IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Trump, Biden gear up for battle in Florida, where coronavirus isn't the only thing on voters' minds

The electoral picture in the crucial swing state heading into November seems to resemble any other presidential election year.
Image: President Donald Trump speaks to reporters as he departs Washington at Joint Base Andrews on May 5, 2020.
President Donald Trump speaks to reporters as he leaves Washington at Joint Base Andrews, Md., on Tuesday, May 5, 2020.Tom Brenner / Reuters

Miami resident Elisaul Herrera, who became a U.S. citizen along with his wife earlier this year, will cast his first presidential ballot this November for Donald Trump.

Elisa Mora, a high school counselor from Orlando who is a registered independent voter, says she'll support Joe Biden.

Neither sees the coronavirus crisis — which has killed at least 1,700 people in the state and wreaked havoc on parts of the economy — as a factor in their decision. Herrera said his choice would be motivated by the administration’s policies toward his native Venezuela, while Mora said she was motivated by Biden’s approach to immigration and his message of inclusiveness.

Interviews with Floridians — as well as numerous current and former lawmakers, political strategists, politics watchers and academics in Florida — paint a picture of a battleground state largely unmoved by the Trump administration’s disjointed pandemic response and Biden’s myriad proposals to handle things differently.

Unlike in Pennsylvania, a swing state where Trump's re-election hopes seem more closely tied to the fallout of the pandemic, the electoral picture in Florida heading into the fall appears to resemble any other presidential election year: a diverse, 50-50 state that will be won at the margins, driven largely by the economic picture and by how well each campaign is able to reach independent and undecided voters.

Because the economic toll in Florida, by some metrics, has not been as devastating as in other states — and because the Biden campaign has struggled with its efforts to reach voters virtually — the president may end up being spared from major pandemic-specific political consequences, sources told NBC News.

“The election here, more than any one in recent memory, is going to be an ‘us versus them’ on both sides," Alan Clendenin, the Southern caucus chair for the Democratic National Committee and a resident of Tampa, said. "I don’t know who’s left as a persuadable voter. Folks have their minds made up, regardless of what happens with the pandemic, and it’s going to be a get-out-the-vote campaign."

Rick Wilson, a Florida-based veteran Republican strategist, added, “You might say that Trump’s head is on the chopping block, but that he’s nowhere near being executed.”

Positive signs, and possible pitfalls, for Trump

Florida — the country's third-most-populous state and, as of October, the president's official permanent residence — has hardly been spared the devastation of the coronavirus. As of Saturday night, the state hadthe eighth-most confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the 10th-most deaths from the virus in the U.S.

But its COVID-19 per capita death rate of 8 people per 100,000 is better than about half of other states and is well below therates of other states its size. Statewide, the curve of new cases appears to have flattened in recent weeks, even as the state reopened its economy on Monday.

In addition, about 60 percent of all cases in the state have occurred in the solidly blue trifecta of southern Florida counties Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach — a concentration that could blunt electoral damage for Trump, sources told NBC News.

Meanwhile, the economic data can tell different stories depending on the interpretation. Since March 14, about 1.7 million workers in the state have lost their jobs.

That total is the third-highest number in the country, behind only California and New York. But how the figures break down as a percentage of the state’s workforce who have filed for unemployment actually puts Florida squarely in the middle of the pack: 16.2 percent, or a little less than 1 in 6 workers, have sought unemployment.

Because the pandemic is more likely to be painted as an economic issue in Florida, and not a public health matter, Trump may actually have an easier time recalibrating his general election message, strategists said.

“He had a very simple message to run on before, which was that he created a great economy and that the country was booming under his leadership,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked on Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“Now, it's a nuanced message, which is that he grew the economy before and that he can do it again,” he added. “The question again becomes who do voters trust more to create jobs, which favors Trump.”

On the other hand, Florida has been beset by extraordinary problems relating to its state unemployment benefits system, for which voters may end up assigning blame to Trump, strategists and lawmakers said.

“They will punish Trump for that in the fall,” said Florida Democratic state Rep. Shev Jones, a Biden surrogate. “People will not forget how Florida Republicans treated them.”

At the moment, polls reflect a close race in the state fueled by modestly negative approval ratings for Trump, who narrowly won Florida in 2016 by 1.2 percentage points.

