If Donald Trump loses the presidency, it won’t be Florida’s fault.
President Trump on Tuesday beat Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the nation’s biggest battleground, according to the Associated Press.
With roughly 11 million ballots counted, Trump was on track to win the state by a margin that, by Florida standards, was a blowout.
Trump’s victory in Florida, which has 29 electoral college votes, opened up a viable path to the 270 he needs to win the election, though the national outcome of the race remained in question early Wednesday morning as a number of other key states, such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Arizona, continued to count ballots.
“Florida is very important, obviously,” Trump said during an appearance at the Republican National Committee’s headquarters in Arlington, Va., on Tuesday. “They spent hundreds of millions of dollars in Florida. But the people of Florida, they know I love them, and they love me.”
And no county in Florida showed Trump more love than Miami-Dade.
Four years after winning Florida by 113,000 votes despite Miami-Dade County, where he lost to then-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by 30 percentage points, Trump cut his deficit in the state’s most populous county to single digits. That turnaround translated into a likely swing of more than 200,000 votes, propelling Trump to a performance that his top Florida operative, Susie Wiles, called on Twitter “a good old fashion ass whooping.”
Trump’s campaign in Miami-Dade was crucial to his strategy in a state that no Republican candidate has lost and still gone on to win the presidency since 1924. Florida was so key for Trump that he began campaigning for his reelection here less than one month after being sworn in as president. He also moved his residency from Manhattan to Palm Beach last year.
To boost his standing in his newly declared home state, Trump’s campaign went from largely ignoring Hispanic voters in 2016 to making them a focus of his 2020 campaign. Within weeks of his inauguration, Trump began making overtures to Cuban Americans in Miami, rolling back former President Barack Obama’s normalization of relations with Cuba’s communist government and warning of the specter of socialism coming to the U.S.
The strategy worked. According to polls, Trump consolidated much of the Cuban-American vote, winning over not only older, more conservative exiles, but also new arrivals who’d leaned toward Obama in 2012.
“I like Trump,” Kevyn Martinez, a 25-year-old transportation worker who came to the U.S. from Cuba eight years ago, said while waiting to vote for Trump in Miami Lakes Sunday. “I’d vote for him every time. I wish he could go eight years more.”
Trump also made inroads with Latino voters who hail from other parts of Latin America, including Venezuela and Colombia, as he consistently campaigned against the specter of socialism.
“Trump is like fine wine,” said Maribel Villalobos, a Venezuelan who drove Tuesday to vote at Calusa Elementary School in West Kendall for “el rubio de America” — Spanish for “America’s blondie.”
“He will get better with time.”
Trump’s turnaround performance in Miami-Dade County didn’t catch Republicans off guard. They’d predicted it for months. But Democrats were stunned, as Trump put up numbers not seen in the county by a Republican presidential candidate since 2004 and down-ballot GOP candidates took seat after seat. On Tuesday, Democratic party activists and operatives used words like “debacle” and “bloodbath” to describe the GOP’s banner night in the county.
José Dante Parra, a Miami-based Democratic consultant and one-time senior adviser to former U.S. Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, said Republicans’ socialism messaging hurt Biden, as did the party’s late decision to get back on the ground after the coronavirus pandemic emerged.
“Even with the lateness from Dems coming in to really campaign, yes I’m surprised with the numbers,” he said. “A harsh lesson about coming at the 11th hour. And it’s not like the socialism message was a surprise, yet we acted as if it was the first time we heard of that strategy.”
Trump continued campaigning in Miami until the last minute, seeking to win over as many Hispanic voters as possible. On Sunday he returned to hold a 15,000-person rally at an airport in North Miami-Dade County, where early on a Colombian vallenato band played on a stage with a giant American flag as a backdrop..
“What we’re seeing with the Cuban-American community, the Colombian-American community, the Venezuelan-American community, all in South Florida, is nothing short of spectacular. There’s just so much energy,” Trump political adviser Jason Miller told reporters on a campaign call Tuesday.
Trump’s strategy to win in Florida was — in keeping with his presidency — unconventional and norm-shattering. He campaigned the final three weeks as if the coronavirus pandemic were just a nuisance, gathering thousands to rallies in Sanford, Ocala, Pensacola and Miami-Dade. And he took the unusual step of pulling out of a presidential debate, balking at a virtual event that was supposed to be staged near downtown Miami.
Trump won Florida despite being heavily outspent by Biden and his allies. With the help of billionaire Michael Bloomberg, Democrats spent about $100 million more than Trump on TV and social media, according to Advertising Analytics. All told, close to $300 million was spent on political advertising by both campaigns and their allies, according to the firm.
Democrats spared no expense in the state as they attempted to unseat Trump, believing a loss in Florida would make a Trump victory nearly impossible. After results came in, they had to settle for a second, alternative goal: the hope that Trump spent so much effort and money in Florida he would lose other states on the map.
“That was our goal: Make Trump fight for a state he was taking for granted and draw resources from blue-wall states, and allow Joe [Biden] to become more competitive in those states,” said Kevin Sheekey, an adviser to Bloomberg. “To make him fight like hell in this state.”
Biden, too, campaigned hard to win Florida, paying special attention to South Florida, the nerve center of Democratic support in the state. He visited Miami-Dade and Broward counties three times over the final month, and deployed former President Barack Obama twice to Miami-Dade County over the final 10 days. Biden’s running mate, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, campaigned in South Florida Saturday. And his wife, former Second Lady Jill Biden, spent part of Tuesday in the Tampa Bay area.
Unlike Trump, Biden’s campaign events were socially distanced, with his campaign preferring small indoor gatherings and outdoor drive-in rallies to Trump’s massive festival-like campaign stops. Biden’s campaign was also focused around a message of unifying the country.
“Honestly, I can’t wait for it to be over. I’ve never seen such a divide in the country,” Ivania Martin, an independent, 46-year-old ICU trauma nurse from Hialeah Gardens, said while waiting Sunday afternoon to vote for Biden Sunday in Miami Lakes. “It makes me sad.”
Miami Herald staff writer Monique Madan and McClatchy DC White House correspondent Michael Wilner contributed to this report.