After watching Donald Trump stomp through Florida on Election Day — including a surprisingly strong performance in Miami-Dade County — the state’s Democratic Party recognizes a serious need to rebuild its operation.
The party admitted as much Thursday after failing to deliver the state’s rich trove of 29 electoral votes to its presidential nominee, Joe Biden. To add to the angst, valued incumbents such as Miami congresswomen Donna Shalala and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell lost their seats to Republican opponents, as did a small cadre of other Democrats who failed to retain precious state legislative seats in Tallahassee, where they remain a minority.
Tuesday exposed a litany of problems for a divided party: insufficient voter registration; lack of on-the-ground campaigning; a dearth of young, charismatic candidates; neglect of the minority population; an unfocused message to voters; and the inability to counter Trump’s socialist branding — all of this complicated by the paralyzing environment of COVID-19.
“While we are confident in the ultimate victory of Joe Biden, I know our Florida losses sting deep, for our party, the candidates, and the 5 million Florida Democrats looking to build on the progress we have made,” chairwoman Terri Rizzo said in a statement Thursday. "Together with our state and national partners, we need to do a deep dive to address data and turnout issues that caused these losses, and where our party goes from here.”
The statement came after critics blistered the party for failing to offset a finely tuned campaign for the incumbent Trump. They said the Democrats failed to keep in touch with important constituent groups such as Hispanics, African-Americans and thousands of wage earners who are struggling to make ends meet during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I would now say we are a red state,” said Alex Sink, a past Florida chief financial officer.
“We have to change our mentality to, ‘OK, we are a red state,'" said Sink, who ran an unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign against former Florida Gov. Rick Scott in 2010. "How do we build a strategy around that?’”
In a post-election Tweet, state Rep. Anna V. Eskamani of Orlando, who won a new term. said the party needs to be reorganized.
“I’m saying it now. We need a whole new direction for the @FlaDems,” she said. “We are losing too many incredible down-ballot elected officials and candidates right now, and it’s not OK. I know we have the potential to be better and do better.”
State Sen. Lauren Book, a fellow Democrat from Plantation, agreed, likening the party to a car from the 1970s.
“Clearly it’s broken,” she said in an interview Thursday. “Clearly it needs to be fixed, taking an honest and deep look at ourselves and what we’re doing. It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be difficult.”
Book argued that while voters did turn out in sizable numbers, the Democrats misspent their money by failing to identify the issues and concerns of individual social, ethnic and gender groups.
“There were millions and millions and millions of dollars that were poured into this state, and we lost ground,” she said. “We can’t live in a world of macro targeting. We live in a world of micro targeting.”
“We know that every group and sub-group has their own different thoughts and ideas,” she added. “How can we speak to those voters? We just have to do a better job.”
This year, as Biden dueled Trump, analysts and operatives asserted that Democrats sold themselves short by relying too heavily on social media instead of spending more time meeting would-be voters face to face.
Dario Moreno, associate professor of politics and international affairs at Florida International University, said the Democrats failed to invest in a ground game, particularly in Miami-Dade County, home to a vast reservoir of Hispanic voters who were aggressively courted by Trump.
“The Trump ground game in Dade County and Broward was very strong,” he said. “The Democrats depended on social media and mailers. Once the Biden campaign realized it, they were too late and couldn’t do anything about it.”
There were millions and millions and millions of dollars that were poured into this state, and we lost ground.
State Sen. Lauren Book
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He added that Biden failed to connect with Latin American exiles in South Florida who are concerned about U.S. foreign policy toward their home countries, such as Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, all run by authoritarian communist or socialist regimes. In relentless fashion, the Trump campaign branded Biden and other Democrats as socialists, a charge the Democrats failed to aggressively rebut.
“They have to show concern about Cuba and Venezuela,” Moreno said. “One of the things that hurt Debbie Mucarsel-Powell and Donna Shalala was that they weren’t front and center on these issues. At the end of the day Trump worked it for four years.”
“I know that some of the Democrats were saying it’s unfair” to be called socialists, he added. “But there is name-calling in campaigns all the time. So that means you’re going to fold? Why don’t you take a strong stand on these issues?”
In the end, Biden carried Miami-Dade County by only about 85,000 votes, a far cry from the 300,000-vote margin Hillary Clinton beat Trump by four years ago.
Analysts assert that the Democrats all but ceded the use of door-to-door contacts to the Trump campaign. Although the Biden campaign prevailed in the urban areas, out-polling Trump by 55% to 45% in Florida’s urban areas, the president took the suburbs (51% to 48%) , small towns (55% to 44%) and rural areas (63% to 36%), according to an Associated Press sampling of 3,698 state voters on Election Day.
