TALLAHASSEE —When Election Day dawned on President Donald Trump’s Tampa headquarters, the campaign team was basking in confidence.
And as the day unfolded, the mood never changed.
“We never wavered. We had a plan in place, it was executed, and at no point throughout the day did we think the question was in doubt,” said Susie Wiles, senior Florida adviser for the Trump campaign. “Honestly, the margins were a bit bigger than we thought they would be, but we always thought we would win.”
That confidence — and the work behind it — was rewarded on Tuesday, when Trump coasted to a 4-point victory in Florida, a comfortable gap in a state where presidential elections commonly are settled by much narrower margins.
Along with frequent campaign and surrogate trips, including at least four from the president himself in the final weeks, Team Trump’s winning formula included a heavy dose of messaging that sought to brand Democrats as socialists and anti-police, a focus on opening the economy despite the coronavirus pandemic, generous spending on a traditional ground game, and the buildout of a coalition that Trump in the past had paid little attention to, according to nearly a dozen Florida Republicans and campaign officials.
That new coalition will be central to continued Republican success in the state. As one Republican put it, “you’ve got to kind of recognize that old white men are dying.”
For Trump, that meant adding to his support of conservative-leaning Cuban Americans and older white voters. The campaign wooed non-Cuban Hispanics and put a greater emphasis on conservative South Florida Jewish voters.
The campaign also sought the support of Black voters with messaging focused on school choice and the Trump administration’s funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, something that it hadn’t done in 2016.
Ryan Tyson, a Tallahassee-based Republican pollster and consultant who tracked Trump’s performance across the state, said the president’s ability to pull support from traditionally Democratic demographics played a huge role in his win.
“When the dust settles on this campaign, you will find that Donald Trump — whether you like him, love him or hate him — has the most diverse coalition of voters of any Republican ever in Florida,” said Tyson, who has worked extensively with GOP campaigns. “I know that will offend a lot of people on both sides, but the data is pretty clear on this point.”
That coalition helped Trump land a 380,000-vote victory, the largest margin for any presidential candidate since George W. Bush in 2004.
Trump’s largest base of support was, again, with white voters, who helped him outperform his 2016 showing in 32 mostly rural, white counties across the state. That support squeezed an additional 153,000 votes out of areas of the state that already backed Trump by wide margins.
But Trump also sliced into Democratic support in Hispanic-heavy Miami-Dade County, where Biden failed to muster even a fourth of Hillary Clinton’s 30-point margin in 2016.
Biden’s collapse in Miami-Dade drew particular ire from embittered Democrats, but it was only part of the demographic picture that helped Trump carry Florida a second time.
“If we are going to ask why Biden underperformed among Hispanic voters, as we should, we should also [ask] what happened in majority white counties,” tweeted Democratic pollster Carlos Odio, a former administration official under President Barack Obama who polled the Hispanic extensively vote in 2020.
Exit polling showed Biden at roughly 38 percent with white voters, an improvement on Clinton’s abysmal 33 percent, but below what public polling averages had predicted.
Had white support held for Biden, he would have won Florida, Odio said.
“The numbers in Florida complicate any single narrative, as they always do,” he tweeted.
By the end of the night, Florida’s numbers read like a GOP dream and a Democratic nightmare.
In the Interstate 4 corridor, a 19-county swath of central Florida, gets national attention — and money — every four years because it is home to large blocs of voters seen as persuadable.
Persuade Trump did. In the Orlando and Tampa media markets, which cover the entire I-4 region, the president got more than 280,000 votes, a nearly 35,000-vote increase from 2016.
In the Miami media market, which includes the Democratic stronghold of Broward County, Trump lost by 385,701 votes. In 2016, Clinton beat him there by nearly 580,000 votes.
“We were expecting to lose Miami-Dade by 15 [points], that was the goal. We thought we could win the state at that margin,” said Republican Party of Miami-Dade County Chair Nelson Diaz. “When we got to 7, it was just like a political miracle. I don’t know how else you put it.”
Miami-Dade County is politically complex, heavily influenced by its Venezuelan, Cuban and Nicaraguan communities, where many people have fled or have family who fled leftist strongman regimes in their native countries.
The cohort is particularly influenced by political messaging that casts Democrats as part of a plot to implement socialist policies. On Tuesday, it proved once again to be a solid line of attack in South Florida, where Democrats expected the strategy but were unable to counter it.
“Biden’s campaign was slow to defend itself against that attack,” former Miami Rep. Carlos Curbelo told MSNBC Wednesday afternoon. “That scared away many middle-of-the-road Latino voters who have voted Democrat in the past, but now think the Democratic Party has moved too far to the left.”
Biden’s team told reporters Wednesday morning that Trump puffed up his margins by winning more of the region’s Cuban Americans, but that didn’t didn’t mean Democrats lost ground.
“The vice president did not underperform, we just saw Donald Trump increase his support with the Cuban American vote,” Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon said.
Early exit polls indicate that Biden took 52 percent of the Hispanic vote, a 10-point drop from Clinton’s performance in 2016. He won Osceola County, a suburban Orlando region full of Democratic-leaning Puerto Rican voters, by 14 points, compared to Clinton’s 25 points in 2016.
Trump’s high-dollar traditional ground game also got credit for his win. Fearful of the coronavirus pandemic and the optics of physical contact during the outbreak, Biden and Democrats abandoned door-knocking until late September, and sent people into the field only after some supporters griped that the absence of face-to-face voter interaction was hurting the party’s chances.
“The Trump people, specifically in Miami-Dade more than anywhere else took our blueprint and did it with a massive budget,” said a Republican consultant focused on Florida down-ballot races. “I don’t think they actually hit every door they claimed — there was lit-dropping definitely going on — but those connections at the door matter.”
By the time Democrats started knocking on doors in late September, Republicans had already made contact with some voters multiple times.
It was a well-oiled machine, Republican Party of Florida Chair Joe Gruters said.
“We were obviously aided by the fact that when it came to the Democrats’ ground game, there was nothing,” he said.
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