MIAMI — Florida, with its hordes of older voters and establishment-oriented Democratic Party, doesn’t just look like Biden Country. Judging from the initial reaction to his presidential bid in the nation’s third-largest state, it’s shaping up to be his firewall.
Joe Biden is crushing the Democratic field here, including Bernie Sanders, in the latest polling. More than one-third of Democratic state legislators endorsed him almost as soon as he announced his candidacy, a testament to state political ties that stretch back decades and span generations.
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“Biden is in a class all on his own in Florida,” said pollster Ryan Tyson, who just completed a survey of Florida Democrats.
In prior Democratic presidential primaries, Florida didn’t matter nearly as much to the outcome as it figures to next year. The crowded 2020 field increases the likelihood of a drawn-out primary season that remains unsettled when the state votes in mid-March.
By then, the roster of 21 candidates will be considerably winnowed. And the remaining campaigns could be drained of resources since Florida’s March 17 primary comes two weeks after Super Tuesday — which will include California this time.
If Biden can generate momentum in the early-voting states and remain popular in Florida — which, with 10 major media markets, can be wildly expensive to advertise in — rival campaigns will have to make some hard decisions about the value of competing hard here.
Pollster Fernand Amandi, who surveyed the Florida primary in March, said that as long as Biden wins at least two of the first early states and holds his own in the other preceding states, Florida is poised to give him an outsized advantage.
“In that scenario Florida becomes the state where Biden clinches the nomination or where the anti-Biden candidate can really make a statement,” said Amandi, who worked for Hillary Clinton’s 2008 primary campaign in Florida and President Obama’s general election campaigns in 2008 and 2012. “If Biden can win Florida, he becomes the presumptive nominee. Not only is Joe Biden the frontrunner in Florida. This is his to lose. Could he still lose it? Yes. But this will be a nomination he loses, not one that’s taken away from him.”
Fueling Biden’s dominance: Biden is popular with older white voters, who tend to form the bulk of the state primary electorate. And he is running well among African-Americans, who could comprise about a quarter of the primary electorate — they back Biden with 46 percent of the vote.
Last year, Biden was one of the most sought-after endorsers for Democrats in the state, and he backed 15 candidates across the ballot, from a major mayoral race in St. Petersburg to the national watched contest for Florida governor.
“Vice President Biden no doubt holds a starting line advantage in Florida because we know him — that’s why I was thrilled to have him campaign for me,” said 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum. “But it’s early and I’m sure he knows he’s going to have to earn this nomination — with his policy ideas, his story, and by convincing Floridians he’s best equipped to lead us out of the darkness of Donald Trump’s presidency.”
One of Gillum’s closest allies, state Rep. Shevrin Jones, said he’s backing Biden because the former vice president is a “battle-tested leader … who can speak to every demographic and stand toe to toe” with Trump.
An African-American lawmaker, Jones said black voters he knows “equate him” with President Obama.
In the just-completed Tel Opinion Research survey, Tyson noted in an analysis that “Biden is demonstrating real strength with African-American voters,” with 85 percent holding a favorable view of him and only 7 percent having an unfavorable view.
“These strong image numbers are also translating to the open-ended ballot as he is pulling 46% of African-Americans in this sample,” Tyson wrote, pointing out that the two African-American senators in the race are barely registering with black voters. “What’s even more remarkable is Biden is pulling half of the African-American electorate even though Kamala Harris & Cory Booker both have 80% total name ID with this critical demographic.”
Among all Florida Democratic voters, Biden has an 81 percent favorability rating in the poll, with 50 percent holding a “very favorable” opinion — a sign of deep support. In contrast, Sanders has a 68 percent favorability rating, with 32 percent viewing him very favorably.
The numbers from Tyson, a Tallahassee-based Republican, are in line with what top Democrats are seeing on the ground and in their own private polling.
“Ryan Tyson does good polls, but I don’t need one of his polls to tell me Biden is dominating in Florida,” laughed one top Democrat who spoke anonymously because he’s officially neutral in the race and is involved with voter-registration and turnout efforts on behalf of other Democrats.
Robbie Mook, manager of Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, acknowledged Biden’s advantage but said there is a lot of time until the state’s March primary.
“It’s Biden’s to lose today but with 10 months left, any poll is worth about as much as a fortune cookie,” said Mook. “A former vice president is leading by a big margin in a big state ten months before Super Tuesday. It is neither surprising nor predictive of what will happen, just ask Rudy Giuliani,” who tried to make Florida his firewall in 2008 and didn’t win one contest in the GOP primary that year.