Barack Obama won Florida in 2008 and 2012, but Hillary Clinton lost it to Donald Trump in 2016. Gillum faces one of the Trumpiest candidates in the country, Rep. Ron DeSantis.
How can Gillum take the path that Obama took — but in another midterm election? I spoke to Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who worked on Obama’s and Crist’s races. A transcript of our conversation, lightly edited and condensed for space and clarity, follows.
THE PLUM LINE: What’s Gillum’s theory?
STEVE SCHALE: Rick Scott outspent Alex Sink and Charlie Crist by 3-to-1 in two of the most Republican years in history. That being said, 2018 is a very different environment. Florida is a very evenly divided state. Gillum’s argument for getting to 50-plus-1 is through motivating young people of color and disaffected progressive whites, combined with the suburban white women who are voting Democratic in recent special elections.
PLUM LINE: Who are these voters and where are they?
SCHALE: One group that drops off in nonpresidential years is younger Puerto Rican Democrats in Orlando — Orange County, and Osceola County next door. If he can move 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 more voters there, it’s a significant change in a state decided by one point.
Look at huge population centers like Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Or Jacksonville — Duval County. If you look at how Gillum did in the primary, there’s reason to be optimistic that he can make the margin in a place like Duval — with higher African American turnout — look a lot more like it did for Obama than it did for the last Democratic gubernatorial nominees.
PLUM LINE: In geographic and demographic detail, what’s Gillum’s path?
SCHALE: Florida is like a scale: You take your democratic counties down south and your Republican counties up north, and balance them on the fulcrum of the I-4 corridor. Right now the scale is pretty evenly balanced. Republicans win their markets by about the same margins as Democrats win theirs, and we fight it out over the I-4 corridor — the Tampa and Orlando media markets.
People who live in Tampa tend to come from places like Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana — a lot of suburban white voters and moderate Midwestern swing voters. Orlando tends to have people who come from Puerto Rico, or your typical conservative retiree from anywhere. Parties spend in Tampa (25 percent of the statewide vote) because there are a ton of swing voters, and in Orlando (21 percent of the statewide vote) to turn out their bases.
What Andrew potentially does is get African American, Hispanic and disaffected young progressive turnout in South Florida to increase, tipping the scale, just like in 2012 and 2008.
PLUM LINE: What does he need to do in the I-4 corridor?
SCHALE: Look at how Obama won in 2012 and how Clinton lost in 2016. Obama kept a lot of those suburban, exurban counties around Tampa and Orlando. He won counties that Clinton lost or kept the margins so Republican wins weren’t significant. Gillum needs the base counties to look better than they looked for Crist, but he also needs the suburban counties around I-4 to look more like they did for Obama than for Clinton.
PLUM LINE: Republicans will racialize this. What’s the danger that poses in terms of juiced-up Republican turnout in northern Florida and a failure by Gillum in suburban swing I-4 areas?
SCHALE: North Florida is pretty much maxed out. Trump didn’t win the Panhandle by much more than Mitt Romney did. Trump really won those suburban and exurban I-4 counties by large margins. DeSantis will try to replicate that.
But some voters in those communities can be motivated by Andrew. And scaring people over race to win is really risky. You will see significantly higher African American turnout. And the suburban white women who have helped Democrats win all over the country — I’m not sure you’re going to move a suburban mom with three kids in South Tampa by using race.
PLUM LINE: How does Gillum hit Obama’s targets in suburban I-4 territory? Some have suggested that his agenda of Medicare for All, the $15-per-hour minimum wage and so forth could potentially cost him in the suburbs.
SCHALE: Because the state is more diverse today than in 2008 or 2012, he doesn’t have to exactly hit the Obama targets. In a lot of these communities, access to affordable health care and economic opportunities are serious concerns. Gillum will be able to speak quite well to that. And he just has to win enough of these voters.
Republicans also didn’t help themselves by nominating Ron DeSantis. The types of people who live in these sort of center-right counties have been rejecting Trump in election after election since 2016.
I won’t say Gillum will win today — but he’s in a good position.