Alarm bells are ringing for Donald Trump in Florida, says Bonnie Greer.
The moment that I turned my face to the wall as the count rolled in on election night 2016 was when Florida was called.
Florida was the defining moment, the signal in the noise that told us all who would become the next president of the United States. Everything and everyone was talking about Florida. If former secretary of state, former senator and former first lady Hillary Clinton won the most votes, she would win the presidency.
This is because in winning the popular vote, she would gain the state’s precious electoral college votes. An archaic monarchical system set up by the founding fathers, these elect the president. And not the popular vote.
The idea of a Clinton victory centred around Miami and Orlando, those powerhouse Florida cities with their populous regions. The Democratic machine is robust there, and with the African American vote and the Puerto Rican American vote, Clinton would, without doubt, nail the White House. Even though many of the polls called the state a toss-up, that dangerous netherworld where anything could happen.
All that was agreed on was that the Sunshine State would be the place where all would be settled.
Even though Donald Trump had purchased Mar-a-Lago, built from about 1924 to 1927 by the cereal company heiress and socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post, and lived there in Palm Beach, nobody knew if Florida would elect him.
The estate, its principal look straight out of The Great Gatsby, had been turned by Trump and his then wife Ivana into a showcase for his ‘schmaltz’, that great New York Yiddish word for clobber.
Parts of Florida are a kind of New-York-City-in-the-South, a place where many New Yorkers go to retire. A nirvana. The place Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy is on his way to as he dies on that tatty Greyhound.
Trump fitted right in. Yet no one was sure.
Florida. To the British it is Disneyworld; eternal sun.
To me, growing up in the 1960s, it was Cape Canaveral and the space launches. It was also the sight of African Americans being beaten by the police during the civil rights era.
True, Florida got a bit cooler in the 1980s with Miami Vice and the candy-coloured couture suits the police detectives wore. Even when Versace was shot dead on his doorstep in Miami Beach in 1997, there was still that ‘Florida Thing’.
Because most Americans know nothing about it. Maybe you only really know about it if you live there.
Which explains the shock of election night; the utter devastation of it.
An election, that night, was not only lost if you voted Democrat: an idea of fun and civility, justice and progress died, too.
On election night, 2016, Trump got 4,617,886 votes – 49.02%. Clinton got 4,504,975 votes – 47.82% of the tally. Trump won 29 electoral college votes based on a simple majority. Clinton got nothing. This close tally is why Trump keeps close ties to the state; why he promoted his own guy, Florida congressman Ron DeSantis on Fox News, over and over again. DeSantis’ opponent for the governership, the African American mayor of Tallahassee, Andrew Gillum, lost by a margin of only 0.04% in the vote last year.
Trump sent masses of relief to Florida during its recent hurricane. Puerto Rico, during its hurricane, was totally blacked-out. It could not be seen at night from outer space.
Trump arrived on the island afterwards and pitched bread rolls at the inhabitants of its capital city, San Juan. American citizens all, many people are moving off the island to settle in Florida. They are not happy with the man many refer to as ‘president Loco’.
As goes Florida, so goes 2020.
The recent polling is not good for the president. It is early days – Obama was this bad at this point in his last election, too. But Quinnipiac, a very respected polling organisation did some surveying in hypothetical match-ups. Here are the results: Biden (50%) vs. Trump (41%); Bernie Sanders tops Trump at 48% to 42%; Elizabeth Warren beats him at 47% to 43%. Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg are a point ahead.
In Trump World, things are not meant to be this way. But Trump is forgetting his own election map, the one that caused him to shift away from Florida’s big metropolitan centres and head north, to the Panhandle, otherwise known as ‘South Georgia’. It is the Deep, Deep South. And the Florida that most tourists never see.
The Florida Panhandle is a 200-mile long strip bordering Alabama and Georgia. The Panhandle city of Tallahassee is Democratic Party territory, but the rest of the area is not. Pensacola has a major naval air base. The only interstate highway running through the Panhandle is Interstate 10, connecting the extreme west with north Florida and Jacksonville. There is US Highway 90; US Highway 98; US Highway 29; US Highway 331, US Highway 231, all linked to Alabama. The other two interstates link to Tennessee.
In 2016, Trump ran up his score here in the Panhandle. White voters comprise 64% of the state’s voting rolls and are the most reliable voters. It was said that they could not wait to vote for Trump. It was they who gave him the state.
Trump officially opened his 2020 campaign in Orlando. He knows that the last Republican to become President without winning Florida was Calvin Coolidge in 1924. Without Florida he has no margin for error. Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin will be the other players, as they were in 2016. This is why Trump is always there; always referring to these states.
They are the Trump Archipelago, the backdrop to his MAGA rallies. Trump World.
Being underwater in Florida, even though this is very early days, rings the kind of alarm bells for him that are not needed at this time.
The Democratic ‘Blue Wave’ of 2018, which took out more Republican House seats than they had lost in the last wipe-out in the 1970s, did not touch Florida. Democrats did not win Hispanic voters, many of them Cuban American and staunchly conservative.
Nevertheless the Trump fan base must still be hyped to the max.
The old favourites were resurrected at his recent Orlando rally, like “Lock Her Up”. This can now refer not only to Clinton but to Harris, Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Kirsten Gillibrand, and all the other women running against the 45th president of the United States. Not to mention Congressional opponents like House speaker Nancy Pelosi and congresswoman Maxine Waters, whose oversight job is to check his tax returns.
With his proclaimed love for the “poorly educated”, Trump may believe that replaying these greatest hits might bring home the win. Now that he has created the ‘Trumplican Party’ to replace the Republican Party, he may be right.
But he has a superb nose for which way the populist wind is blowing. He was in Orlando for a reason. It could be because he is scared.