No matter what Donald Trump says tonight at the rally launching his re-election campaign, the US president’s 2020 effort really kicked off right after his inauguration. In fact, it started with a rally in Melbourne, Florida in February 2017, less than a month after Trump was sworn in.
Since then, Florida has continued to be vital to the Trump experience. Besides presidential time spent at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida manse (and apparent spy haven), the state has delivered some of Trump’s biggest election victories and been a consistent target of his policymaking. Most important, it’s hard to imagine a road to the White House in 2020 that doesn’t go through Florida.
Thanks to its large haul of electoral-college votes and a diverse electorate that has long flipped between parties, Florida is consistently among the most contested states in presidential elections. It’s also one of the most important: The winning candidate has won Florida in every race since 1996, and in 2000 the victor came down to an infamous Florida recount. More recently, early returns from Florida provided the first clues of Trump’s shocking victory in 2016. Hillary Clinton lost the state by just 113,000 votes, or a little more than 1% of voters.
During the 2018 elections, Florida was home to some of Democrats’ biggest disappointments in an otherwise successful year. Incumbent senator Bill Nelson was ejected by Rick Scott, then the state’s Republican governor. The empty gubernatorial mansion was filled by congressman Ron DeSantis, who defeated Tallahassee mayor Andrew Gillum. Those results give Republicans hope that they can hang on to the state in 2020.
Still, current polling isn’t exactly forgiving. In a Quinnipiac poll released today (pdf), Trump didn’t beat any of the six Democratic candidates Florida voters were asked about, including former vice president Joe Biden; senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren; South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg; or former congressman Beto O’Rourke. Those findings track with leaked Trump campaign polls that also show Trump falling behind in his favorite state.
Those polling numbers are one reason the Trump administration’s policy apparatus has been laser-focused on parochial Florida issues. The White House made sure Florida received a lion’s share of disaster-relief funding, even as Puerto Rico continues to languish. Trump’s extreme rhetoric about war with Venezuela and a crackdowns on US citizens visiting and doing business in Cuba are targeted squarely at conservative Cuban refugees and their families. The same calculus can even be found in the administration’s space agenda: Florida’s “space coast” would be a major beneficiary of proposed increases in NASA and military space spending.
One remaining Florida challenge for the Trump team: health care and pensions. The state’s large population of retirees tends to feel strongly about Medicare and Social Security, and while Trump’s rhetoric on these issues is usually favorable toward the programs, his actual policy actions tend to go the other way. Trump’s acting chief of staff and budget director, Mick Mulvaney, has been pushing congress to cut spending on those two sacred cows of American politics. Republican strategists are also reportedly concerned that Trump will roll out a new health care plan instead of ignoring the fraught issue, while Democrats salivate at the prospect of focusing the campaign on a topic where voters still trust them more.
It would be fair to say that Trump also has a personal interest in Florida. His persona, fake tan and all, seems to fit in with the panhandle spirit, and his weekend visits to Mar-a-Lago for golf and schmoozing have become de rigueur. Mar-a-Lago membership prices have also increased, if only because access to the president is widely considered a perk of joining the Palm Beach resort.
Trump’s other Florida businesses haven’t been doing as well. The Doral golf resort in Miami, which reportedly cost Trump $150 million in 2012, has seen its net operating income fall 69% since the election, according to the Washington Post. That’s just one more reason for Trump to spend more time in the Florida: Who needs paying guests when you can have the government pay you to house the Secret Service on your own properties?