The latest RealClearPolitics polling average shows Biden leading Trump 46.5 percent to 43.3 percent — inside all the comprising polls’ margin of error. An April 22 Quinnipiac poll showed 51 percent of registered Florida voters disapprove of the way the president was handling his pandemic response, with 46 percent saying they approve. On the other hand, 45 percent of respondents said they approve of the overall job he is doing as president — his highest-ever mark in a Quinnipiac survey.

Political strategists from both parties, however, said Florida polling has often underreported GOP enthusiasm on models in previous elections due to a robust state party that is particularly skilled at turning out voters late in the race.

“If you’re a Democrat in a Florida poll and you’re ahead, it means you’re tied. I’m not bullish on Biden until I see him up eight, 10 points here in a poll,” Wilson, an avowed "Never Trumper," said.

Biden tries to makes a push — and stumbles

Only twice since 1928 — Bill Clinton in 1992 and John F. Kennedy in 1960 — has the winner of the general election not carried Florida's crucial 29 electoral votes, making it, arguably, the most critical battleground state.

Subsequently, the Biden campaign, mired in a virtual campaign that has seen the apparent nominee forced to relyon television appearances from his home studio in Delaware, has made Florida the genesis of its first state-specific virtual campaign events. He held a virtual roundtable with local lawmakers Thursday afternoon in Jacksonville and a virtual rally later in the day in Tampa.

But if the events were designed to show that Biden meant business in Florida, they fell short.

The afternoon roundtable was not broadcast. The evening rally featured several long-winded and awkward introductions from Florida lawmakers and a 65-year-old DJ named Jack Henriquez plagued by technical glitches, including audio delays and a total blackout that lasted several minutes.

When Biden finally came on 35 minutes after the event began, he appeared unprepared, saying, “Did they introduce me?”

Biden only spoke for about 10 minutes, giving a brief spiel that included a nod to the shrinking economy — as well as an apology for the event’s flaws and a closing message drowned out by loudly chirping birds.

The campaign, however, has recently held other Florida-specific virtual events, including a virtual climate roundtable geared toward the state and a virtual town hall with gun control activist Fred Guttenberg, whose 14-year-old daughter was killed in the 2018 Parkland, Florida, high school shooting.

A campaign spokesperson told NBC News that Biden planned to hammer the economic troubles in Florida that have resulted from the pandemic and his campaign would “continue, and expand, our aggressive outreach in Florida to turn that vision into votes."

Juan Peñalosa, the executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, said that since transitioning to an all-digital campaign March 13, the party has made contact with 4.8 million voters online and that party volunteers have sent 1.2 million texts and made more than 1 million calls. He also said the party has enrolled 14,000 Democrats in the state's vote by mail system and trained 2,000 new volunteers in digital organizing.

Democratic lawmakers in south Florida, however, told NBC News they had, so far, not been satisfied with the Biden virtual campaign’s outreach, especially to one key bloc of Florida voters: Latinos.

“He is not reaching them at all at the moment,” said Florida Democratic state Sen. Annette Taddeo, who represents a Miami-area district.

Meanwhile, Trump Victory, the joint operation between the Trump re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee, told NBC News since the campaign went digital-only on March 13, it has hosted at least 480 virtual trainings for campaign volunteers in Florida and made about 4 million “voter contacts” online in Florida.

“Our campaign efforts in the state have not missed a beat,” said Trump Victory spokesperson Rick Gorka.

Political strategists told NBC News that, assuming that Biden carries the reliably blue counties in the southeastern part of the state and Trump carries much of northern and central Florida, the likeliest path to victory in November would go through the so-called I-4 corridor, the area of the state running along the interstate between Tampa and Orlando that Floridians say is loaded with undecided and independent voters.

Among voters in those key counties is Christopher Talley, a 36-year-old resident of St. Petersburg, a city in Pinellas County, which Trump won in 2016 by 5,500 votes and Barack Obama won in 2012 by about 26,000.

Talley, a registered Democrat who has voted Republican in state races previously, said he’ll vote for Biden, citing the balance of the Supreme Court as his motivating issue.

“Seeing how Trump can fill seats is terrifying,” Talley said.

Not on his mind, however, is the pandemic. Talley didn’t even mention it.

Adam Edelman reported from New York. Carmen Sesin reported from Miami.

Carmen Sesin contributed.