President Donald Trump’s campaign a year ago envisioned an election scenario where the incumbent president expanded the boundaries of modern electoral politics by winning every state he won four years ago and adding half a dozen others.
Their ideal election now a distant dream, Trump’s advisers in the final weeks of the campaign, mapped out more dire possibilities showing ways their candidate could lose key states like Florida and still win reelection by conquering a series of Upper Midwest states.
One scenario has Trump losing Florida and Arizona but still receiving 270 electoral votes, the minimum needed to win. The other shows Trump losing North Carolina and Florida and receiving 272 electoral votes.
“Now, by no means do we think the president is not going to carry Florida,” director of battleground strategy Nick Trainer cautioned reporters during a recent virtual briefing in which he presented the potential election maps — including two that had Trump losing Florida.
Campaign manager Bill Stepien immediately jumped in to reiterate: “Let me say it again: The president will win Florida.”
But with Florida’s registered Democrats for the first time requesting hundreds of thousands more mail-in ballots than Republicans, overseas ballots going out on Sept. 19 and polls showing a tight contest in the nation’s most populous swing state, a Trump loss is being considered as a possibility. The Trump campaign is considering pathways to the White House that do not include Florida.
A defeat in Florida would trigger a set of circumstances that just one Republican nominee in the last 100 years has been able to emerge from victoriously. Former President Calvin Coolidge in 1924 lost Florida but won the national election.
Without Florida’s 29 electoral college votes, Trump would be completely reliant on a trio of Upper-Midwest battleground states he narrowly won in 2016 — Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — and would need the electoral votes of at least one additional battleground state he previously lost, such as New Hampshire or Minnesota, in order to win a second term.
In all five of those states Trump is in worse shape than he is in Florida, where most public polling is within the margin of error. He trails Biden by four or more points in each of them, according to Real Clear Politics polling averages.
Still, the Trump campaign insisted that the sitting president could lose a combination of Florida and the swing state of Arizona, a total of 40 electors, or Florida and the battleground state of North Carolina, a total of 44 electors, and still cross the 270-vote threshold.
Trump bested Democrat Hillary Clinton in all three states in 2016, winning the presidential election with a total of 306 electoral votes.
“We are convinced that we’re not in 2004 anymore. This map should do it,” Trainer said, of a scenario in which Trump loses Florida and North Carolina but still wins. “If President Bush hadn’t won those states in his reelection, he would have been a one-term president. But again, this president has shown the Republican Party he’s able to compete in new states.”
Democrats have argued for years that Florida is a firewall against a second term for Trump.
“There is no realistic path to a second Trump term without Florida,” states a polling memo released this month on behalf of the pro-Biden Unite the Country Super PAC by polling firm GQR.
The firm, which polled the state from late August through early September, found Biden ahead of Trump in Florida, 51% to 46%, thanks to massive leads among Black voters, college-educated white voters and non-Cuban Hispanic voters. Other polls have found the race in Florida statistically too close to predict.
“Biden’s path focuses on holding college educated whites, increasing his support among non-Cuban Hispanics to Clinton levels and turning out African Americans,” the memo states.
Steve Schale, the Tallahassee-based CEO of Unite the Country, said in an interview that while mathematically it’s possible for Trump to win reelection without Florida, it’s highly unlikely given that a loss in Florida likely means Trump slipped with the midwestern transplants who have moved in large numbers to Central Florida and the Tampa Bay area.
“The reality is, for Trump to win without winning Florida would require him to win all three of the upper Midwestern states,” he said. “And the odds of that happening without him also winning Florida are really low in part because the same people that are swing voters in Florida, most of them come from those states. There’s a lot of similarity between the two.
“You can come up with the math that doesn’t include Florida but it’s very, very difficult,” he said.
A must-win state
Trump has invested heavily in Florida, a state he won by fewer than 113,000 votes four years ago, staffing up early in the state and putting ads on the air in its expensive media markets, even as his cash conscious campaign held off elsewhere.
Last year, he changed his official residency to Florida, when he was frequenting his Palm Beach golf club before the pandemic, though he has never lived at Mar-a-Lago full time.
Top surrogates for Trump are now visiting the state weekly as the campaign heads to Nov. 3, targeting non-college educated white voters, seniors and Cuban and Venezuelan voters with their closing message. The campaign gave Florida Latinos prime speaking slots at the GOP convention and have made accusations that Biden is embracing socialist and communist political positions a core part of their election message.
The president has reinforced the campaign strategy with White House actions, including executive orders he signed over the summer — with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at his side — that are intended to lower the cost of prescription drugs. During a visit to Palm Beach County this month, he extended and expanded a moratorium on drilling off the coasts of Florida.
In spite of his campaign’s recent assertions that it can lose Florida and make up ground elsewhere, the state is often discussed as a must-win for Trump by both Republicans and Democrats.
The Biden campaign didn’t comment directly on the question of whether Trump must win Florida to clinch a second term, focusing instead on its own efforts to turn out more voters.
“While his campaign tries to paper over his failed pandemic response, which has come at the expense of far too many Floridians, the Biden campaign will continue to focus on earning every vote by investing big across paid media, organizing, and meaningful outreach to ensure we make Donald Trump a one-term president,” said Kevin Muñoz, a Florida spokesman for the Biden campaign.
The two campaigns have booked a total of more than $100 million in TV, radio and digital advertisements through Nov. 3, according to figures compiled by Advertising Analytics, which tracks campaign advertising. About half the money is focused on the Tampa and Orlando areas, both of which Biden visited Tuesday.
As of Tuesday, Biden’s campaign had booked $57.7 million in ads, and Trump’s campaign had spent $50.9 million.
Another $37.7 million had been invested in the state by political committees such as the pro-Biden Priorities USA and pro-Trump America First Action. The Trump-supporting super PAC has committed to $12.7 million worth of digital cable and broadcast ads that are slated to run in West Palm and Orlando through the election.
America First Action’s Florida ad buy is more than the cumulative total of its other general election ad purchases. It last week announced $9.3 million of spending in the battleground states of Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, all of which Trump won four years ago.
Trump’s campaign has pointed to spending by Biden in states that Democrats won in 2016 as evidence that the candidate is on the defense, while also characterizing Biden’s spending in states like Florida that Trump won as necessary to remain competitive.
Republican National Committee spokesman Rick Gorka said the while campaign remains confident it will win Florida, it does not want to leave victory in the state to chance, so it continues to expend a heavy amount of resources there.
Gorka said the GOP’s belief that Trump will win there is based on the strength of its ground game and message and Biden’s reported struggles with Latino voters.
“Regardless of what the confidence level is or what the poll numbers show, you still put 100 percent into those states to make sure that they come over and that they’re in your column when the bell rings,” he added. “And we’re going to put every resource into the state to make sure that that happens.”