Democrats Juice Voter Registration, But Is It Enough to Win in Florida?

Florida Democrats announced a new $2.5 million effort last month to register more Democratic voters.

The new campaign comes in the wake of Republicans surpassing registered Democrats for the first time in Florida history. But there are questions over how far such efforts can go to turn back a tide that has been growing for over a decade, helping to turn a quintessential swing state increasingly red.

Back in 2008, fueled by Barack Obama's first campaign, Democrats enjoyed a robust 700,000 voter edge. But beginning in 2012, when the advantage sat at 558,000, Republicans began to chip away at the Democratic lead.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis touted Republicans passing Democrats in November, after personally donating $2 million to his party's efforts.

Florida Democrats say their nascent $2.5 million campaign is a much-needed first step to staunch the bleeding.

"Contrary to the conventional wisdom, Florida has not suddenly transformed into Utah or Wyoming, a ruby-red state that cannot be won by Democrats," Fernand Amandi, the top consultant for Obama's Latino vote polling during both campaigns, told Newsweek.

"It can still be won, even in 2022, but they must invest early and they must treat it as a state that they are trying to flip," he added, "instead of waiting for the final two or three months before the election to engage."

Florida Democrats showed a united front at the press conference for the new voter registration efforts, which included Manny Diaz, the Florida Democratic Party chair, and Ray Paultre, the executive director of the Florida Alliance of progressive donors. They announced their intention to coordinate efforts with the state House and Senate Democratic caucuses.

Democratic strategist Christian Ulvert told the press conference they would like to see "six-figure registration numbers by October," the Tampa Bay Times reported. He said the the level of coordination was unprecedented — there had not been a joint announcement featuring party, caucus, and donor leaders since at least 2006.

But the string of losses Florida Democrats have endured — from close statewide races in 2018 to a bad showing against Donald Trump and Republicans down the ticket in 2020 — has left one veteran Florida Democrat with lowered expectations of success.

"They give the same quotes every year, in every election cycle, since 2014," the source told Newsweek.

Jose Parra, a senior advisor to Diaz, said that while Democrats will focus on five target markets, they are "still defining" what the areas will be. The Party believes it can make inroads among Latino voters, who badly eroded from the Party in south Florida in 2020, as well as rural voters.

However, the long road Republicans took to surpass Democrats in Florida is both a blueprint and a warning for the Party. It took Republicans over a decade to narrow and erase the gap, which means even if the Democrats start fighting back now, it may not change the outcome in the November midterm elections.

"Manny [Diaz] has been clear since he started about making this a long-term sustainable effort," Parra said. "The Party can't just come in during the cycle and not do anything during off-years. Republicans have shown us, they came in 2016 and stayed, building a long-term apparatus."

Paultre, whose Florida Alliance is a table comprised of dozens of progressive donors who coordinate their short- and long-term goals, told Newsweek building that apparatus won't be easy.

"You would think that given where Florida is, getting people to get on the same page would be easy, but I don't want to paint something rosier than it is," he said. "But if you're a progressive voter, or to the left of Ron DeSantis — which seems like most people in the whole entire world — if you care about that, you have to care about Democrats being registered, even if you aren't super enamored with the party."

While state Democrats know they're on their heels ahead of November, they say efforts to get the party back on track can't just be about 2022, but must also be about "turning the ship around for 2024."

"You're either in a generational fight or you're not, " Paultre said, noting that Democrats will talk grandly about Martin Luther King Jr.'s "arc of the moral universe," but then think in two-year electoral increments and give up when things go badly.

"You can't claim to be part of generational fight but then want short-term victories," he said.

Paultre cited conservatives whose movement was reeling in the 1960s, but then refused to let the country become more liberal and progressive, culminating with the election of Ronald Reagan.

Democrats know part of their fight is in recruiting the right candidates who have a shot at building a coalition and winning in Florida. And they say that starts with building a formal pipeline to identify and elevate worthy people.

"Candidates don't pop out of the ground," Paultre said, adding that Democrats have pipeline, coordination, recruitment, and training problems all in one. "Good candidates come from communities in which they're already serving, lawyers familiar with community issues, local activists, so building formal pipelines is super important."

Andrea Mercado, the executive director of Florida Rising, which worked to register 100,000 voters after the 2018 midterms ahead of the 2020 election, said she was "heartened" by the new effort because there is "no replacement" for registering voters, but noted the GOP's approach during the COVID crisis helped them narrow the gap.

"What we saw happening during the pandemic is Republicans were doing door-knocking and super spreader rallies," she said, "while Democrats were concerned about public safety and health, and as a result Republicans leapt ahead on voter registration."

Florida Rising, which is a coalition comprised of New Florida Majority and Organize Florida, also has a goal of registering 100,000 people by the midterms.

But while the voter registration campaign is a bit of positive news, Mercado said, there has been a lot of concern that early investments aren't flowing into Florida in a state where Trump outspent Biden 2-to-1 on Spanish-language radio in May and June of 2020, while late resources poured into the state by Democrats in September and October failed to make a difference.

"I'm concerned that Democratic donors are somewhat disenchanted with Florida right now," she said. "Latino voters in Florida need to be persuaded."

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A Haitian American supporter of the Democratic party reacts during Joe Biden's speech as the 46th President-elect of United States on November 7, 2020 in Miami, Florida. Johnny Louis/Getty Images