BESIDE A TRUMP-FLAGGED BOAT AT A DOCK IN FORT LAUDERDALE—It looms ever closer, like a poorly conceived sequel to a decades-old movie even most of its fans would like to forget. There’s a mostly new cast, many of them as old as the original players; a ton of money being invested in the production; and a lot of media effects that couldn’t be dreamed of when the first one came out. It’s a slow-moving catastrophe. It’s entirely predictable. It’s Bush v. Gore 2: The Actual Boogaloo. It’s going to suck. And of course, it’s set in Florida again.
Two decades after the 2000 election, which history may remember as the real beginning of the end of American election legitimacy, the fate of billions of sentient beings on earth may again turn on what happens here. The stakes are familiar: Florida’s considerable bucket of electoral votes has gone to the winner of every election since 1996. The two Republican presidents on that list didn’t get the most votes nationwide, mind you, but they got Florida and hence official White House portraits. Winning Florida is so crucial that even Donald Trump probably understands the state’s importance. (The owner of Mar-a-Lago is one of the purest types of Florida Men: a transplanted New Yorker who endlessly bitches about New York.)
The conventional wisdom is that while Joe Biden can win without Florida, Trump’s political survival hinges on the state. Republicans “understand first and foremost, without Florida, he will be a one-term president,” Steve Schale, the state’s longtime top Democratic political handicapper, wrote when Trump launched his reelection campaign last year in Orlando. Schale, who helped try to “draft” Biden to run in 2016, is now running a pro-Biden super PAC, but his opinion is widely shared among politicos of all partisan persuasions. By one advertising tracker’s estimate, political ad spending in Florida had already topped $145 million by late August, a full $30 million more than in Pennsylvania, the state with the next-highest total. By Election Day, nearly one-quarter of a billion dollars could be spent on just the Tampa and Orlando media markets, the largest points on the state’s coveted “I-4 corridor.”
This despite the fact that there are no gubernatorial, statewide, or Senate races on the ballot in Florida this year. It’s all about the presidency. And, you know, the future of the republic.
Schale believes Biden can win here, and the polls mostly agree, though they’ve tightened considerably through the fall. By late September, Biden had led in eight of that month’s polls, Trump had led in two, and they’d tied in two. Biden is, in other words, right around where Hillary Clinton was at the same time in 2016, before she lost the state by about one percentage point. “I am bullish on the state right now,” Schale told me, while still ominously conceding what most residents innately understand: “People just think [Florida] is more Democratic than it is.”
It’s true, and it’s true by design—specifically, a quarter-century of deliberate conservative design. Ever since the Newt Gingrich–led Republican Revolution of 1994 swept down-ballot Democrats out of legislative power in Tallahassee, the GOP has treated Florida as a playground for big donors and a testing ground for increasingly sinister political experiments: Can you maintain near-absolute one-party control of a state with a bare majority of votes? Can you suck all the marrow out of a functioning state in a single generation? Can you convince enough voters to elect—or not vote against—a sleazy, disinterested, obviously incompetent maybe-billionaire for the highest executive office? Can you get that idiot reelected?
Before 2016, Floridians knew the answer to all these questions was yes. This is why I worry America is in trouble.
Florida has had four governors in the twenty-first century, and none of them have been Democrats. (One of those GOP governors, Charlie Crist, later became an independent to run for Senate and lost; he then became a Democrat to run again for governor and lost; he now holds a safe “D” congressional seat in the Tampa Bay area.) Jeb Bush unseated the last Democratic governor back in 1998. Four years later, a Bush appointee replaced the last elected Democratic attorney general. Democrats haven’t won a state Senate majority since 1994; it’s been 24 years since they held the House, and for eight of those, Republicans held a supermajority of the seats. Florida is rare in holding elections to fill the governor’s Cabinet, but between 2002 and 2018, only one Democrat had been elected to one of those statewide offices. In the last midterm election, Nikki Fried, a former marijuana lobbyist from liberal South Florida, narrowly won election as the secretary of agriculture, making her the second Democratic Cabinet member since the Jeb Bush era and the only Democrat in any statewide elected office today. (Fried is of a different political party than all of her Cabinet peers, but they hold at least one thing in common: She, too, is a millionaire.)
Florida, in short, is a de facto one-party state, and this is not the result of retail politics or good governance. When the 2018 midterms were held, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the state by more than a quarter-million. Despite that advantage, and a once-in-a-generation “blue tsunami” across the rest of the country on Election Day, Republicans didn’t even lose any state Senate seats; they dropped two in the state Legislature, but they continue to control nearly two-thirds of that chamber. Of six statewide elected offices, Democrats won only one, Fried’s. Rick Scott, the grifting Texas tycoon who remade himself as a Florida Man and was term-limited out of any more disastrous runs as governor, managed to slither sideways into the U.S. Senate, unseating incumbent Democrat Bill Nelson by a mind-blowing 10,033 votes out of 8.2 million cast. Scott was succeeded in Tallahassee by Ron DeSantis, whose racist campaign managed to eke out a win by about 30,000 votes—which is roughly equal to the number of Floridians who may ultimately die of Covid-19 this year on his watch.
