Can Florida do the Georgia flip?

People celebrate Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election on Nov. 7, 2020, in Atlanta. (Photo: AP /Brynn Anderson)

Feb. 12, 2021 by David Silverberg

Florida Democrats are just starting to gear up for the challenges of 2022. The governorship, a Senate seat and, of course, all congressional seats are up for election.

Aside from the potential change of power, 2022 presents a chance for state Democrats to redeem themselves from the disastrous defeat of 2020.

In making their preparations, Florida Democrats can look north to Georgia where a stereotypically deeply conservative Republican stronghold voted Democratic for President and two senators.

Can the kind of work and effort that flipped Georgia blue be duplicated just south of the state line next year?

Hope, of course, springs eternal. Florida Democrats are trying to stand up, brush themselves off and regain their footing.

But getting from aspiration to actuality is a long and difficult road and the roads that run through Georgia’s clay and Florida’s sand are very different.

What adjustments need to be made? What factors were unique to 2020 and how will they change in 2022? What can Georgia teach Florida for next year?

Georgia’s march to victory

There were many factors that contributed to the Democratic victory in Georgia but some that stand out include:

Stacey Abrams

Stacey Abrams (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

There’s long been debate among historians whether history is made by individuals or vast, impersonal forces. Stacey Abrams is living proof that people make history. A woman of extraordinary intelligence, drive and achievement, she demonstrably and individually steered this quintessentially southern and tradition-bound state in a new direction.

Most Floridians first heard of Stacey Abrams in 2018 when she came within 55,000 votes of winning the Georgia governor’s race. She did this despite rampant and blatant voter suppression and a Republican Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, who oversaw the election rules even as he was running for governor. But after losing the election, instead of giving up she redoubled her efforts.

With Georgia flipping blue Abrams is now a political star but her overnight success was 10 years in the making—48 years if one starts counting from her birth. She tirelessly and relentlessly worked to increase voter registration, turn out minority communities and after her gubernatorial run, founded Fair Fight Action to oppose voter suppression. She saw the political possibilities in Georgia long before any other politician or pundit and worked to make them real. She drew up the strategy that ultimately resulted in victory.

Suburban growth and change

Atlanta has long billed itself as “the city too busy to hate.” From its earliest days it has been a commercial hub focused on business. Atlanta’s suburbs have grown exponentially and rapidly. According to the US Census Bureau, between 2010 and 2019 they went from 5.3 million people to more than 6 million, at the same time racially diversifying.

Throughout the 2020 campaign, polling repeatedly found that there was an educational divide between college-educated and non-college educated voters, with the former less favorable to Donald Trump. The nation’s suburbs, and Atlanta’s in particular, were better educated and more inclined to the Democratic Party. Also trending Democratic were educated, suburban women, to the point where Trump at a speech in October 2020 pleaded, “Suburban women, will you please like me? I saved your damn neighborhood, OK?”

His pleadings didn’t work. “For a lot of women in the state, Trump kind of pushed them to the edge,” a Georgian named Jen Jordan told Emma Green in The Atlantic magazine article, “What Just Happened in Georgia?” When the Georgia legislature considered an anti-choice bill that would have made abortions illegal once a fetal heartbeat was detected, “The heartbeat bill was the thing that made them jump.”

“After the 2016 election, it became clear that the counties north of the city of Atlanta—Cobb, Gwinnett, the upper part of Fulton—were no longer homogenous conservative strongholds,” Green wrote. As a result, “The Trumpian brand of Republican politics does not play well in Atlanta, which prides itself on low taxes and business-friendly attitudes.”

African-American turnout

When it came to Georgia’s Senate runoff elections, “Black voters showed up at stratospheric levels and white voters did not. You saw really big shifts in heavily Black counties,” David Wasserman, an editor at the Cook Political Report was quoted saying in a Vox.com article, “Georgia went blue. Can Democrats make it happen elsewhere?

Getting that stratospheric turnout took Stacey Abrams and Democratic activists ten years to achieve—155 years, if counted from the end of the Civil War. But it was really propelled in the last two years.

Georgia’s Black voters had turned out in 2008 and 2012 to vote for Barack Obama. Abrams attributed her 2018 loss to voter suppression but in 2020 a combination of factors propelled by grassroots activism managed to galvanize Georgia’s communities of color and propel them to the polls.

The New Georgia Project, a voting rights group also founded by Abrams, “knocked on more than 2 million doors, made more than 6.7 million calls, and sent more than 4 million texts urging people to vote ahead of the runoffs,” Nsé Ufot, chief executive officer of the group, told Vox. “A larger coalition of progressive voting groups coordinated by America Votes knocked on more than 8.5 million doors, made about 20 million phone calls, and sent over 18 million texts.”

