From polling to early voting trends to TV ad spending to ground game, Donald Trump’s Florida fortunes are beginning to look so bleak that some Republicans are steeling themselves for what could be the equivalent of a “landslide” loss in the nation’s biggest battleground state.
Trump has trailed Hillary Clinton in 10 of the 11 public polls conducted in October — according to POLITICO’s Battleground States polling average, Clinton has a 3.4 point lead. Even private surveys conducted by Republican-leaning groups show Trump’s in trouble in Florida, where a loss would end his White House hopes.
“On the presidential race we’ve found Clinton with a consistent 3% – 5% lead in surveys that attempt to reflect Florida’s actual electorate,” Ryan D. Tyson, vice president of political operations for the Associated Industries of Florida business group wrote in a confidential memo emailed to his conservative-leaning members this weekend and obtained by POLITICO.
Though Clinton’s lead is “within the margin of error for this survey, we would suggest that 3% really isn’t as close as it may seem in the state of Florida,” Tyson wrote, estimating a turnout of as much as 71 percent, or as many as 9.2 million Florida voters overall. If that happens and the polling margins hold, Clinton’s raw vote lead over Trump could end up being 275,000 to 460,000 votes.
“This is in all reality a landslide in our great state,” Tyson wrote, echoing the concerns of numerous Florida Republican insiders and experts. “Based on his consistent failure to improve his standing with non-white voters, voters under 50 and females, it seems fairly obvious to us that Mr. Trump’s only hope left in Florida is a low turnout.”
Trump has reacted to the steady drip of troubling numbers by launching an unprecedented seven-city Florida tour this week while simultaneously denying the data dispiriting many in his party.
“We are winning and the press is refusing to report it. Don’t let them fool you- get out and vote! #DrainTheSwamp on November 8th!” Trump wrote on his Twitter account Monday morning before an event with farmers near West Palm Beach, where he repeated to the crowd, “I believe we are actually winning.”
Hours earlier, Trump took to Twitter to say that “the Dems are making up phony polls in order to suppress” his vote share.
But polls are just one reason why Florida Republicans are alarmed. Mail-in absentee ballot voting was once a Republican strength thanks to the party’s organization and years of conditioning its members to vote by mail. But this year, Democrats are showing signs of catching up.
As of Monday morning, Florida Republicans had cast fewer than 42 percent of the more than 1.2 million absentee ballots. Democrats had cast 40 percent. Though that 1.7 percentage point lead is in the GOP’s favor, it’s greatly reduced since the same period in 2012, when Republican ballots outpaced Democrats’ by 5 points.
Still, Trump during a Sunday stop near Naples told the crowd that the “numbers are looking phenomenal in Florida.”
The early votes have not been officially tallied, but campaigns and operatives use the raw return numbers to measure a campaign’s health. Generally, the top-of-the-ticket candidate whose party members cast more ballots before Election Day is favored to win the election.
Florida’s pre-Election Day ballot counts will grow ever bigger now that in-person early voting began Monday in a majority of the state’s major counties. When it comes to in-person early voting, Democrats tend to outperform Republicans but that doesn’t usually happen until after a full weekend of early voting, particularly after the Sunday “Souls to the Polls” events where African-Americans cast ballots in person after church. So, if a Democrat advantage appears, it might not happen until Halloween.
At one point last week, Democrats briefly overtook Republicans in absentee ballots cast, marking the first time Democrats have ever caught Republicans in pre-Election Day ballots before in-person early voting begins.
But the lead didn’t last. By that point, the Trump campaign had realized it wasn’t actively calling and mailing absentee ballot voters to get them to mail their votes in. The campaign quickly instituted what’s called a “chase” program to pressure voters to fill out their ballots and send them in.
Little glitches like that make longtime Trump supporter and past political adviser Roger Stone, who also lives in Florida, fret. He blamed most of the campaign problems on the Trump campaign leadership in New York. He said the campaign didn’t give enough money and flexibility to its former Florida director Karen Giorno —who was moved in a campaign shakeup — or to its current Florida campaign chief, Susie Wiles, who managed Gov. Rick Scott’s 2010 campaign.
“She knows how to carry the state. But they never gave her the resources to do so,” Stone said. “Where, for instance, were the Spanish-language ads touting Trump’s economic message?”
