MIAMI — Democrats are sounding the alarm about weak voter turnout rates in Florida’s biggest county, Miami-Dade, where a strong Republican showing is endangering Joe Biden’s chances in the nation’s biggest swing state.
No Democrat can win Florida without a huge turnout and big winning margins here to offset losses elsewhere in the state. But Democrats are turning out at lower rates than Republicans and at lower rates than at this point in 2016, when Hillary Clinton won by 29 percentage points here and still lost the state to Donald Trump.
One particular area of concern is the relative share of ballots cast by young voters of color and less-reliable Democratic voters. Part of the problem, according to interviews with a dozen Democratic elected officials and operatives, is the Biden campaign‘s decision to discourage field staff from knocking on doors during the pandemic and its subsequent delay in greenlighting — and funding — a return to door-to-door canvassing.
“We did not get the kind of funding for different vendors who would do that type of work until late in the campaign,” said Rep. Frederica Wilson, a party institution who represents Miami’s heavily Black congressional district.
Wilson said the good news is that Biden’s running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, is working with her on a turnout event for this weekend geared toward young Black men. But the veteran congresswoman said there are still skilled operatives in her district who excel at turnout work who have yet to get approved by the campaign, a puzzling delay for an operation that raised a record $363 million the month before.
“I screamed. Hollered. I called. I lobbied from the top to the bottom,” Wilson said of her efforts to get turnout operations started in the community, including sending written proposals to Biden’s campaign and having virtual Zoom meetings with his advisers.
In a sign of the state’s importance, Biden and Trump both campaigned in Florida on Thursday. Biden held an event in Broward County, which is located within the Miami-Fort Lauderdale media market, and then held a rally in Tampa, where Trump held his own event to boost early voting turnout.
Wilson and other Democrats aren’t panicking yet. They take comfort in the fact that huge swaths of Democratic voters cast absentee ballots by mail statewide, and that Biden narrowly leads in most Florida polls, including a Monmouth University likely voter survey released Thursday that put the former vice president up by 6 percentage points. That margin is far bigger than in Democratic internal polls.
Party officials also point out that Black churches are planning “Souls to the Polls” events Sunday that encourage voting after church. However, in the era of coronavirus, church services are virtual and organizing those events is more difficult than in the past election years.
The NAACP is helping Wilson produce a video for the virtual church services that talks about the dual threats of coronavirus and not voting.
“There is not the turnout here [Miami] in the black community that I’ve seen in the past. I can speculate about the reasons, but the fact is it remains concerning,” said state Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Black Miami Democrat who held a get-out-the-vote event Wednesday with rapper Fat Joe Wednesday.
To date, Republicans have turned out 59 percent of their voters in Miami-Dade and Democrats have turned out 53 percent, a 6-point margin. That’s twice the margin Republicans had at this point in 2016.
Among Hispanic voters, who make up nearly 70 percent of the county’s population, the deficit is even bigger — 9 points.
“Democrats have a big turnout issue in the Hispanic community in Miami-Dade,” said Florida-based Democratic data analyst Matt Isbell. “Hispanic Democrat turnout is only 48% while the Republican Hispanics are at 57%. This large of a gap doesn’t exist in Broward or Orange. It is a Miami problem.”
Polling of Florida’s Hispanics has been all over the board. A Mason-Dixon poll conducted for Telemundo and released Thursday showed Biden leading Trump 48-43 percent among Florida Hispanics, a margin that could be disastrous for Democrats.
A Univision poll released one day earlier painted a different picture: It showed Biden faring much better among Florida Hispanic voters, leading Trump by 20 points, 57 to 37 percent.
Most polls show Cuban-Americans, who comprise about 74 percent of the registered Republicans in the county, have broken hard for Trump, although Biden might be clawing some of them back. Voters with roots in Puerto Rico and other places in Latin America support Biden by big margins.
While polling of Miami-Dade and Florida Hispanics has fluctuated wildly, Democrats long ago resigned themselves to the fact that Trump was making inroads with them and that Biden would not perform as well with them as Clinton, who won 65 percent of the state’s Hispanic vote in 2016, according to exit polls.