The growth of Georgia’s ethnic populations, more accessible voter registration and grassroots mobilization combined to deliver the state to Joe Biden for president and Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock for Senate.

But there was another factor that energized Georgia voters.

Trump, of course

Say what you will of Donald Trump, he certainly drove voters to the polls—whether they loved or hated him.

The massive voter turnout around the nation was true in Georgia as well and it yielded eye-popping results. It was one of 16 states where Trump lost ground from 2016. For the first time since 1992 Georgia voted more Democratic than Florida and it was the first time since 1860 that its Laurens and Monroe counties did not vote for the statewide winner. For the first time in 40 years Cobb County supported a Democrat for president.

The urgency, the implications and the magnitude of the Trump threat powered every election in the country and led to the unprecedented turnout, the massive absentee balloting and the critical need to reach all voters, no matter their political parties. As a result, in Georgia, Joe Biden won by 11,779 votes.

What was remarkable in Georgia was that the same forces that powered voters in the presidential race didn’t let up for the Senate runoff, which ultimately gave Georgia its two Democratic senators.


Marjorie Taylor Greene and the 14th District

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Image: Fred Guttenberg/Twitter)

While Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-14-Ga.) appears to have taken Trumpist delusion and paranoia to the limits of lunacy, she is as much a part of the Georgia story as Stacey Abrams.

Greene represents Georgia’s 14th Congressional District, a combination of 11 counties northwest of Atlanta. It bears some striking resemblances to Florida’s 19th Congressional District along the Southwest Gulf coast, not least in being 85 percent white.

However, the Florida 19th has a rating of R-13 from the Cook Political Report, the bible of congressional politics, meaning it is 13 percent more likely to vote Republican than the average district. By contrast, the Georgia 14th has a rating of R-27, meaning it is twice as conservative and Republican as the 19th—which, for a Southwest Floridian, is pretty hard to imagine.

In the past, the 14th’s elections have broken in the 75 percent range for Republicans, while the 19th usually breaks in the 60 to 65 percent range.

In 2020 the 14th’s representative in Congress, Rep. Tom Graves, retired. After an initial primary that featured nine Republican contenders—like the Florida 19th District—Greene beat challenger John Cowan, a neurosurgeon and businessman, in the Republican runoff. Kevin Van Ausdal, the Democratic candidate, then dropped out of the race in September, for “family and personal reasons”—i.e., a divorce that led him to leave the state for his parents’ home in Indiana. This left Greene the unchallenged candidate and sent her to Congress.

“Is this the best the 14th District can do?” mourned an editorial in the Dalton, Ga., Daily Citizen-News [grammar theirs]. “We don’t think so. … We challenge patriotic citizens to examine their life and to determine whether they should put themself forward in the next race for the congressional seat in two years. … The more and varied voices, the better. And we must do better.”


Comparing peaches and oranges

In looking at differences between the two states, one can start out with size and population.

Georgia is half the size of Florida. According to 2019 Census figures, Georgia has a population of 10.9 million people. By contrast, Florida has 21.48 million people.

Florida gained the greatest population of all states in 2019: 601,611, which works out to roughly 1,650 arriving every day. Georgia gained 284,541, or roughly 780 per day. Georgia has five television markets, Florida has 10.

Florida is widely acknowledged to be a fragmented, unwieldy state politically and a very tough state in which to manage a statewide political campaign. Georgia is much more compact.

But aside from those physical and demographic differences, there are other important contrasts between the two states.

Personalities and parties

While Georgia had the driven, persistent efforts of Stacey Abrams, Florida does not have the same guiding force.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum came within a heartbreaking 32,463 votes of defeating Ron DeSantis in 2018. Like Abrams, he vowed to continue his fight for Democratic victories and policies after the election. He founded Forward Florida, which, like Abrams’ organizations, aimed to register voters. He seemed to have momentum and potential until a crushing personal scandal ended his public possibilities, seemingly permanently.

In Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is the highest ranking elected Democrat in the state and a very likely candidate for governor. But between her day job and her aspirations, driving voter turnout and fighting suppression is not her main focus.

“In Florida, Democrats have struggled to unite a sprawling, diverse coalition around a coherent plan to win races,” wrote Kirby Wilson in the article “What Florida Democrats have to learn from Stacey Abrams” in The Tampa Bay Times. “Even though nearly 5.3 million Floridians voted for Biden in 2020, some question whether Florida remains a swing state.”

