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Inside Donald Trump’s Florida obsession

President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Panama City Beach, Florida. The state has become a key focal point in his reelection efforts. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

2020 elections

The president has spent more than 100 days in the state since he took office. Naturally, he’s kicking off his campaign there.

To win a second term in the White House, Donald Trump is running for president of Florida.

Trump will officially kick off his reelection campaign Tuesday in Orlando, an event that comes 17 months after his first campaign-style rally as president — in nearby Melbourne. Sandwiched between those two events, Trump has spent more than 100 days in Florida as president, more than any other state outside the Beltway, according to two independent reports.

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That only begins to tell the story of Trump’s Florida obsession.

With an eye on reelection during his entire first term, Trump’s politics and policies have a Florida-first bias. He boosted disaster money for the state after Hurricane Michael and approved more money for the Everglades. He courted Hispanic voters by cracking down on Venezuela and Cuba. He’s tapped big Florida donors, with plans for a Wednesday fundraiser his campaign predicts will haul in another $ 4 million.

And Trump campaigned relentlessly to make Ron DeSantis governor and Rick Scott senator, marking the first time since Reconstruction that the state has had two GOP senators and a Republican governor. Under Trump, the state and national Republican parties are integrated into his campaign, which classifies Florida as an independent region in a nod to its make-or-break importance.

Then there’s the personal factor for Trump. He owns the Mar-a-Lago club and three golf clubs in South Florida that he frequently visits in the winter months. His campaign manager and chief pollster also live in Florida, and his campaign’s chief spokeswoman grew up in the state, which Trump narrowly carried in 2016.

“For all practical purposes, Florida is the president’s home. It has outsize importance to him personally,” said Susie Wiles, who led Trump’s successful 2016 campaign in Florida and advises his reelection campaign.

But from a purely political standpoint, Republicans and Democrats in the state know that a GOP candidate is almost guaranteed to lose a presidential race without Florida. The last Republican to win the White House without Florida was Calvin Coolidge in 1924 — long before Florida became the third-most populous state in the nation and the country’s biggest battleground state with 29 Electoral College votes.

“I would call Florida a must-win,” Wiles said. “Yes, it’s mathematically possible to win the presidency without Florida. But it sure is a helluva lot easier if you win here.”

The campaign is under no illusions about how tough Florida is to win.

Aside from Trump’s narrow win, three statewide races went to recount last year, for governor, Senate and agriculture commissioner. The three previous top of the ticket races were decided by about a point. And in 2000, of course, there was George W. Bush.

Trump: 'We're winning in every state that we poll'

A leaked internal Trump campaign poll taken in March showed the president was losing Florida to former Vice President Joe Biden by 7 percentage points, but the campaign said the survey was taken out of context because it represented a worst-case scenario with high Democratic turnout. The campaign’s polling also shows the unpopular president is struggling in the Rust Belt. Over the weekend, the campaign parted ways with some of its pollsters, but not chief pollster Tony Fabrizio, a Florida resident.

The campaign plans to use Florida as a proving ground for a new Latino outreach initiative, hoping to replicate the statewide 2018 midterms when Democrats failed to turn out this liberal-leaning segment of the electorate.

“Florida is a unique state for a lot of reasons and the varied Latino population is one of them. It is the perfect place to soon be launching our Latino coalition,” said Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale. “The Latino community is not monolithic in Florida, just like in the rest of the country, and we will have people from these diverse communities speaking to their friends and neighbors on the President’s behalf.”

Parscale has also pitched in on the ground. A new Florida resident, he’s paid visits to the Seminole County Republicans in Central Florida, Broward County’s GOP in South Florida and the Miami Young Republicans, who have begun a voter-outreach program targeting Hispanics.

Brad Parscale

Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale, a new Florida resident, said the state’s diverse Latino population makes it unique. | Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

However, Florida has the nation’s largest Puerto Rican population, which makes up about a third of the state’s Hispanic voters, who in turn account for about 16 percent of the total registered voters. Poll after poll shows Trump’s numbers with this segment of the electorate are poor. Trump’s strong standing with Republican-leaning Cuban-Americans, though, helps counteract the antipathy in the Boricua community.

Juan Penalosa, executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, said the campaign has launched a Spanish-language radio program to counter the Trump campaign’s outreach to the state’s growing Venezuelan population. He said Venezuelans dislike the president’s refusal to grant temporary protective status to immigrants from the South American country as its economy crumbles under the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro.

“Trump is paying lip service to the Venezuelan community,” Penalosa said.

With Florida so crucial to Trump, Florida Democrats are agitating to have more national party money pumped into the state. Democrats hope to register 200,000 new voters this year. And former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg have announced separate plans to help register and turn out voters as well.

At Tuesday’s rally in Orlando, liberal activists plan to bring out a giant inflatable “Baby Trump” balloon mocking the president’s temperament.

Ronna McDaniel

But Democrats are sure to be outnumbered by Republicans on Tuesday in Orlando, where the president’s support in the suburban areas of the media market is significant.

Typically, a campaign carries Florida by turning out its base and winning, however narrowly, its geographic and ideological center that runs from Tampa through Orlando and into Daytona Beach along Interstate 4. As goes the I-4 Corridor, so goes the state and, in presidential elections, the White House.

The campaign settled on Orlando for its ceremonial launch because of its location. In the center of the peninsula, it is relatively easy to get to from most parts of the state — a crucial factor for a campaign that’s built around large and enthusiastic crowds. Some people began lining up 42 hours before the doors opened Tuesday. The disabled and elderly were worried they couldn’t get in.

Due to summer rains and heat, Trump’s rally will be held indoors at the city’s Amway Center, named after the marketing company owned by the family of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos. The venue seats about 20,000, but the president claimed on Twitter that more than 100,000 had inquired. To handle the crowds, the campaign announced it’s holding “45 Fest,” providing food trucks, a live band named “The Guzzlers” and large screens hauled by trucks so that those who don’t make it inside can still watch the speech.

Trump is pairing the Orlando trip with two fundraisers, one at the Amway Center and another at his golf club in the Miami suburb of Doral, where admission is as much as $ 250,000 for elite donors who get special access to the president. As if any reminder of the state’s political importance was needed, Democrats will hold their first presidential debates in the state next week.

“We’re capitalizing on this enthusiasm,” said Alex Garcia, the Trump campaign’s Florida manager. “We’re going to focus this enthusiasm on making sure we register as many voters as possible and we touch as many voters as we can.”

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