Many Republicans wondered where Trump’s ads were at all in Florida. Since July, Clinton and her backers have spent and committed $51 million in TV ads in Florida. But Trump and his campaign have invested just $30 million — with $20 million of that spent and committed just since the beginning of this month. That’s still $2 million less in October than Clinton’s side.
Part of the ad disparity is rooted in Trump’s refusal to fundraise as aggressively as Romney in 2012.
Wiles wouldn’t comment on the campaign’s finances or its strategy. But, she said, the big and energetic crowds greeting Trump are a sign that there’s more excitement for the Republican candidate than for Clinton, who often speaks in relatively small and tame venues.
“Enthusiasm counts,” Wiles said. “We have it. She doesn’t.”
With Trump’s seven-city whirlwind Florida tour, Republicans are hoping he can persuade more Republicans than ever to vote early or by absentee, thereby relieving the GOP of the potential pressure to have to turn out more Election Day voters. But Trump isn’t operating in a vacuum: Hillary Clinton, her running mate, President Obama and even singer Jennifer Lopez are spearheading early vote rallies this week as both campaigns scour the state.
Democrats also question the conventional wisdom about whether there’s an enthusiasm gap between Clinton and Trump. Two new national polls, for instance, indicate the share of Clinton supporters who say they’re voting for her and not just against Trump has increased faster for her than for him.
Florida Democrats also point to the voter-registration rolls as a sign of greater support for their candidate, if not their party.
“Democrats have added nearly 692,000 new voters to the rolls since 2012 versus 593,000 Republicans — and the trends continue to go upward in our favor,” Clinton’s Florida director, Simone Ward, wrote in a Monday memo that detailed the campaign’s ground game for turning out voters.
Still, because more conservative Republican-voting Democrats left the party for the GOP and because Democrats lost more elderly and young voters overall than Republicans, the state GOP has narrowed the bottom-line registration gap with Democrats in Florida over the past four years. Of the nearly 12.7 million active registered voters in the state, 38 percent are Democrats, 36 percent Republicans and the balance are independent voters, with the majority of them registering as having no party affiliation.
Another change since 2012: Florida’s voter rolls have become less white by 3 percentage points, an advantage for Democrats who enjoy higher rates of minority support than Republicans.
When the entire picture of the election is assembled, Republicans aren’t thrilled with what they see.
“While I’m still very confident in our party’s ability in the vote-by-mail universe, it is clear our colleagues on the other side have growing success,” said Brian Hughes, a Florida Republican consultant and former spokesman for the state party and Gov. Scott.
The absentee vote, Hughes said, is “where we built up leads. It took them several cycles and now they chase [absentee ballots] the way we do. Add that to the demographic advantages [for Democrats] as the state changes and it’s not good news.”
One bright spot for Florida Republicans: Sen. Marco Rubio, who leads Congressman Patrick Murphy by 5 points in AIF polls and has bested the Democrat in more than two-dozen other surveys. But increasingly, Rubio’s team and supporters are nervous as Trump’s fortunes appear to wane. They fear that if Trump loses by 5 points, it could signify a Democratic blue wave that swamps Rubio.
“This is the nightmare scenario we’ve all worried about,” said one top Rubio backer who didn’t want to go on record for fear of “poking the Trump people in the eye.”
A Rubio loss would seriously endanger his political career. It would mark his second defeat in a year, having lost the state GOP presidential primary to Trump. “Trump could be directly responsible for one Rubio loss and indirectly responsible for the other,” the Rubio backer said.
The concern isn’t limited to Rubio. In tracking whether Florida voters prefer a generic Republican or Democrat, AIF found that “Republicans have taken a hit in the generic ballot since the Access Hollywood tapes were released on Friday October 7. In our initial track it was Republicans +4%. In this week’s track they have dropped -5% to Democrats +1%.”
For Florida Republicans, the Access Hollywood controversy — in which Trump’s sexually aggressive comments to host Billy Bush in 2005 were caught on camera and only released this month — drips with irony. Bush, after all, is cousin to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who was ridiculed by Trump and who was once seen as the one Republican with enough super PAC firepower to dismantle the GOP frontrunner in the presidential primary.
“Whoever would’ve thought that the Bush who brought down Donald would be Billy Bush?” said a longtime supporter of the former governor who is working with Republican candidates in the state. “If there’s a real ground game for Trump, we’re not seeing it.”