Those consistent 2000-style, close-but-no-cigar election results always give Florida Democrats hope: They suggest that strong candidates, voter registration, and retail politics can win any given contest. Oh, Democrats have their own sneaky tricks, but they’re fairly conventional. They have relied on rich ambulance-chasers like Orlando attorney (and Crist benefactor) John Morgan, an indefatigable self-promoter who likes to bankroll ballot initiatives that might help turnout. In 2016, it was medical marijuana; this year, it’s a $15 minimum wage. It’s cynical electioneering but good policy, and it’s forcing the restaurant and hospitality lobbies to use their political dollars fighting for shitty wages instead of shitty candidates.
Florida Republicans, on the other hand, have learned that you just have to bombard people with ads full of lies and engage in explicit voter suppression, and you’re past the post. Plenty of those tactics, especially gerrymandering and disenfranchisement of minorities, have been underway for decades, but Republican anti-democratic fervor really kicked into overdrive in the Tea Party era under Scott, an amoral moneybags with no political experience. Scott’s successful gubernatorial run was early proof of concept that maybe even a Trump could win elected office.
The proof is in the pudding: In the past decade, Scott went from founding a company that committed the worst Medicare fraud in history to winning two races for governor and one Senate election by a total of 136,728 votes out of 19,501,301 cast—a victory margin of just over half a percentage point. All he had to do was be a completely unscrupulous member of the nouveau riche, willing to pump $152 million of his own fortune into wall-to-wall deceptive ads painting Obamacare as socialism; longtime centrist Bill Nelson as a socialist; and himself as something other than a toxic, bumbling, creepy, “remote and uncaring” slasher of public services. (All that money has made it easy to forget that Republicans had worried about Scott being an incompetent, historically unpopular liability early on in his first term.)
But the other half of the Scott success story involves more than just lavish ad outlays and lies: You also have to openly engage in election fuckery. Here, too, Scott used the state as a GOP guinea pig, pushing hard to purge “noncitizens” from voter rolls (along with dozens of active-duty service members and a 91-year-old World War II veteran). Citing nonexistent voter fraud, he signed a law to slash early voting hours nearly in half, spent half a million dollars of taxpayer money defending the law in court, then denied he had anything to do with it when the law led to six-hour waits in voting lines. (The state’s former GOP chairman and multiple party officials, meanwhile, publicly admitted that the law’s “voter fraud” rationale was just an excuse to suppress Black votes.) In 2016, as a late-developing hurricane barreled down on Florida, Scott even tried, unsuccessfully, to prevent an extension of the state’s voter-registration deadline.
But the real centerpiece of Scott’s and the GOP’s voter suppression efforts lay in their thirst to prevent the restoration of voting rights to convicted felons who have rehabilitated themselves. In Florida, convicts seeking their stripped civil rights long had to submit to an onerous, years-long process to get clemency from the governor. As The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins pointed out in August, Scott’s two immediate Republican predecessors extended clemency to nearly a quarter of a million Floridians in 12 years, but “Scott, in eight years, gave clemency to barely 3,000 felons.” (Those lucky few included twice as many whites as Blacks and more Republicans than any batch of restorations in the state since 1971.) The governor seemed to relish lecturing mostly Black felons at clemency board hearings that they hadn’t done enough to be full citizens in his eyes. “There’s no law we’re following,” he said in one hearing. “We get to make our decision based on our own beliefs.… There’s absolutely no standards, so we can make any decisions we want.”
Small wonder, then, that Floridians voted overwhelmingly in 2018 for a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to most felons who complete their criminal sentences. In fact, that ballot initiative got roughly a million more “yes” votes than Scott, DeSantis, or any other statewide candidate for office garnered that year. When it became law, Amendment Four gave voting rights to as many as 1.4 million Floridians—until DeSantis and the GOP legislature contravened the voters’ will by passing a law requiring felons to pay off all debts, fines, and fees to the court and their “victims” before they could vote. A federal judge tossed that law, but DeSantis appealed the ruling to a Trump-friendly court, where six Republican appointees outvoted four Democratic judges to uphold the de facto poll tax. One of those GOP judges, Barbara Lagoa, refused to recuse herself from the case, despite the fact that DeSantis had personally appointed her to the state Supreme Court in early 2019. Trump, who put Lagoa on the federal bench months later, also added her to his shortlist to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, on the characteristically cynical Republican assumption that floating a Cuban American justice would help clinch the state, which has a sizable Cuban American population, for Trump in November.
