Florida is now not only Trump’s home but also what Republicans hope is an emerging GOP bastion. His strategy in the state reflects his broader push to galvanize his core voters ahead of next year’s election by unleashing an incendiary defense of his conduct, be it on Twitter, cable news or in front of thousands.
By rallying a capacity crowd at the 20,000-seat BB&T Center on Tuesday night, Trump tried to demonstrate broad and determined opposition to his impeachment.
The president spoke extensively from center stage about the congressional inquiry, delivering a theatrical play-by-play of this month’s bombshell testimony, mocking former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter, and bemoaning the proceedings as “a scam,” “a terrible hoax” and “a witch hunt.”
“You see what’s happening in the polls? Everybody said that’s really bullshit,” Trump said, claiming the American people don’t believe he did anything improper. The crowd chanted in response, “Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!”
Trump added: “The failed Washington establishment is trying to stop me because I’m fighting for you and because we’re winning. They’re attacking me because I’m exposing a rigged system.”
Vice President Pence introduced Trump in a robust speech attacking the impeachment inquiry as a partisan crusade for Democrats who “know they can’t stop you from giving President Donald Trump four more years in the White House.”
During the 2018 midterm elections, Florida was a rare place on the political map where the GOP saw gains. The party ousted an incumbent Democratic senator and won the governor’s mansion even as the party nationally was swept out of its House majority. Those victories, carried by Trump-aligned bids, have encouraged the Trump campaign as it aims to keep seniors and conservatives engaged in Florida and elsewhere.
“There is no way he wins reelection without it,” said Michael Steel, who advised former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign. “The question is whether he can expand beyond his base and reach out to groups like the Puerto Rican community, which was vital for Senator Scott.”
Republican Rick Scott, the state’s former governor, beat Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson last year, and Republican Ron DeSantis, who served in the U.S. House, became governor after running a campaign that embraced Trump at every turn, complete with a television ad that featured his young daughter playing with toy blocks as DeSantis told her to “build the wall.”
Tuesday’s rally — in Democratic-leaning Broward County and not far from his Mar-a-Lago estate, where he will spend Thanksgiving with his family — was the latest flash point in his ongoing grievance campaign, following Friday’s 53-minute interview with “Fox & Friends,” in which he peddled falsehoods, attacked witnesses and spread debunked conspiracy theories as he cast himself as a victim of perceived enemies within the federal government.
Pence made an unannounced visit Tuesday afternoon at Jaxson’s Ice Cream Parlor and Restaurant in Dania Beach, ordering an $8.50 chocolate milkshake, posing for selfies and shaking hands at a longtime favorite stop of campaigning politicians.
DeSantis and a cadre of other Florida Republicans joined Trump onstage in Sunrise to celebrate the president’s change in residency.
Throughout his political life, Trump has turned to rally crowds for sustenance at pivotal moments. His advisers and friends have long said Trump is convinced the images and messages emanating from these raucous gatherings are critical guidance for his voters about how to interpret his mounting challenges and defend him — and a powerful signal to GOP lawmakers about his standing with voters.
Lately, the effectiveness of Trump’s rally-centered approach has been tested in red states. He held rallies ahead of gubernatorial elections this month in Kentucky and Louisiana, but the GOP candidates fell in both contests despite Trump pleading with his supporters to vote. Top Republicans have insisted the candidates — not Trump — deserved the blame.
In Florida, polls this fall show Trump hovering below 50 percent approval, giving Democrats optimism about their chances of winning back the state in 2020. Since 2018’s stinging losses, many state Democratic leaders have been concentrating on courting Latino voters, although tensions continue between the party’s centrist and liberal wings. Among Republicans, Trump’s national approval in this month’s NPR-PBS-Marist poll and Gallup poll was 90 percent.
Census data shows just how divided the state has become demographically and how much Democratic ambitions largely rest on motivating younger and minority voters.
Florida’s population of nonwhite young adults continues to surge and outpaces the growth of older white residents. The trends create even more uncertainty in a state already known for close elections, especially in fast-growing areas.
According to census estimates, 40 percent of Florida’s 20 million residents are now over the age of 50, and slightly more than two-thirds of them are white. Those residents have formed the backbone of recent Republican victories.
In the 2016 presidential election, Trump carried Florida by 113,000 votes after 64 percent of white voters supported him, according to exit polls.
While the White House has added new advisers to assist with the fallout from the House inquiry and relied on congressional Republicans for support, Trump remains the dominant conductor of his party’s response, with his emphasis lately on stoking his core voters’ conspiratorial resentment for the political and diplomatic establishment.
Most Republicans have stood by Trump as he has called for probes of 2020 Democratic candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who were the target of Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine, which is at the center of the impeachment inquiry.
There have been occasional cracks, including in Florida. In October, Rep. Francis Rooney (R-Fla.) refused to rule out a vote for impeaching Trump, leading to an intense outcry among Trump supporters, who accused him of betrayal. He decided not to run for reelection one day later.
Trump is unfazed, his advisers and allies say, and is determined to keep rallying his voters around the pretext — dismissed by Democrats — that he had legitimate concerns about corruption in Ukraine when he withheld military aid and a coveted White House visit for Ukraine.
“For him, rallies are referral marketing as he thinks through the campaign. He has people sitting there on their phones and sharing it all with hundreds or thousands of people. That’s the power of it,” said Christopher Ruddy, the Florida-based CEO of Newsmax Media and Trump’s friend. “He sees that. And he personally enjoys it, the Borscht belt stuff that he does, the connection of it all. It’s exhilarating for him.”
Toluse Olorunnipa, Tim Craig and Aaron Williams in Washington contributed to this report.