Flipping Florida?  Abortion Alone Won’t Be Enough

Photo by John

It may not be a fool’s errand – but it’s close.  Biden and the Democrats have announced their intention to vie for Florida’s 30 electoral votes in November.  This, notwithstanding the political headwinds they face in a one-time battleground state that has turned decidedly Red of late.

Trump won Florida by a narrow margin over Hillary Clinton in 2016, but in 2020, carried the Sunshine State by a decisive 3.5 points, even while losing the race overall.   But the midterms in 2022 were the real ass-kicker.  Democrats staved off the expected Red Tsunami elsewhere but not here. Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Trump protege, won reelection by a whopping margin (more than 20 points) – and so did another Trump apologist, Sen Marco Rubio, en route to his third term.

With the Democratic party apparatus in a “shambles” – a term used by party insiders – and the GOP having opened up an 800,000+ voter registration edge – and counting – most sober political analysts have concluded that Florida is too far gone at this point to be pulled back “Blue.”

So what are Democrats thinking?  Abortion, mainly.  The state’s 6-week abortion ban just went into effect, angering many women, Democrats and some independents, leading anti-Trump forces to conclude that the state night be ripe for reconquest.  Other Red-leaning states like Ohio have seen the abortion issue – and special ballot initiatives calling for a restoration of abortion rights, post-Dobbs – catalyze anti-MAGA forces and lead progressives to victory – and not just on the abortion issue.  The Democrats are hoping – or rather praying – that by launching an abortion ballot initiative in Florida  this fall, they can mobilize enough voters to defeat Donald Trump and hand the state – with its cache of 30 electoral votes, fourth most in the nation – to Biden, thereby solidifying his re-election, even if he loses (as many now predict) traditional Red-leaning states like Georgia and Arizona (with 27 electoral votes combined) that he managed to flip in 2020.

With his huge campaign chest that still dwarves Trump’s, it’s probably worth a shot, some Democrats say, for at least two reasons.  First, by expanding the electoral map to include Florida, Democrats hope to force a cash-strapped Trump to defend a state that he thought was his  for the keeping, weakening the former president’s efforts elsewhere, especially in the hotly-contested Rust Best.  Second, an increase in Democratic voter mobilization could affect down ballot races in the state legislature, which is dominated by conservatives, but open to influence, no matter what happens in the presidential race.

All that’s true, in principle, and the fact is, Democrats are desperate to rebuild the party in Florida, where enthusiasm is flagging.  It hasn’t helped that DeSantis’ former gubernatorial opponent, Andrew Gillum, an African-American who might have become only the second Black governor in US history, and whom DeSantis only narrowly beat (by less than 1%) back in 2018, was later arrested on drug and corruption charges and narrowly escaped prison.  And defections by Hispanics to the GOP – and not just among Cuban-Americans, but across the board – are worse in Florida than just about anywhere else nationally.  Trump did extremely well with America’s largest ethnic voting group – and 17% of Florida’s registered voters – but DeSantis actually pulled off a minor miracle – winning the Hispanic vote outright (by 15 points) en route to carrying Miami-Dade county, a traditional Democratic stronghold – both historic precedents.

And keep in mind: Democrats have their own loyal states under siege in November.  Trump and the GOP are poised to compete for Blue-leaning Minnesota and Virginia, and maybe even diehard Blue New York.  New York may well be a chimera, but as I reported last week, Minnesota is not – with polls showing a neck-and-neck race between Trump and Biden.  Trump’s campaign organization has conducted its own internal polling which shows him leading Biden by single digits in Minnesota and trailing only slightly in Virginia.  Democrats say those polls are inflated – and they may well be – but a serious play for the two states will force Democrats to defend them, costing them resources that might be better spent elsewhere – especially in the Rust Belt.

But the real problem with trying to use abortion as a “wedge” issue in Florida is that it may not work as intended.  Florida has a long history of seeing ballot measures pass on issues like medical marijuana legalization without those votes carrying over to statewide candidates.  It’s perfectly possible for voters, including many Republicans, to go to the polls to defeat a state abortion law considered too Draconian – and yet cast their presidential ballot for Trump, or even possibly, RFK, Jr. or another third party candidate.  Trump has already declared publicly that he will not support a federal abortion ban, so in theory, should he win re-election, Florida’s new more pro-abortion law would stand – at least for now.  And RFK, Jr’s own abortion politics are ambiguous enough to allow voters to draw the same conclusion about casting their ballot for him; if he somehow wins the presidency, which is highly unlikely, the state’s new abortion measure would likely remain intact.