One positive trend, however, is the fact that Biden is doing better statewide than Clinton with seniors and white voters, who make up about two-thirds of likely voters.
Miami-Dade County was a bright spot for Democrats in 2016, when Clinton rolled up historic margins and raw votes in the county. But it wasn’t enough to help her carry the state because of Trump’s strong performance in many other counties, especially those with older white suburban and rural voters.
Miami-Dade is home to nearly 634,000 registered Democrats, or 41 percent of the county’s total. Republicans comprise 27 percent and independents 32 percent.
As of Thursday morning, 337,000 Democrats had already cast early and absentee ballots in Miami-Dade, nearly 80,000 more than the 253,000 Republicans. Independent voters, namely those with no party affiliation, have cast an additional 219,000. Polls indicate they’re leaning Biden, which Democrats point to as a potential saving grace if Republicans once again cast more votes overall in the election.
While the Miami-Dade numbers look robust at a glance, the turnout rate is too low for Democrats to feel comfortable as Republicans statewide have steadily eaten into the Democrats’ margins in the days after in-person early voting started Oct. 19.
The share of vote cast by Black voters in the county is a point lower today than at this point in 2016, while the overall Black vote statewide is only negligibly higher, according to the Democratic data firm TargetSmart.
Overall, statewide, 7.4 million of Florida’s 14.4 million active registered voters had already cast ballots by Thursday morning: 41 percent from Democrats, 38 percent from Republicans and 22 percent from independents. The Democrats’ lead in total ballots cast was a record 206,000 as of Thursday morning, but that’s down 57 percent from its all-time high last week.
In-person early voting ends Sunday, which is when Democrats are massing for a final push.
Though election officials count ballot returns by party, they don’t tabulate the votes until Election Day.
“I would rather be in our position than theirs,” said Joshua Geise, Florida director for America Votes, an independent organization coordinating with 50 groups on the ground to turn out voters for Biden.
Geise acknowledged some of the turnout issues in Miami-Dade and said his group ramped up in the past week and had 100,000 conversations at people’s doors in the county, a third of all the face-to-face interactions they had in the entire state. He said Democrats will make a huge push this weekend to halt the Republican gains in early voting.
“We’ve got to stop the bleeding,” Geise said.
One veteran Democratic organizer from South Florida expressed concern that winning Florida looks more difficult by the day as Republicans turn out in big numbers and the pace of Democratic momentum in casting early ballots slows. It’s a sign the party is exhausting its high propensity voters — and the hard-to-motivate voters are tough to turn out.
“Look, our people hate Trump and they like Biden. But not enough of them love Biden,” the organizer said. “It also doesn’t help that the campaign reacted so late here and they didn’t help us with voter registration when we needed to be doing it.”
Steve Simeonidis, Miami-Dade’s Democratic Party chair, contended the GOP is running out of voters and Democrats have far more — and they are just beginning to turn out. Considering how independents are breaking, he said, “we’re going to continue building on our lead down here and if we keep working, we will have more record Democratic turnout on Sunday and Tuesday.”
Braynon, the Miami state senator, said that Biden isn’t doing as well as Clinton because the Clintons had a special “bond” with the region that was built over decades.
“You have to remind people Biden was Obama’s vice president and have to tell people he has policies similar to those supported by Hillary and Obama,” Braynon said. “It’s important to emphasize it’s the same type of platform.”
Beyond presidential race intrigue, Miami-Dade is home to five down-ballot races for Congress, state senate and county mayor. In each of those races, Republicans have fielded Cuban-American candidates.
State Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami Democrat, said she wasn’t too worried about Hispanic voters in the county because, she said, they’re notoriously late to cast ballots.
“We are Hispanics, we leave everything for ¡mañana!,” she said. “Also, if the 80 percent turnout in Miami-Dade being predicted by our supervisor of election comes through, that is great news for Democrats.”
But in Rep. Wilson’s congressional district, there’s still worry. She knows many have voted by mail and therefore aren’t at the polls. Still, she would like to see more voters showing up at the polls before in-person early voting ends Sunday night.
“I’ve been going to the different polling places,” she said, “and you know, I never dreamed that Black people would be reticent at this point in Mr. Trump’s administration about voting.”
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