• The Star Staff

Trump and Biden joust in Florida, looking for votes in the margins

By Jonathan Martin and Patricia Mazzei

As Linda Kanner hoisted groceries into her Volvo outside the Publix in this affluent Gulf Coast enclave last week, she unleashed a stream of invective toward President Donald Trump to explain why she would “vote for Mickey Mouse” before an incumbent whose conduct she finds appalling.

A Midwestern Republican retiree like many voters here, Kanner is supporting Joe Biden, instead of shunning both major-party nominees as she did in 2016, because she finds him a more palatable option than she did Hillary Clinton.

Across the state in Miami, though, it’s Biden’s apparent slippage with Hispanics that’s garnering the most attention and has Democrats wringing their hands. Republican officials, and Trump himself, have repeatedly made overtures not just to Cuban Americans who have been an enduring part of their coalition but to non-Cuban Hispanics, a growing and potentially pivotal voting group.

Biden is just as unlikely to win Longboat Key, in sleepy and mostly white Sarasota County, even with the support of voters like Kanner, as Trump is to prevail in Miami-Dade County, the pulsating and diverse Democratic hub across the state. Yet Florida, and the White House itself, could hinge on the two candidates’ ability to narrow their losses in such forbidding locales.

In an era of polarization, where swing voters are scarce, elections in Florida are won by driving up turnout among the faithful and running up margins in favorable terrain while losing more closely in hostile precincts. In a state so evenly divided that races are often decided by a few thousand votes — or, more memorably, a few hundred — mobilizing the converted outweighs preaching to the undecided few.

“The secret to Florida now is that it’s a margins game,” said Gwen Graham, a former congresswoman who worked for decades in the campaigns of her father, the governor-turned-senator Bob Graham.

That’s partly why Democrats were so stung last week by a federal appeals court decision that almost ensured that at least 774,000 former felons in the state — many of whom lean Democratic — would not be able to reclaim their voting rights this year without first paying all of their court fees. But the party received some good news over the weekend when billionaire Michael Bloomberg, under pressure to make good on his promises, vowed to spend $100 million in Florida to help Biden win there.

Four years after Trump won Florida by just over 1 percentage point, polls show the state is, true to form, sitting on a knife’s edge — and looming again as a potential tipping point. On Tuesday, Biden will make his first trip to the state since claiming the nomination last spring. Trump has made a number of visits to the state, including last week.

No voters appear more decisive than seniors, who polls show are more amenable to Biden than they were Clinton, and Hispanics, who the same surveys indicate are more supportive of Trump than they were in 2016.

“Cuban Americans have consolidated more around Trump, and the thing that has not gelled for Joe as it should are Puerto Rican voters,” said former Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat who is close to Biden. Nelson, who lost in 2018 in part because of Sen. Rick Scott’s gains with Hispanics, said he had told Biden’s senior campaign staff about his concern.

Asked if they were acting on his plea, he said, “If they want to win, they better be.” Biden’s trip Tuesday will include a visit to the Puerto Rican community outside Orlando.

Amid the anxiety, Biden’s campaign dispatched his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, to Miami last week, where she made an unscheduled stop at an arepa joint in Doral, home to so many Venezuelans that it is nicknamed Doralzuela.

The Democrats’ challenge with Hispanics is twofold: They have until recently avoided campaigning in person amid the pandemic, and Republicans have devoted years to courting Latinos in the one place in the country where they are less heavily Democratic.

Though Cubans have dominated the Hispanic vote in the state for decades, they now only narrowly outnumber non-Cuban Hispanics, 51% to 49%. That makes Puerto Ricans and Central and South Americans an attractive target for Democrats, who can more easily make inroads among those Democratic-leaning voters than among more conservative Cubans.

But winning over non-Cuban Hispanics requires the sort of time and money that the Biden campaign has only recently started to invest.

“It’s just typical: Taking communities for granted and thinking they’re going to deliver 30 days out from an election,” scoffed Ana Carbonell, a Republican and a senior adviser to Scott’s Senate campaign who specialized in outreach to Hispanics.

Perhaps more telling, some Latino voters are more comfortable with Trump than in 2016, when he trounced and belittled local sons Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio. And they are increasingly uncomfortable witnessing violence in U.S. cities.

“There were a lot of people on the Hispanic side that said, ‘I don’t want to deal with him’ in 2016,” Carbonell said of Trump. “Now we have accepted this is who he is, and they’re doing a little bit better financially, and they had thought, ‘Well, Cubans have always been exaggerating’ — but now they’re seeing these anarchists on the streets and thinking, ‘Whoa, what’s going on?’ ”

Before the pandemic, Florida Democrats had sought to avoid the mistakes of the past by lavishing attention on the Hispanic community, engaging the local news media, attending community events, and running candidates in local and state legislative races that could bring more Hispanic voters to the polls. But unable to start voter registration campaigns, they have ceded ground to Republicans, who have shown far less restraint about in-person organizing.

Christian Ulvert, a Miami-based adviser for Biden, said it was only in the past few weeks that South Florida had demonstrated “levels of baseline acceptability’’ for resuming in-person campaigning.

“You’ve got to be present, you’ve got to be engaged, and it has to be authentic,” he said, pointing to Harris’ trip last week as “the clearest sign and commitment that the campaign is doing just that.”

With Florida’s vast senior population, it is Biden who is overperforming. Four years after Trump won voters 65 and older by 17 points, he’s trailing his Democratic opponent by 1 point, according to a recent NBC survey.

“They just did not like Hillary,” said Alex Sink, a Democrat and a former state official. “But I think those white senior women, especially, who didn’t like her will be fine with Joe Biden — what’s not to like about Joe Biden?”

In conversations with a few dozen voters last week in retiree-heavy communities in and around Sarasota, the general lack of venom toward Biden among Republicans was notable. Some borrowed Trump’s tropes to describe Biden as enfeebled and yanked to the left by his party, but few voiced the sort of contempt that was a feature of every conversation with a Democrat about the president.

A handful of voters volunteered that they had supported Trump or sat out in 2016 and were now supporting Biden. All retirees, they cited the same two factors: the president’s behavior and his handling of the virus.

“Trump is killing us!” exclaimed a 73-year-old voter named Michelle, who declined to provide her last name. She said she supported the president four years ago because she had been voting on the economy.

Walking her wheaten terrier, Patsy, through downtown Sarasota, she explained that she was undergoing chemotherapy and was more susceptible to the coronavirus. “I could catch an infection and die,” she said. “And he knew about it; he admitted it.”