Florida offers key test of Biden team's pandemic campaign plan

The campaign is betting that a targeted, largely virtual effort can turn out core voters while persuading swing groups in a crucial battleground state.
Image: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks about climate change and the wildfires on the West Coast a the Delaware Museum of Natural History
Joe Biden on Monday spoke about climate change and the wildfires on the West Coast, at the Delaware Museum of Natural History in Wilmington.Drew Angerer / Getty Images

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By Marianna Sotomayor and Mike Memoli

WASHINGTON — There’s no set playbook for running against a candidate like Donald Trump during a global pandemic. But to understand the formula that Joe Biden's campaign thinks it can use to topple the incumbent in November — and why many nervous Democrats have their doubts about it — look no further than Florida.

Flush with cash but impaired from campaigning normally by the coronavirus, the Biden campaign is betting that an acutely targeted, largely virtual effort can nonetheless turn out core supporters while identifying and persuading swing voters, all without knocking on doors or deploying its candidate in earnest in the final seven weeks.

In Florida, that means the campaign’s message — a battle for the soul of the nation — gets narrowcast in different ways for different audiences throughout the state.

On the airwaves, seniors are being targeted with testimonial-style advertising featuring residents of the Trump-leaning retirement community The Villages discussing how the president’s inability to control the virus has forced them to stay inside and away from their families.

Hispanic voters are being reminded how Trump’s handling of the pandemic and economy have affected them, while Black voters are hearing stories from their own community about the need to turn out or risk another four years of no progress toward racial equality.

In person, Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris traveled to Miami Gardens last week to focus on African American voters while her husband, Douglas Emhoff, who is Jewish, held a community conversation with rabbis eight miles away in Aventura.

And during his first visit to the state this year, Biden on Tuesday will hold a roundtable with veterans in the Tampa area and attempt to win over Puerto Ricans near Orlando nearly three years after Hurricane Maria decimated the island.

Without a traditional get-out-the-vote program, a Biden organizing staff that has grown 500 percent nationally since May is contacting voters one-by-one and in small groups with a focus on having “quality conversations” through its organizing tools like the Team Joe app or WhatsApp, a popular messaging tool among Hispanics that has also been a forum for the spread of conspiracy theories and disinformation.

“There is not a one-size-fits-all campaign nationally that's going to work in each state,” campaign manager Jennifer O’Malley Dillon said, adding that within each state there are highly customized approaches to key voting groups. “So whether we're talking about our Latino engagement strategy, Black American, young, senior — we have across every channel that we communicate as a campaign customized specific, specific programming to each of these audiences.”

With a booming financial war chest, over 2,500 organizers and a $280 million paid media reservation in battleground states, the campaign is spending resources earlier to adequately target these coalitions so it can expand support in the final weeks to prevent potential losses by making up for them among others.

But even as Biden holds advantages in polls over Trump nationally, in battleground states and among a number of key voting groups, Democrats are becoming increasingly public with their concern about areas where Biden’s performance lags — especially among Latino voters that could sway the election in Florida, and with it the country.

An NBC News/Marist survey released last week found the race in Florida tied overall, but with Biden underperforming among Latino voters. Seeking to counteract that, Latino voters across Florida are being reintroduced to Biden — and reminded of Trump — in different ways in different regions.

Spanish-language ads in Tampa and Miami feature a Cuban accent, while those in Orlando feature a Puerto Rican dialect — an effort to make the community feel that they’re being heard, literally. And a new set of ads that are expected to be launched later this month will feature Latino voters offering the same kind of testimonials for Biden that have been successful in reaching seniors.

As part of his visit to Florida on Tuesday, Biden will deliver remarks at a Hispanic Heritage Month with an eye on Puerto Rican voters who could be key to offsetting Trump’s advantage among Cuban voters. The event comes exactly a year after Biden’s last public event in Florida — in Little Havana, Miami.

The NBC News/Marist poll found that Trump led Biden among Latino voters, 50 percent to 46 percent, a margin built largely on a more significant edge for Trump among Latinos of Cuban descent. In 2016, exit polls found Hillary Clinton with a 62 percent to 35 percent advantage over Trump.

Steve Schale, who led the Obama campaign’s efforts in Florida and now co-chairs a pro-Biden super PAC, did not sugarcoat what he said were Biden’s real challenges in the Hispanic community in a memo last week, saying support among younger Cubans and non-Cuban Hispanics “is not where it needs to be.”

Biden himself told reporters Monday that while his lead nationally among Hispanics is higher than Trump, “they gotta go higher” if he expects to win Florida outright, which would put him on a fast track to the White House.

Schale said his PAC’s internal polling found that there was room to grow, however, and that voters needed to hear more about — and from — Biden.

Campaign officials believe Biden has suffered because of a ferocious effort by the Trump campaign to tie the former vice president to what it portrays as the increasingly socialist bent of his party’s progressive wing.

Officials responsible for the campaign’s paid media efforts are closely monitoring the attacks and working to respond quickly; just this week, the Biden campaign released a new Spanish-language TV ad that tells the community not to pay attention to Trump’s lies on the coronavirus and the economy, while a radio ad calls out a Trump radio ad for overusing slang — arguing it showed his campaign wasn’t putting enough effort in to respect their language.

The Biden campaign’s advantage on the airwaves is significant: Trump’s campaign spent less than $6 million over a four-week span in August there, one-third as much as Biden’s.

And he’s getting new air cover from Michael Bloomberg, who’s political operation has announced a commitment to spend $100 million in Florida with a special focus on the Latino vote.

Biden campaign aides and those involved in mobilizing the Hispanic vote say having the candidate himself back in the state is the most effective way to dispel Trump’s framing on the Democratic candidate being a socialist or in mental decline, as one recent Trump campaign ad suggests.

The campaign is also launching a virtual bus tour featuring members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and celebrity guests when possible to stop in battleground states including Florida to emphasize Biden’s Latino agenda and drive up voter registration.

To make up for potential losses within the Hispanic community, the Biden campaign acknowledges the need to boost its turnout and vote share among Black men. Biden’s performance among Black voters helped him secure the nomination, but the campaign is aiming to press its advantage.

After the shooting of Jacob Blake by a white police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last month, the campaign launched “Shop Talk,” an effort in battleground states to give Black men a space to discuss the challenges they’re facing. It also became a source of testimonials that the campaign is using in four new television ads so that members of the community can hear from relatable voices telling them why it’s important to get out and vote for Biden.

And the campaign hopes that targeting older voters in the state with ads that remind them of Trump’s record on Social Security and the coronavirus pandemic could give Biden an edge in winning the state if voters fall off in other constituencies.

Aides familiar with paid media planning also say the campaign is injecting more funding in Florida to target groups that Democrats do not usually target, like Caribbean and Haitian voters, many of whom have immigrated to North Miami in the last decade. Using a similar playbook with Hispanic outreach, the campaign is putting their surrogates and candidates — like Harris — on Creole language radio, TV and print mediums in an effort to reach voters exactly where they are.

“Nobody is saying that we think we're going to get all of the Black vote because we are the Democratic nominee," campaign co-chairman Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana said. "We hope to get the overwhelming majority of the Black vote because we earned it — because we're talking about the things that are important to them, that we're not lying to them."