Florida was never pegged as the decisive state in yesterday’s election between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, but it was always destined to be the pace-setter for the night. The state enacted early voting in 2004, and state law allows early and mail-in ballots to be counted as soon as they’re received. There are, undoubtedly, always a few hitches in certain corners of the state, but enough of the election count would be in within hours after poll closing to give us an idea of how the night would go and whether polling had been decisively wrong.
At first, the vote returns played out exactly as predicted: Biden took a lead thanks to early and mail-in votes, but eventually fell behind (notably more than the polls had predicted) when day-of ballots came in. The former Vice President actually did better in some places in the state than Hillary Clinton in 2016: he squeaked out slim victories in major counties like Pinellas (St. Petersburg), Duval (Jacksonville), and Seminole (a suburban area near Orlando). Though attention quickly centered on a county where Biden didn’t lose, but just didn’t win by nearly enough: Miami-Dade, the state’s most populace.
As of the latest count, Biden is only leading Trump there by 8.2 percent. Clinton won the county in 2016 by 29.6 points. So, what the hell happened?
For starters, the tighter margin isn’t a historic aberration. In fact, it may be a return to the pre-Obama and Clinton norms. John Kerry and Al Gore only won Miami-Dade in 2000 and 2004 by about 6.3 percent each. In 1992, Bill Clinton did even worse, winning it by only 3.5 points, but, as evidence of the county’s tendency toward erratic political leaning, he absolutely blew Bob Dole out of the water by a then-historic 20 points during his 1996 reelection.
Democrats had started to take the much wider leads that Obama, Hillary, and a second-term Bill took in the county as de facto for any presidential candidate with a D next to their name, when it turns out that may not be the case. Obama was a unique candidate with unique appeal. The Clintons, (no matter what you think of them), meanwhile, had worked long and hard over the decades to build up relationships among Miami political power players that Biden simply lacked (close Clinton associates like Donna Shalala, Janet Reno, and even Hillary’s brother Hugh, all have deep connections to the town. Bill, in particular, has a history of coming through with major shows of support for South Florida candidates in tight or even doomed races.) Each of those campaigns lavished money, visits, and last-minute attention on Miami-Dade that Biden simply didn’t.
That might have also left Biden uniquely open to a dark undercurrent of local politics: anti-Communist hysteria.
Trump concentrated money on Spanish-language advertisements to reach the area’s large Cuban-American population. But murky misinformation painting Biden as a secret socialist who would do the bidding of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez blanketed Spanish-language media. In one notable example, the publisher of the Miami Herald‘s Spanish-language sister paper El Nuevo Herald stepped down after it was found that an anti-Semitic and racist paid insert packed with conspiracy theories had been distributed to subscribers without anyone at the paper reading it beforehand. When roughly a third of the population is of Cuban decent, and two-thirds in total can be classified as Hispanic or Latinx (even if neither term is especially popular in the area), that’s no small matter. While certainly not all Cuban-Americans in Miami are Republicans, the community has historically made up the bedrock of the local GOP.
Still, we also may just be seeing the result of Biden’s chosen electoral strategy.
Biden won the Democratic primary with the mandate to be the safe choice to beat Donald Trump, and in many ways his campaign chose the safest, most exact path to victory: concentrating on Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania beyond all other states.
The Biden campaign worked like a careful surgeon, rather than a country-touring barnstormer, attacking every possible path to victory.
It’s very possible that in Miami-Dade, a county where old-school retail politics still matter, Biden could have done better if he had spent more money counteracting the socialist accusation, visited more often, or even made the Hail Mary choice to deploy one Clinton or another down there at the last minute. He didn’t even bother to muster up public support from local icons like Pitbull or Gloria Estefan despite their public aversion to Trump. He simply chose to concentrate on the rust belt instead.
The flip side, of course, is Trump’s campaign. The GOP clearly saw possibilities to make inroads with some Latinx voters, particularly in Florida, and lavish the attention and money that Biden didn’t. Notably, Trump ratcheted back the anti-immigrant dog whistles that dominated his first campaign. It’s almost astounding how little immigration came up as a talking point in the debate—and how little we’ve heard about “The Wall” in the past few months. Perhaps it’s even more astounding how the media let Trump get away with that tactic.
Trump also managed to make the case with both new voters and those who hadn’t bothered to show up in 2016. While Biden’s raw vote total was only somewhat down from Clinton’s in 2016, Trump managed to find almost 200,000 more votes in the county than he did last time. Like the Clintons, the man also had long-standing, deep ties to Miami (he owns a golf course out in the suburbs) and managed to cultivate closer ties with local Republican politicians (including his former primary faux Marco Rubio) than he had in 2016.
For what it’s worth, the result wasn’t a complete surprise. Polling by the local firm Bendixen & Amandi International, which actually counts Cuban and non-Hispanic Cuban as different demographics, had long predicted that Biden’s margins in the county would be much lower than Clinton and Obama’s.
Of course, when all is done and counted, Florida may not matter much.
And it’s impossible to know whether this portends a turning point in the swing state game. Democrats can always continue to make grounds in Texas and Georgia, even as their support in Florida dwindles. Or, who knows, Miami-Dade may bounce back to wider Democratic margins once again in 2024 with the right candidate.
In a further twist, while Miami-Dade may have complicated Biden’s chance to 270, the county had a major breakthrough in local politics. It elected its first uneappolegetically progressive mayor in quite sometime, and its first female mayor ever. It’s still a blue county. Just not blue enough to change the entire state.