 2008 victory in Florida and is now working for a pro-Biden super PAC, said he assumes Trump and his campaign will do a competent job of turning out Republican votes, which will get them to about 48%, while he hopes Democrats will do a decent job with their voters, which would get Biden to 48%.
Winning the remaining 2% plus 1 will involve persuading people, he said, adding that, right now, most polls show Biden is ahead 5 or 6 percentage points in the state. “The question is, how much of that is in the moment?”
Starting with the famously razor-thin, 537-vote margin of the 2000 election, just two presidential races in Florida have been decided by a margin larger than a point and half, and even those were close: George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004, when he won by 5 points, and Obama’s 2008 election, when he won by 3.
The other two presidential contests, the three governor’s races since 2010 and, in 2018, the U.S. Senate race, have been so close that the average victory margin has been 0.8 percentage point.
Given that, Schale said, the Biden campaign should be happy to be where it is. “They’re ahead. They’re doing something right. I don’t know how much of that is organizational and how much of that is Trump being Trump.”
“I Will Vote For A Shoe Over Donald Trump”
That Trump is Trump, though, may well be the best argument Democrats have heading into November.
Four years ago, Adriana Rivera, a Puerto Rican native new to South Florida, had been captivated by Sanders’s primary run but had been turned off by eventual nominee Hillary Clinton and did not bother to vote.
After 3½ years of Trump in the White House, she said, she will not repeat that mistake. “This time around, I will vote for a shoe over Donald Trump. We didn’t know what a Trump presidency would be like. Now we’ve seen it. We’ve seen how horrible it is.”
Others in the progressive community ― Rivera again supported Sanders in the primaries this time around ― and Florida’s Puerto Rican community feel the same way, she said, particularly in the aftermath of Trump’s botched response to the pandemic, which in Florida has been exacerbated by a dysfunctional state unemployment claims system that has disproportionately hurt Latinos, who tend to live paycheck to paycheck.
“I think people are beyond the point of frustrated and are now just angry,” said Rivera, who works with the Florida Immigrant Coalition.
The Trump campaign did not respond to HuffPost requests for comment regarding its Florida strategy. At a Trump rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, in February, communications director Tim Murtaugh ridiculed the idea of even needing one: “We’re going to win Florida. It’s only a matter of when the Dems give up.”
That, though, was before the pandemic spread across the country following weeks of Trump downplaying it, claiming it would go away on its own, even calling it a “hoax” pumped up by Democrats and the news media to hurt his reelection chances.
The informal Republican White House adviser said Republicans’ superior voter turnout operation would, in the end, let Trump win Florida.
“We’re probably down 2 to 4 points. And we’ll win by 1 to 2 points,” he said.
One longtime GOP veteran of Florida politics, however, said that assessment assumes both that the pandemic fades from the state and employment has rebounded to where it was before the crisis.
“They know this. It’s like a baseball team that’s losing. You can’t fire the team, but you can fire the coach,” said Mac Stipanovich, the former chief of staff to Republican Gov. Bob Martinez in the late 1980s who then ran Jeb Bush’s first, unsuccessful, bid for governor in 1994. “If things go well, he gets the credit. If things go badly, he gets the blame.”
Which is why, he added, he cannot understand Trump’s insistence on staging his convention in a state that he has to win.
“The way they dumped on North Carolina, picked Jacksonville. They can’t so far raise the money that’s necessary, for people that might not come, in the context of a pandemic, in one of the state’s hot spots, with the possibility of a Chicago 1968 in terms of protests,” Stipanovich said. “The potential advantage for the Trump campaign is so small compared to the risk, I would be worried about it…. It’s just a weird dynamic. I don’t see how it helps.”
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