(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump is preparing to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into Florida for his 2020 campaign after changes in demographics and voting laws put the linchpin swing state up for grabs.
Democrats have made potentially major inroads since Trump won the state handily in 2016. They pushed through an amendment to the state’s constitution restoring the right to vote for more than 1 million convicted felons. And as many as 40,000 Puerto Ricans migrated to Florida after Hurricane Maria -- a disaster that all but shattered Trump’s standing with the island’s residents because of the botched government response.
But if Democrats want to flip Florida’s 29 electoral votes to their column in 2020, Trump and the Republican Party plan to make them pay dearly. His campaign intends to spend more than $200 million in Florida alone, according to people familiar with the matter. Trump’s campaign manager moved there, and the president even changed his permanent residence to Palm Beach.
“The Trump campaign says they need Florida, no ifs, ands or buts,” said Dan Eberhart, a GOP fundraiser active in the state’s politics. “They think without Florida there’s no path.”
Trump officially kicked off his re-election campaign with a rally in Orlando in June, and he’ll hold another one on Tuesday in Sunrise, Florida -- not far from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, his new home address, where he’ll spend the Thanksgiving holiday.
Trump won Florida in 2016 by about 1.2 percentage points, and Republicans retained the governor’s mansion in 2018 despite voter backlash against Trump elsewhere in the country that put the U.S. House under Democratic control. Smarting from the losses, Florida Democrats say they’ve autopsied their missteps and won’t repeat them.
Trump intends to devote a huge percentage of his war chest to the state. In his first run for the White House in 2008, Barack Obama’s campaign raised $779 million, still the largest amount for any presidential committee. If Trump manages to raise $1 billion, he’d still be devoting one of every five dollars to winning Florida.
“The president and the president’s campaign understand” Florida’s importance, Andrew Gillum, who narrowly lost the 2018 gubernatorial race to Republican Ron DeSantis, said in an interview. “Hell, it’s now why the president has changed his ZIP code and is now domiciled in the state.”
An October New York Times/Siena College poll of 3,766 registered voters showed Trump trailing Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in Florida by 2 points in a hypothetical 2020 matchup. He held a 1-point lead on Senator Bernie Sanders and a 4-point advantage over Senator Elizabeth Warren, both of whom are challenging Biden for the Democratic presidential nomination.
But since the poll was conducted, Trump has faced withering scrutiny as the U.S. House conducted two weeks of impeachment hearings featuring a parade of current and former members of the administration laying out in detail the president’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to open investigations that could help him politically.
If Trump loses Florida, he’d have to win Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the three Rust Belt states he narrowly won in 2016, along with the rest of the red and swing states he carried that year.
Gillum, formerly the mayor of Tallahassee, now volunteers as the chair of Forward Florida Action, a voter registration organization. He said Democrats are focusing on registering new voters, educating them and energizing them to show up to the polls “much further out from election day” than in the past.
A particular focus is Latinos as well as convicted felons now eligible to vote. “I think we change the arithmetic,” Gillum said.
800,000 New Voters
Of the approximately 1.4 million convicted felons who can now vote, Democrats have used publicly available data to identify about 800,000 that are likely to vote in the next election, regardless of their party affiliation, says Juan Peñalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party.
In June, DeSantis signed Republican-written legislation that would require felons to first pay off overdue criminal fines before they can vote. But in October, a U.S. District Court granted a preliminary injunction preventing the measure from being enforced. DeSantis filed an appeal on Nov. 15.
In addition, between 20,000 and 40,000 Puerto Ricans migrated to Florida following Maria, according to an analysis based on flight data by Stefan Rayer, population program director at the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research department. According to 2018 census data, Florida has more than 1.1 million citizens that identify as Puerto Rican -- up 11% from 2016.
The Trump campaign is responding to the demographic threat with cash.
America First, the primary Super-PAC working on Trump’s re-election, has a goal to raise $300 million nationally for the 2020 campaign. It plans to spend a significant amount of that money in Florida, said Kelly Sadler, the group’s spokeswoman.
America First also already has staffers in Florida registering voters, she said. It recently concluded focus groups with Hispanic men in Orlando and Miami, testing strategies that seek to tie Democrats to socialism and struggling Latin American autocracies such as Venezuela and Cuba, she said.
Florida is an expensive state to campaign in because it has so many media markets, according to Advertising Analytics, which studies political commercials. Miami, which skews heavily Democratic, has the highest prices. Orlando and Tampa, which are more competitive, see most of the spending and are also expensive. There are four TV markets in the conservative Panhandle region that are individually cheaper than other parts of the state but collectively expensive if a campaign wants to run ads in all of them.
The state saw the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history in 2018 when Republican Rick Scott, previously the governor, defeated incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson. The candidates, their parties and outside groups combined to spend $213 million, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington.
“It’s his home state, now,” Rick Gorka, deputy communications director for the Republican National Committee, said in an interview. “There’s a lot of reasons to make sure Florida stays red.”
Trump has been joined as a Florida resident by Brad Parscale, his campaign manager, who relocated from San Antonio earlier this year.
Trump’s campaign and the RNC together have raised $308 million through the end of the third quarter, $110 million more than President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party had raised at the same point in 2011. Obama’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee eventually spent $1 billion to secure his re-election, a figure Trump is likely to comfortably eclipse.
Gorka declined to comment on how much Trump’s campaign plans to spend in Florida. Republicans will blanket Florida with TV and digital ads and on-the-ground outreach to voters, aiming to compete in every part of the state, he said.
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