How Biden could eclipse Trump in the Sunshine State

Over the last 25 years, Florida has gone from a major presidential election swing state to regular Republican dominance. Not only have Florida Democrats largely been in retreat for years, but Florida is literally the home of former President Donald Trump, who declared residency there in 2019 and is running his election campaign out of Mar-a-Lago. But as President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign detailed in a memo released Monday, there’s a chance that the state could actually be up for grabs this fall.

“Donald Trump’s platform is uniquely unpopular with the voters who will decide this election in the Sunshine State — and our campaign is primed and ready to seize on the opportunity,” Biden-Harris campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez wrote in the memo, which was first shared with NBC News. While some of her confidence may be bravado, she’s not wrong that Biden could have a much better shot in Florida than he did in 2020.

It should come as no surprise by now that the biggest game changer the Biden camp sees is how the abortion rights debate has shifted. In 2022, Florida’s GOP-dominated Legislature passed a 15-week abortion ban, which Gov. Ron DeSantis signed. Last year it then passed an even harsher six-week ban, which was put on hold while the Florida Supreme Court considered a challenge to the earlier law. The court ruled Monday that the current 15-week ban is constitutional, laying the groundwork for the stricter law to take effect next month, as well.

It should come as no surprise by now that the biggest game changer the Biden camp sees is how the abortion rights debate has shifted.

Crucially for Democrats, however, the state Supreme Court also ruled that a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution, which would block restrictions on abortion until around the 24th week of pregnancy, will be allowed on the ballot in November. We’ve seen similar ballot initiatives win big even in red states since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturned Roe v. Wade. And as MSNBC contributor Susan Del Percio predicted last year, those victories mean abortion is likely going to be a major motivator for people to head to the polls in Florida.

As a side note, the court on Monday also approved a ballot measure to legalize recreational marijuana in the state, something that may also be a potent motivator for those with liberal tendencies to go vote. Both constitutional measures would require 60% of voters’ support to pass, and polling indicates that just over that share of voters supports both provisions. And while we’ve seen the Legislature wiggle around other clear mandates, like when it re-restricted formerly incarcerated Floridians from voting, the politics on abortion are even more fraught.

Beyond that, there are other warning signs for Trump and the GOP. After years of supporting DeSantis as he laid the groundwork for a presidential run, Florida lawmakers and their constituents are growing tired of his war on woke. Those culture war issues — including his attacks on LGBTQ rights and his “parental rights” shtick on education — also form the backbone of the MAGA agenda. The fact that the GOP base prefers them coming from Trump over DeSantis doesn’t mean that they’re going to be a winner in the general election.

There’s also the matter of the 155,000 Florida Republicans who voted for former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley in the state’s primary after she suspended her campaign for the nomination. Unlike many of her fellow also-rans, Haley hasn’t endorsed Trump, and he’s made almost no effort to try to win over her supporters. Biden’s team, on the other hand, has made it clear that it would welcome Haley’s voters into the fold, given how clear it is that they don’t want Trump to win again.

Republicans hoping to pin risings costs on Biden are also in for a rougher time in Florida than most other states. Even though Florida has no income tax, the increase in the cost of living has been much higher in parts of GOP-run Florida than in many other states. That includes higher insurance rates due to climate change, which Democrats want to address and Republicans want to ignore, and a major increase in home prices that has left people with much less disposable income. That’s meant that the state’s red-hot growth rate has been tempered by disillusioned newcomers leaving in droves, as NBC News recently reported.

And while Florida is quite literally Trump’s home turf at this point, it makes sense to try to put him on the defensive there. Biden and Democrats have steadily outraised Trump this election cycle as his various funding vehicles and the Republican National Committee are all struggling to bring in cash. Any amount that Trump is forced to spend in countering Biden’s push into Florida will take away resources that could be spent in other competitive states.

While Florida is quite literally Trump’s home turf at this point, it makes sense to try to put him on the defensive there.

Ironically, one of the biggest possible road bumps in Biden’s path to victory is the Florida Democratic Party. The state’s Dems have gotten thrashed in multiple election cycles, leading to Republicans’ holding a supermajority in the Legislature. DeSantis won a blowout 20-point victory in his 2022 re-election even as the GOP underperformed in many races. And Republicans have been destroying Democrats in voter registrations since 2021, with more than 850,000 more registered Republicans in the state than Democrats as of early March.

But Florida Democrats finally seem to be shaking off their stupor, with several county chairs ousted as part of a housekeeping sweep. And if the Biden campaign is willing to back up its pledge to put Florida in play with much-needed cash for the state party, it may be enough to help affect down-ballot races as well as the top of the ticket.

None of this means that Biden is guaranteed a win in Florida, even if the campaign does everything right. Trump is still a powerful figure with a lot of home-field advantages and a solid lead in the most recent polling out of the state. But this attempt to expand the playing field after 2020’s relatively narrow win in battleground states is the kind of energy the Biden camp needs to maintain until November.