In addition to subverting the will of voters and making registration and voting more difficult, Florida Republicans pioneered the art of preemptively blasting elections as “rigged” against them. There was 2000 and the “Brooks Brothers riot” coordinated by recently convicted (and still more recently pardoned) Republican dirty trickster Roger Stone. But in 2018, Scott, too, declared victory in his Senate race before all the votes were counted, then argued to any TV pundit who would book him or his proxies that the only way he could lose was if corrupt local Democratic election supervisors and lawyers “steal it from him in court.” Once again, a successful Rick Scott Hail Mary has been adapted for Donald Trump’s 2020 playbook. “We want to make sure that the election is honest, and I’m not sure that it can be,” Trump told White House reporters before jumping on a plane for a rally in Jacksonville, the culmination of months spent bitching that he was powerless to stop some grand sinister electoral conspiracy against him. “The ballots—you know, that’s a big scam.” Only these idiot jamokes would try to argue that an election on their executive watch is rigged against them. But calling the legitimacy of a vote tally into question worked for Scott, and so maybe it can work again.
I can drive past a major intersection in the mostly blue South Florida city where I grew up and see “Pizzagate” and QAnon protesters angrily toting signs. It’s the same street corner where, years before, a rabid local group of Tea Partiers gathered with anti-Obama signs. From here, I can drive 10 minutes south, near my house, to the strip mall where the “MAGA bomber” once delivered pizzas out of his van; or I can drive a half-hour west to Parkland, where a 19-year-old murdered 17 high school students and staffers, including my former wrestling coach, two and a half years ago. “Democrats now need a landslide in South Florida to win the state,” The Washington Post’s David Weigel wrote in August, and it is true. That’s always the Democratic Florida strategy: running up huge numbers in the “blue” south. It’s rarely worked.
So far, the splashiest new Democratic stratagem has been getting a pledge from billionaire Mike Bloomberg to drop $100 million on the state for ads and ground work to target Latino voters, more of whom are cleaving to Trump this year than they did in 2016, much to the confusion and dismay of Democrats who have been caught flat-footed by the efficacy among Cuban Americans and others of Trump’s attacks on Biden as a “socialist.” (Bloomberg has also pledged to spend $16 million buying back the rights of those disenfranchised felons, an effort that’s also gotten material and moral support from athletes like LeBron James.) Most of the Bloomberg bucks will go to digital and TV ad spending, distributed to super PACs and other Democratic organizations.
Possibly some dollars will be left over for a Democratic ground game, which has severely lagged the GOP retail effort this cycle. Some of that was unavoidable amid the coronavirus pandemic: Dems rely on concerts and large events to gather new voter registrations. In the absence of those events, Trump campaigners have taken to old-fashioned door-knocking; Democrats have not, perhaps out of fear of muddling Biden’s pro–social distancing message. The result is that Florida Republicans have nearly closed the long-standing gap in election-year voter registrations, an ominous portent in a state where elections continue to be closer than an expert barber’s shave.
In response, Dems have opted to use their windfall to run candidates for an unprecedented number of statehouse races, hoping not for wins but for some extra ballot mojo. To aid the effort, they’ve even brought in an activist whose registration drives in Virginia helped flip that state’s legislature reliably blue. (Republicans are trolling that effort: “They are fielding candidates just to say that they have candidates in races,” state GOP chairman Joe Gruters crowed to the Associated Press in July. “They’re going to have a great time coming together on election night and crying on each other’s shoulders.”) Dems also continue to focus on building an unprecedented lead in vote-by-mail ballots here, where mail voting has always run a little more smoothly than in the rest of the country. Still, the party has to make sure those requested ballots are actually filled out correctly, sent in on time, and counted.
But is just winning the state even enough this year? What if Florida is, yet again, not merely the sum of its electors but a bellwether for the nation? What if all that Bloomberg money is offset by the viral spread of right-wing anti-Bloomberg conspiracy theories? What if the time-tested Scott-Trump tactic of wall-to-wall bullshit and fearmongering commercials, combined with Republicans’ pandemic-aided efforts to make voting difficult and dangerous, can make up a 2 or 3 percent Biden advantage, plus or minus 0.0001?
If Trump loses Florida, they all say, then Trump is toast. But if Biden loses, or only appears to win slightly, or merely starts behind in the election night count, then American democracy might be blackened and buttered. Then the homegrown armed crazies, the Roger Stone–friendly Proud Boys, the corner-standing Q twerps can have their riot and preempt a fair count. “Florida,” it’s been said, “is the drainpipe of America.” For a quarter of a century, democracy has been dripping away out of this pipe. By November 3, I worry, the drain may be empty.