Rick Wilson, the acerbic Republican operative and a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, put it more succinctly: “The Democratic Party of Florida cannot organize a two-car motorcade,” he told The Palm Beach Post. “They are terrible at this work — nothing personal against any one person. The Florida GOP is the best-run Republican Party in the country.”

And he’s also said that Democrats “don’t understand this is not a blue state, it is a red state with a blue tip on the south end.”

The Hispanic vote

One of the most striking stories of the 2020 election was Donald Trump’s inroads among Florida Hispanics.

For many years, knowledgeable political observers warned that it was misleading to view Hispanic voters as a monolithic block despite the tendency of many Democratic politicians and experts to see them that way. There are many different and diverse Hispanic communities, especially in Florida, and the 2020 election proved it.

Trump’s 2016 racist rants against Mexicans and Hispanic migrants and his incompetent handling of the 2017 Puerto Rico hurricane disaster were huge turnoffs to many Hispanics. But in 2020 his hardline policies and rhetoric against the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes and his targeted—and strident—anti-socialist message resonated among Florida’s Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American communities.

“Trump showed up in Florida. He asked us what our issues are and he addressed them. He didn’t take us for granted,” Bertica Cabrera Morris, a Republican strategist and a board member of Latinos for Trump, told NBC News immediately after the election.

As a result, while Biden made inroads in Miami-Dade County and ultimately won it, he did so by a far smaller margin—7 percent—than might otherwise be expected from 2016, when Trump lost it by 29 points.

Demographics

One myth that has persisted among Florida Democrats is that turning out minority votes, specifically Black votes, can swing the state. While every vote is important, the fact is that if every single non-white Floridian cast a Democratic ballot, Black voters constitute only 16 percent of Florida voters—in contrast to Georgia where they represent 31.9 percent. In a close Florida election minority communities can make a difference but even if fully mobilized they don’t have the same decisive weight as in Georgia.

Although Florida has a huge influx of residents moving in, it is also not clear that they are necessarily changing the political complexion of the state, as new Georgia residents did there. While New Yorkers constituted the largest number of new Florida residents (57,488) according to 2019 Census figures, it’s not clear that their political allegiances were necessarily Democratic or outweigh those of other contributors to Florida’s population. (Interestingly, the next largest influx to Florida came from Georgia with 49,681 people.)

The bottom line: Georgia and Florida have very different populations and political orientations and require different efforts and strategies.

Analysis: What’s new in ’22?

People expecting the 2022 elections in Florida to be a replay of 2020 will be more than disappointed—they will be wrong, no matter which party they support.

Aside from it simply being a different year, overall conditions will be significantly altered, not just throughout the world but especially in Florida. Some major changes include:

Gerrymandering

The importance of the decennial redrawing of political boundaries cannot be overstated. Florida may be in line for as many as two new members of Congress, which would mean two new congressional districts. With a Republican governor and legislature, the lines are overwhelmingly likely to be redrawn to Republican advantage. Democrats may resort to the courts to change them but Florida’s courts have been in conservative Republican hands since Jeb Bush’s governorship starting in 1999. The results of redistricting will have implications for at least the next decade and probably beyond.

Not Trump but Trumpism

As this is written, the impeachment trial of Donald Trump is underway. Whether he will run or be eligible for future office is unclear. But what seems very certain is that Trumpism is unlikely to die, especially in Florida. (For more on this see the article, “No need to secede: Welcome to Florumpia!”) Even if support for Donald Trump and the authoritarianism he represents cools, the sentiment powering his cult will likely continue to be a factor in Florida politics well beyond 2022. As of this writing Gov. Ron DeSantis seems all in on Trumpism and will likely be running as a full-fledged Trumper in 2022. There’s much talk of Trump’s spawn seeking statewide office and possibly taking on Sen. Marco Rubio for the US Senate.

Nowhere is the divide between Trumpism and Republicanism clearer and more obvious than in the Sunshine State. That could produce a split in the electorate, especially if Trump or someone else forms a “Patriot” or “MAGA” party, which would effectively be the Trump cult with a Florida mailing address. In 2022 three major parties—Democratic, Republican and Trumper—may be battling for Floridians’ ballots.

The pandemic

The state of the pandemic on Nov. 8, Election Day 2022, will no doubt be a major factor in the results. No one can know now whether the whole thing will be over or if new variants will continue to take their toll.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is betting that by 2022 Florida voters will remember him more for getting seniors vaccinated and not for the frustration, desperation and uncertainty that accompanied Florida’s vaccine rollout.

