Mar. 5--If South Carolina was Joe Biden's firewall, Florida may be his springboard.
Heading out of Super Tuesday as the unexpected delegate leader, the resurgent former vice president is suddenly in a two-way fight with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. The two will clash head-to-head for the first time Tuesday across six states, and then one week later compete for a massive delegate haul in four more, including Florida -- a favorable state for Biden that could propel him toward the party's nomination.
"I think Joe Biden cleans up in Florida," predicted Steve Vancore, a Tallahassee-based Democratic strategist. "I'm not seeing how it doesn't happen."
Things have turned dramatically in Biden's favor over the last week both nationally and in Florida, the second-largest delegate haul left on the primary calendar.
Heading into South Carolina's primary, he was coming off three disappointing finishes and had billionaire Michael Bloomberg stealing his surrogates and undercutting his support with voters. But then Biden crushed the opposition on Feb. 29 and surged on Super Tuesday -- pushing five candidates out of the race and leading Bloomberg to endorse him.
Now, Biden and Sanders are in a state-by-state battle. And in Florida, Sanders can no longer rely on other candidates to divide centrist Democrats in a state where Hillary Clinton beat him by a 2-to-1 margin during the 2016 presidential primary.
"Florida will vote on March 17, and my guess is it will probably be a Biden runaway," Andrew Gillum, who won Florida's 2018 Democratic gubernatorial primary with Sanders' help, said Thursday on The Axe Files podcast.
Sanders' path in Florida is difficult.
Young and non-Cuban Hispanic voters propelled him to victory in states like Nevada and California -- but in Florida, voters over the age of 50 made up nearly two-thirds of those participating in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary. And black voters, who have heavily favored Biden across the South, made up a quarter of the vote.
An automated "robopoll" conducted Tuesday by St. Pete Polls had Biden a whopping 50 points ahead of Sanders, though such polls based on landlines generally skew older and whiter, demographics that favor Biden. And much of the state's Democratic congressional delegation -- whose members will serve as critical super delegates in the July convention if neither Sanders nor Biden win enough pledged delegates needed to secure the nomination on the first ballot -- has sided with Biden.
"I thought he was going to win Florida before South Carolina. I'm more confident he's going to win big now," said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Broward Democrat who endorsed Biden on Sunday and was chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee in 2016 when hacked emails exposed anti-Sanders sentiments in the party.
Sanders also inflamed critics last month when, during a "60 Minutes" interview, he defended his past praise of Cuba's literacy programs and healthcare. He condemned authoritarianism in the same interview, but even some of his supporters acknowledged that the comments weren't helpful to his campaign in Florida.
"I think Florida is going to be hard for him" in the primary, said North Miami Vice Mayor Alix Desulme, one of the few elected officials in the state to endorse Sanders' 2020 campaign.
Desulme believes Sanders would beat President Donald Trump in Florida in the general election, but said the 2020 Florida primary is beginning to resemble 2016. "He's up against a lot of establishment Democrats. Just like it was tough in 2016, now he's running against the vice president."
To counter those disadvantages, Sanders has gone on the offensive, running commercials that criticize Biden's record on Social Security and healthcare in a state with heavy populations of retirees and Obamacare enrollees. His Florida campaign, which is being run under the direction of former Brevard County congressional candidate Sanjay Patel, says it has thousands of volunteers and 16 staffers in the state talking to Florida's 5 million Democrats.
Sanders could also benefit from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren's decision Thursday to suspend her campaign. She has not endorsed anyone.
"Now it's going to be Bernie against Biden," said Ernesto Medina, a Sanders volunteer in Miami who has measured expectations. "The baseline will be Bernie in 2016 in Florida. Can he improve his numbers? I don't think anyone is expecting him to win Florida."
Sanders has said he wants to engage in an issue-based race with Biden. On Thursday, campaign spokesman Kolby Lee said in a statement that Sanders is focused less on winning primary contests than on supporting "the working poor, young people saddled with student debt and the millions of Floridians who don't have health insurance."
"If we're going to beat Trump in November, we need a candidate who can build a strong movement and inspire working class Floridians and people across the country. That candidate is Bernie Sanders," he said.
Neither Biden nor Sanders has held a public event in the state in roughly six months, though Biden is scheduled to attend a March 16 fundraiser at the Miami Beach home of Alex Heckler, deputy national finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He also has dozens of elected officials speaking on his behalf, and Bloomberg's simultaneous withdrawal and endorsement Wednesday carries potential weight should the former New York mayor keep his operation running as a pro-Biden effort.
Through Thursday morning, nearly 414,000 Democrats had voted early in Florida, which shares a primary date with Arizona, Illinois and Ohio. But first, Biden and Sanders will compete on March 10 in Idaho, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, and Washington. Michigan, where Sanders narrowly won the popular vote over Clinton in 2016 but trailed Biden in a Detroit News poll published Tuesday, is the largest prize of that day.
Eric Johnson, a Florida political strategist, said if Biden does well on Tuesday, Florida could prove decisive for putting distance between him and Sanders. "Something tells me Florida is going to be critical to putting a nail in the coffin."
(c)2020 Miami Herald
Visit Miami Herald at www.miamiherald.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.