Ana Sofia Peleaz, co-founder and executive director of the Miami Freedom Project, said her progressive advocacy group played a “digital air game” that got out the vote while respecting the dangers of COVID-19.
“That has its limits, of course,” she said. “So does science.”
Dwight Bullard, political director of New Florida Majority, a progressive independent political group, said the campaigns run for former President Barack Obama’s had the infrastructure and organization that led to his winning Florida — including Miami-Dade County — in both 2012 and 2016. Since the end of the Vietnam War, only two other Democrats carried Florida: Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1996.
“The Obama infrastructure was laid out through Obama for America,” he said. “A lot of that really boiled down to direct one-on-one relationships with people in communities, hence the results statewide and in Miami-Dade County.”
“There was no investment in the larger Democratic establishment to maintain that infrastructure in 2020,” he said.
"The problem down here is that instead of responding to the alarm quickly they wanted to keep people safe during a pandemic, which is noble, but even when people were saying they were willing to engage despite the virus, they still didn’t ramp it up quickly,” Bullard said.
Meanwhile, the Trump campaign barged ahead with mass rallies in a wide swath of Florida cities, including a “Fighters Against Socialism” tour aimed at Latinos that featured the candidate’s children, UFC fighters and Vice President Mike Pence, among other GOP luminaries such as Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio.
But the big rally wasn’t the only weapon in the Republican tool box.
Sink, a banker and venture capitalist who once headed the Bank of America in Florida, said she “learned my lesson the hard way in 2010” from the GOP, which she said has turned get-out-the-vote efforts into targeted, year-round affairs. “They have just been very surgical about the way they do their messaging under the radar.”
“Part of their winning formula is they pick off voters from around the edges,” she added. “They will pick off Jewish voters. They are picking off Black voters. They are very targeted in their messaging. They have a list of Black families who have vouchers for their children to go private schools. They send out targeted mail over and over to Black voters.”
“They know how to pick off Evangelical white women like my daughter-in-law,” Sink said. “Her issue is not abortion, but her issue is more law and order, for example.”
On its face, there shouldn’t be much debate about the party’s ability to compete, said Kevin Wagner, chairman of the political science department at Florida Atlantic University. Between the two parties, voter registration in Florida “is pretty close,” Wagner said. “It’s a fairly even divided state.”
“Statewide it is fair to say Florida has had a Republican lean,” Wagner said. “Democrats have been competitive in Florida. The gubernatorial race was very competitive. Barack Obama won Florida twice. Democrats can succeed.”
As of Aug. 31 of this year, the Republicans had 5,020,199 people on the voter rolls while 5,203,705 aligned themselves with Democrats, according to the Florida Department of State’s Division of Elections. There were 3,653,046 people who claimed no party affiliation.
But locating appealing candidates who can run for office and survive challenges is another matter.
“They need candidates who can appeal to a broad swath of Florida,” Wagner said. “It’s hard to find those kinds of candidates.”
In an email blast Thursday, the Democrats claimed credit for the election of 225 Democrats to local, municipal and county offices across Florida on Tuesday. Among the highlights: the election of Daniella Levine Cava, the first woman elected mayor of Miami-Dade County.
“These victories were propelled by the Florida Democratic Party Municipal Victory Program,” the statement said. “It included training, digital and communications resources, data and analytics resources, and direct investments.”
But critics asserted that the Democrats are far removed from the years when it steered the state’s political agenda from Tallahassee and Washington.
For Democrats, there are no leadership titans on the scene such as Bob Graham and the late Lawton Chiles. They both served multiple terms as governor and as U.S. senators in Washington during the 1980s and 1990s, setting the tone for the party’s priorities.
“Florida used to be a solid Democratic state,” Wagner said, with the Republicans' domination starting to take hold in the late 1990s to the early 2000s.
“One thing you’ve got to say is it stayed consistently in that direction,” he said. “I don’t know that the Democratic Party ever recovered.”
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Today, the highest-ranking Democrat in state government is Nikki Fried, the commissioner of agriculture and consumer services. Republicans have occupied the governor’s mansion since Jeb Bush took office in 1998 and have held sway in the Legislature for the last two decades. The Florida Supreme Court is dominated by Republican appointees.
The road back
Sink said a good way for Democrats to start on the road back is to emulate what fellow local Democrats are doing in her hometown area of Hillsborough County.
Four years ago, they started to make voter outreach a year-round operation, complete with an office, events and fundraising. After those efforts, Democrats now hold a majority for the “for the first time in 20 years.”
“Our candidates need to be more confident and comfortable in talking about kitchen table issues” such as jobs and health care, she said.
She added that in the wake of Tuesday’s outcome, the party must confront some hard questions.