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The Memo: Democratic hopes rise for a Florida surprise in November

Democratic hopes are rising that they could spring an upset in Florida this November, despite the Sunshine State having turned a deeper shade of red in recent years.

Those hopes were given a major boost Monday by two seemingly contrasting court decisions on abortion.

On one hand, the Florida Supreme Court upheld an existing 15-week ban on terminating a pregnancy. On the other, the court allowed — by a much narrower majority — a ballot measure to go ahead in November that will give Floridians the opportunity to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution.

In a further, vital twist, the first ruling also clears the way for a six-week ban on abortion to go into effect in 30 days.

Substantively, the court’s finding on the abortion law is clearly a bad defeat for liberals. But politically, they hope the ballot measure could provide a rebound to President Biden’s benefit in November, especially because polling indicates such restrictive measures on abortion are unpopular.

A University of North Florida poll in early 2022, soon after the state House passed the 15-week abortion ban, found 57 percent of voters opposed to the law.

At Tuesday’s media briefing, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre excoriated the court’s ruling on the 15-week ban, noting that its effect would be “to trigger Gov. [Ron] DeSantis’s even more extreme ban that would prevent women from accessing care before many even know they are pregnant.”

Jean-Pierre added: “We will continue to stand with the vast majority of Americans who support a woman’s right to choose. President Biden and Vice President Harris will continue to work to protect reproductive freedom and call on Congress to pass a law restoring the protections of Roe v. Wade.”

Abortion may top the Democratic list as to why Florida could shift in their favor, but it’s not the only factor.

The campaign manager for the president’s reelection effort, Julie Chávez Rodríguez, laid out the case for a Florida victory in a memo released Monday.

She tied together issues such as Florida’s high levels of enrollment in the Affordable Care Act (ACA); the importance of Social Security to the state’s huge population of retirees; the tragic salience of the issue of gun violence, and the deeply divisive debate over GOP-endorsed book bans.

Rodríguez also noted the Biden campaign is putting some money where its mouth is by including the state in a $55 million spate of advertising.

Those arguments have some force. 

Florida has more than 4 million people enrolled in the ACA, also known as ObamaCare, and there are almost 5 million seniors in the state.

But the Biden campaign manager acknowledged Florida would not be “an easy state to win.”

That’s clearly true.

For a start, most polling — sparse though it is, so early in the campaign — suggests former President Trump has a significant advantage in Florida.

Two March polls, from Redfield & Wilton Strategies and St. Pete Polls, gave Trump leads of 7 points and 6 points, respectively, over Biden. Another survey, from Big Data Poll, showed Trump leading Biden by an enormous 14 points when independent candidate Robert F. Kennedy was included as a choice.

Underlining that point, a state-by-state map of Biden’s approval rating by Civiqs put the president underwater by a massive 27 points in Florida.

Florida is also, of course, Trump’s current home state. The former president, born and raised in New York, changed his official residency to Florida in 2019, while he was still in the White House.

Those factors are rendered even more important by the big picture — one in which Florida has become notably more Republican in recent years.

In presidential elections, the GOP advantage in the state has grown in every one of the past four contests.

Former President Obama carried the state by almost 3 points over then-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008, then had his advantage whittled down to less than 1 point against now-Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) in 2012.

The state went red in 2016, when former President Trump carried it over Hillary Clinton by roughly 1 point. Then, strikingly, Trump defeated Biden by more than 3 points in 2020. 

On Election night 2020, the result in Florida was an early indication that the election would be closer than polls predicted.

An even more emphatic sign of Florida’s rightward tilt came in 2022, when DeSantis crushed Democratic gubernatorial challenger Charlie Crist by almost 20 points.

DeSantis’s attitude to the COVID-19 pandemic might have helped him pad his margin of victory, but there was clearly a larger shift going on. 

The same year, Democrats harbored hopes of springing a surprise on Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) when they nominated then-Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) as his challenger.

Rubio won by 16 points.

For all the talk about a wider palette of issues, Democrats are likely to lean full-force into the abortion question in November. They will hope that the ballot initiative, in particular, can provide a springboard for Biden.

There are some encouraging precursors, albeit from more Democratic-friendly states.   

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) was a top GOP target in 2022 in a swing state. But Whitmer coasted to victory by a 10-point margin — on the same day as a ballot initiative on abortion was won by 13 points by the liberal side.

Liberals have won every statewide ballot initiative on abortion since Roe v. Wade was overturned, even in conservative states like Kansas and Kentucky.

Biden and his team will hope to sail on an abortion-rights wind come this November.

Whether it will be strong enough to deliver a win in Florida seems much more open to question.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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