In 2020 the pandemic had a major impact on campaigning. In Florida Democrats heeded COVID warnings and did much of their campaigning remotely or in cars. Republicans, by contrast, either followed Trump’s lead and dismissed COVID as a hoax or simply ignored it when they did in-person campaigning. It didn’t matter to them if their voters, volunteers and staffers sickened and died as long as they lived long enough to cast ballots. Say what one will, it was a strategy that worked.

In 2022 Democrats will have to resume in-person campaigning, whether that means rallies, canvassing or get-togethers of any kind if they’re going to be competitive again. Presumably this will be possible with largely vaccinated populations but one cannot be sure at this point.

One other point that needs to be made: if President Joe Biden’s vaccination efforts work and if Floridians can connect his decisions to the end of the pandemic and their own health, it may just rebound to the benefit of state Democrats when people go to the polls. But getting people to connect good national policy to their personal benefit and rewarding politicians and parties with their votes is a long stretch—especially in Florida.

The economy

Measures taken by the Biden administration may lead the economy—both in Florida and nationally—to at least a modest recovery by Election Day 2022. Clearly, that will be a stark contrast with 2020 when the pandemic led to a massive downturn.

But recovery is not certain and the economic blows the nation took in 2020 will take a long time to heal. However, if there is some recovery, if the pandemic can be stopped or slowed and if “normal” economic activity can resume with some degree of safety, it may rebound to the Democrats’ benefit.

Throughout the pandemic DeSantis—following the lead of Trump, his patron—de-emphasized anti-COVID measures in favor of keeping businesses open. The political calculation here was that a relatively functional economy was worth the cost in lives.

The next election will tell us if that calculation paid off and how voters weigh the results.

The nominees

Of course, in looking ahead to a new election, personalities make a big difference. It is sufficient to say that if Democrats field vibrant, exciting and inspiring candidates at all levels who have messages that resonate with their voters, they will have a chance against an old guard tainted by its association with Trump, its complicity in his crimes and its self-destructive adherence to his delusions.

Georgia on my mind

So what must Democrats do to follow the Georgia playbook and flip Florida—despite the obvious differences between the two states?

In her book, Our Time is Now Stacey Abrams goes through her daily checklist as she evaluates the state of her campaign. It’s a good checklist for any campaign:

  • Early investments in infrequent voters;
  • Consistent, authentic progressive messaging;
  • Outreach in multiple languages;
  • Centering the issues of communities of color and marginalized groups typically exiled to the fringes of statewide elections.

In addition, just before the Senate runoff election, the Democratic Party of Georgia issued a six-page memo analyzing its 2020 presidential victory. While particular to the state, it also yielded some broader principles that could be applicable in Florida:

  • Build “a robust coalitions program aimed at engaging voters and elected officials in the Latino, AAPI [Asian American and Pacific Islander], African American communities, faith and religious leaders, military and veteran families, sportsmen and sportswomen, as well as youth, LGBTQI, women, progressive and Jewish coalitions.”
  • Build a digital-first organizing approach allowing the campaign to reach voters in new and creative ways, creating digital organizing hubs, speaking with voters on every platform, and hosting daily virtual events all over the state.
  • Using a combination of daily virtual and in-person events, drive the news cycle to parallel the broader campaign strategic imperatives on persuading and turning out voters. A strong surrogate program and regular principal travel also helps drive the news cycle and increase voter mobilization and engagement.
  • Blanket the airwaves on TV and radio, while leveraging targeted digital efforts and direct mail to boost turnout and bolster persuasion efforts.
  • Expand voter contact efforts to help voters apply for absentee ballots as early as possible and make voting by mail as easy as possible.

Obviously, Florida Democrats have some unique imperatives: they must win back the Hispanic voters that they lost in 2020; they must meet and defeat the “socialist” canard that Republicans threw—and continue to throw—at them; they must defeat voter suppression in all its forms; as the state of the pandemic allows, they must resume in-person campaigning. More than any other imperative, they must turn out voters from every nook and cranny and hiding place, from Florida’s swamps to its beaches to its urban jungles to its retirement villages and nursing homes.

The demographics of Georgia and Florida are very different. But Stacey Abrams has a very telling observation in her book and it is one Floridians can take to heart.

“Demography is not destiny,” she writes. “It is opportunity.”

Maybe, just maybe, Florida Democrats can find the opportunity in the changing demographics of their state by next year and make 2022 a year when Florida returns to its democratic traditions—but in a fresh, new and hopeful way.

Liberty lives in light

© 2021 by David Silverberg

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