Of course, Democrats will do their best to suggest that voting for expanded abortion access and voting for Biden are inextricably linked.  Vice President Harris just visited Jacksonville to ring the alarm about a potential Trump victory, which she insisted would lead to future harsh abortion bans and attacks on reproductive rights generally.  Naturally, Democrats are at pains to point out that Trump led the crusade to overturn Roe v. Wade.  Had Dobbs not been affirmed, there would be no need for state abortion laws to try to restore women’s constitutional rights locally.   Trump simply can’t be trusted not to pander to the far-right if he wins, and if he does the issue of a new federal ban on abortion will inevitably return –  and it could well pass if the GOP – as expected, in fact – regains control of the Senate and recaptures the entire Congress.  Would Trump veto such a bill?  Probably not.

But again, the problem with Democratic thinking may be this persistent overestimation of how far they can take abortion politics in a general election year.  Most of the advantage that Democrats have derived from the abortion issue to date has occurred during the off-year elections, and in many cases, special elections, where the voting pool is smaller and more issue-engaged..  The entire fate of the country was not at stake and many of the anti-abortion GOP candidates that have lost in these elections were demonstrably weak.  Will the broader electorate really hold the abortion issue – which ranks #6 or even #9 on most lists of urgent voter priorities – against Trump when so much else is at stake and discontent with Biden is so widespread?

The defection of Hispanics and younger voters – and now, according to polls, most Catholics – from Biden should be a cautionary red flag for Democrats and their unbridled optimism in Florida, especially when it comes to abortion.  Young female voters may well be convinced to flock to the polls this November, based on the abortion measure, but young men, by all accounts, are far less likely to do so.  The idea that the entire youth voting cohort swings progressive on the culture war issues has been exposed as a dangerous myth.  To the chagrin of many feminists, a shockingly high percentage of young men under 25 – compared to their female counterparts – say they support Trump – but in fact, their emerging champion, polls show, is Robert F. Kennedy.

Maybe Biden and the Democrats will be proven right.  I doubt it.  Despite the abortion backlash and some growing concerns about the impact of three new anti-immigration laws passed by the legislature, public opinion in Florida has not really turned against the governor – or Republicans.  One completely overlooked factor is sheer demographics:  there’s been a massive influx of conservative voters from the Midwest and Northeast fleeing liberal policies there – one of the factors that helped catapult De Santis to such a massive re-election victory.  If anything, Florida is continuing to get redder and redder.  An abortion ballot victory this November isn’t likely to change that in the slightest.

The last good poll in Florida from late March had Trump leading Biden by six points, which was less than the 10-point lead he enjoyed earlier.  Trump led among Hispanics by 17 points and among younger voters by 18 points – both potentially historic numbers.

What Democrats need to realize in Florida – and just about everywhere it seems – is that Biden has become a deeply unpopular president.  Moreover, Americans are becoming convinced, rightly or wrongly, that Trump’s leadership abilities on virtually every national issue – the economy, crime, immigration and foreign policy– surpass Biden’s.  Do they support a harsh abortion ban?  Of course, not.  But hoping abortion will save Biden is akin to hoping that a conviction of Trump in New York – or simply forcing him to spend campaign funds on his defense – will.  Biden’s re-election prospects are fading fast and will likely get even worse as stagflation sets in and campus protests continue to expose his inability to demonstrate convincing leadership in the Middle East.

Want to win Florida?  Maybe it’s time to bite the bullet – and find a new standard-bearer who cannot only mobilize the base to its full potential but also convince the majority of American voters that Democrats still deserve the mantle of national leadership.  There are a couple of top-notch Democratic candidates out there – two-time governor Gretchen Whitmer, a staunch abortion advocate, who beats Trump in head-to-head polling in Michigan – comes to mind.  Do Democratic women have the courage to promote policy alternatives that can appeal to the entire country – and restore faith in the party’s brand, currently at an all-time low – or are they content to place all their chips on desperate last-ditch abortion campaigns – including one in Arizona, under similar circumstances – that could well cost them the White House?

One last consideration, potentially a critical one.  Ballot measures in Florida require a 60% vote to pass – not the 50% standard that allowed the abortion ballot measure to pass in Red Ohio, with just 57% of the vote.  This is no slam dunk – far from it.  Will enough voters be motivated to show up at the polls to weigh against the current 6-week law, and even if they do, will they vote with a 3-2 majority?

Florida may one day become a true battleground again – but not with Biden in 2024.  Democrats face the very real danger of losing the abortion measure and losing Florida, and ultimately the general election, having squandered resources badly needed elsewhere.

Stewart Lawrence is a long-time Washington, DC-based policy consultant.  He can be reached at stewartlawrence811147@gmail.com.