‘Our band is getting back together.’ How Trump plans to win Florida

With daily coronavirus death tolls in Florida topping 200 in recent days and a hurricane on the horizon, President Donald Trump returned to his home state Friday, squeezing a roundtable on storm preparedness and COVID-19 between campaign stops with sheriffs and with donors at a Gulf Coast golf club.

The busy day trip came at a critical time for Florida, a state enduring one crisis and staring down another. And it came at an important moment for the president’s reelection campaign as he prepares to face presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the Nov. 3 election.

Amid sagging polling, and with mail voting beginning in eight weeks, Trump is trying to turn his campaign around in the must-win battleground. He is returning his attention to the state, and bringing back former advisers to help him recreate his 2016 victory. On Friday, he even found a way to bring back his rallies with a gathering on the tarmac at Tampa International Airport that included 30 minutes of campaign rhetoric on familiar themes.

“He’s going to win Florida,” Republican Party of Florida Chairman Joe Gruters, co-chairman of Trump’s 2016 Florida campaign, said Tuesday during an interview. “Whatever it takes. He’s going to deliver big.”

Trump’s visit to Florida is his second this month, and is book-ended by visits from Vice President Mike Pence, who traveled to Miami Monday to celebrate the launch of late-stage vaccine trials and is set to return to Florida next week for a campaign event. But until recently, the coronavirus pandemic had kept the president from the state — where four years ago he held 19 rallies between Labor Day and Election Day.

To help guide him through a campaign he can’t run his way, Trump has called back Susie Wiles, a veteran GOP operative and the daughter of the late sports broadcaster Pat Sumerall. Wiles steered Trump’s 2016 Florida campaign and helped Ron DeSantis eke out a win two years ago in the Florida governor’s race.

“Our band is getting back together,” recently promoted Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said during a video call last week with reporters. “She played a big role in the president’s big victory there [in Florida]. They’re working hard. We really like what we’re seeing.”

Both Gruters and Stepien talked up the nearly 200 field staffers deployed throughout Florida, who they say are knocking on doors and meeting people face to face. Trump is also gearing up for an air war: According to Advertising Analytics, which tracks TV spending, the campaign has no ads purchased in Florida in August amid what NBC News called a “pause” on ad spending. But the firm found that the campaign has purchased $36 million in air time in Florida’s 10 media markets from September to November — an amount that doesn’t include the pro-Trump Super PAC America First Action’s $16 million Florida ad buy.

Public polls have found Biden ahead of Trump in Florida since mid-March, the period during which Biden locked down the Democratic primary and coronavirus took hold in Florida.

Alex Conant, a political and public affairs consultant who served as communications director for Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign, believes the gap between Biden and Trump will narrow as the election grows closer, the campaign intensifies and disenchanted Trump voters return to the fold.

“He’s under-performing with people who voted for him in ‘16 and a lot of those people, it’s safe to assume, will come back to him once the campaign gets going in earnest,” said Conant. “We have three debates. We’ll see $100 million in TV ads or some crazy number. He’s really got to prosecute the case against Biden.”

Trump’s TV spending could prove more important if he is unable to host rallies, a campaign setting where the president tends to be comfortable and is able to project the image he wants. Last week, he was forced to cancel the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville in acknowledgment that Florida’s coronavirus pandemic had made the gathering too risky.

But Brian Ballard, a top Republican fundraiser in Florida and the co-chairman of the 2020 Jacksonville Host Committee, said in an interview that “the convention was more for the national stage” than Florida voters, and that Trump’s rallies don’t drive his support — the opposite is true.

“The rallies are an affirmative indication of the excitement for his candidacy. The excitement is there whether he has a rally or not,” Ballard said.

Still, without the ability to pack arenas, the campaign is creating ways to put Trump in front of voters. Trump is appearing at small gatherings in key communities, such the Tampa golf club where donors could purchase a photographs, roundtable access and a reception for a $100,000 donation. And on July 10, he visited a Miami church for a roundtable on Venezuela — an official White House event that nevertheless helped Trump talk to an exile voter bloc he’s been courting for months.

And his advisers are trying to harness the immense media focus on each of Trump’s words and tweets and use them to his benefit, instead of his detriment: Critical Mention, a firm that tracks earned media mentions, told the Miami Herald on Tuesday that Trump had been mentioned 26,472 times in the Florida press during the previous week. Biden had been mentioned 8,338 times.

“He needs to run a really disciplined campaign,” said Conant. “No more tweets about the Confederate flag. No more fights about [coronavirus task force member Anthony] Fauci.”

The content of the Trump campaign’s TV ads is likely a good indicator of what the campaign wants to highlight: claims of rising violent crime, the push from the left to “defund police” and allegations that Biden’s mental state is deteriorating. Through official White House events, Trump has also focused on efforts to find a COVID-19 vaccine, the SpaceX launch and nursing homes.

But Trump demonstrated Thursday how unpredictable he can be, drawing bipartisan rebukes after tweeting in the morning that perhaps the Nov. 3 election should be moved to a new date, an action only Congress could take. Trump, who votes by mail in South Florida, also tweeted that mail ballots are rife with fraud, a claim that has appeared to hurt Republican efforts to register mail voters in Florida.

“Do I want to see a date change? No. But I don’t want to see a crooked election. This election will be the most rigged election in history,” Trump said at the White House briefing.

Despite Trump’s personal demagoguery of mail ballots, Trump’s campaign has continued to promote mail voting in Florida, where law allows any registered voter to request a ballot in the mail without reason. To avoid contradicting the president, the campaign has promoted the ballots by saying that “absentee” ballots are appropriate, a distinction Trump makes to argue that mail voting is proper only for those who aren’t able to physically cast a ballot where they’re registered to vote.

In mailers to voters, the Republican Party of Florida has highlighted one-half of a June 28 Trump tweet in which the president said “absentee ballots are fine” but warned that “mail-in voting” would lead to “the most corrupt election in USA history.” The party, on a mailed form that voters can fill out to request a vote-by-mail ballot, blurred out everything but the words “Absentee Ballots are fine. A person has to go through a process to get and use them.”

So far, Democrats have built up a 550,000 mail-ballot advantage in Florida.

But Trump’s campaign remains confident he’ll win in November, in part because because while Democrats’ mail-ballot advantage has swelled, the party’s edge in registered voters over Republicans — which Democratic leaders loudly pledged to grow in the last year — shrank a few thousand voters from this same time four years ago, according to data compiled by the Florida Division of Elections.

“We won the voter registration war,” said Gruters.

An average of polls in Florida by RealClearPolitics.com shows Biden up nearly 7 points on the president. Carlie Waibel, a spokeswoman for Biden’s Florida campaign, said Floridians are turned off by Trump’s “abdication of leadership” during a public health crisis.

“Every step of the way, Donald Trump has ignored the science, ignored the doctors and because of his failures, our state is suffering,” she said.

But there are three months until Election Day, enough time for Trump to find his footing in Florida and come away on Nov. 3 with another come-from-behind win.

“We know what our numbers are in Florida, and we like that,” Stepien told reporters last week. “Even more than that, we like how Joe Biden’s numbers look.”

McClatchy DC reporter Francesca Chambers and Tampa Bay Times political editor Steve Contorno contributed to this report.