Florida’s presidential primary starts sooner than you think

Just after Iowa’s caucuses and days before the first 2020 presidential primary in New Hampshire, Democrats in one of the country’s premier battleground states will begin voting for their party’s choice to go head-to-head with President Donald Trump.

Florida will mail out more than 1 million early ballots starting Feb. 6, according to the state Democratic Party. That’s a quarter-million more Democrats receiving mail ballots than in 2016 — and a reminder that Florida’s March 17 primary really begins about six weeks earlier.

But no matter how early the voting begins in the Sunshine State, the candidates will almost certainly arrive late.

Unable to divert their attention or their cash from states where the primary comes earlier, more than a dozen candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination will likely rely on staffers and surrogates to carry their messages in Florida until just before the primary.

And that means hundreds of thousands of Democrats in Florida will cast their ballots in what is shaping up to be a primary by proxy — with voting in the nation’s most populous swing state based on mostly news coverage from other states and what they can glean from the candidates’ bare bones campaigns in Florida.

“The financial fumes on which many of these campaigns are running just don’t permit them to engage earlier in Florida,” said Fernand Amandi, a Miami-based pollster. “That’s the reality.”

Florida — with its 219 pledged delegates and 29 electoral college votes — may be accustomed to being the center of national politics, but in this primary season, it isn’t. At least, not yet.

Voters here are largely interacting with campaign volunteers, not candidates. And three months from the start of voting, they’re determining who they like based largely on campaign platforms tailored to electorates in states with significantly different demographics.

That’s happening because Florida’s Democratic primary is the 24th contest on the calendar, falling two weeks after primaries in Texas and California, the only two states in the nation offering more delegates. And candidates will need good showings in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina to remain alive heading into Super Tuesday’s 14 primary contests on March 3 — and then Florida’s primary two weeks later.

“I don’t want to say it’s inconsequential and doesn’t matter, but it kinda doesn’t matter,” said Reggie Cardozo, who ran point on campaigns for Florida’s state House Democrats last year. “I don’t think the Florida primary is going to determine who the nominee is.”

And yet, the state offers more delegates than the first four primaries and caucuses combined. A win in all of Florida’s 27 congressional districts would give any candidate more than 10 percent of the delegates needed to land the Democratic nomination.

And if the first round of primaries ends with a split result and no clear front-runner, Florida actually might wind up playing a pivotal role.

Polls show a surging Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren leading in Iowa, with South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg in striking distance. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is jockeying for the lead in New Hampshire. Former Vice President Joe Biden remains ahead in Nevada and South Carolina.

Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and 2020 presidential candidate, greets a voter in a crowd during a grassroots fundraiser at Wynwood Walls on Monday, May 20, 2019. MATIAS J. OCNER mocner@miamiherald.com

Under Democratic primary rules, states aren’t winner-take-all, and candidates can pick up delegates by winning individual congressional districts. So, there’s a chance three or more candidates will still have viable campaigns come March.

“The way this race may be a little different this time around is it may not be resolved” by the time Florida’s primary is held, said Ashley Walker, Florida state director for Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. “There may still be several candidates in the race.”

Still, this year, presidential candidates not named Donald Trump have paid scant attention to Florida since the Democratic National Committee held the first debate of the election in Miami last June. All the candidates skipped the Florida Democratic Party’s October convention, and have otherwise made only occasional visits to the state, mostly to raise money.

But as candidates focus their efforts elsewhere this winter, Floridians will be voting. And voting.

As much as a third of the Democratic primary vote may be cast by mail, and another third at early voting centers that open March 2. That means two-thirds of the vote may be cast before regular precincts open in Florida — votes that could prove consequential if the early states are split and the race remains unsettled heading into Florida’s March 17 primary.

So far, one campaign is better positioned than the others to take advantage.

While Biden recently hired a senior Florida campaign adviser and has deep ties to Florida thanks to decades of work in Washington, Warren’s campaign got to work early in the state. She hired a Florida political director weeks ago, and her campaign manager, Roger Lau, stressed last month at the Florida Democratic Party’s fall convention that Warren already has staffers working on the ground.

She’s also building a stable of volunteers, some of whom spent a recent Saturday going door-to-door in Little Havana.

Nicholas Dore, Warren’s 20-year-old volunteer director in Miami-Dade County, passed out sugar cookies baked by his grandmother and decorated with white icing and a blue “W” on top. “We’re just letting them know the campaign is down here, and we’re interested in listening to you,” he told a reporter.

They have work to do. As Dore walked down Southwest Eighth Street, another volunteer texted him an update: “Spanish monolingual voters generally had no idea about the primary, so great [education] opportunity there.”

Volunteers for the Elizabeth Warren campaign Amir Mahmoud, 19, and Anna Timmons, 19, talk to a resident of Coral Way about the upcoming Democratic Party presidential primaries as they hand out fliers on Saturday, Oct. 26, 2019. Sam Navarro Special for the Miami Herald

Meanwhile, the Florida Democratic Party and other organizations plan to continue promoting mail voting until the Feb. 1 deadline to request a mailed ballot — meaning the number of mail ballots will continue to rise. The deadline to register to vote in Florida’s closed primaries is Feb. 18. Republicans also hold their primary on March 17.

Christian Ulvert, a senior adviser last year on the Democratic gubernatorial campaign of former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, expects voters to cast early ballots based on who gets a bump in the early states. And that increases the importance of having some sort of campaign already running in Florida, to encourage voters to fill out mail ballots and lock in those votes in case things change, he said.

“It’s not just about the candidates. It’s about who’s starting to build an organization,” said Ulvert. “On Nov. 6, we’ll be 90 days from the Florida primary beginning. That’s not widely digested yet.”

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren is swarmed by the press while walking past the Homestead detention center for migrant children in Homestead, Florida, ahead of the first Democratic debates in Miami, on Wednesday, June 26, 2019. Daniel A. Varela dvarela@miamiherald.com

The campaigns are aware and making difficult decisions, knowing that if they invest too early in Florida, they could build an operation that they’ll never get a chance to use — like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who dropped out of the Republican primary in 2016 before the race even got to Florida.

Buttigieg, who will return to South Florida on Nov. 14, is building his volunteer base and relying on Parkland Mayor Christine Hunschofsky and 2018 attorney general candidate Sean Shaw, from Tampa, to help drum up support.

Biden, whose campaign also includes paid Florida fundraisers and staffers from Florida, has paid several visits to the state, mostly holding private fundraisers.

Chuck Rocha, a senior adviser to the Sanders campaign, said the self-described Democratic Socialist candidate believes good performances in Iowa and New Hampshire will be more valuable than any commercial the Sanders campaign might run in Florida. But he also said mail voting in Florida and California “emphasizes the importance of fundraising to be able to expand operations well beyond the first two or three states.”

“With Florida’s vote-by-mail, and California’s dropping on the first day of the caucuses, it just changes everything,” he said.


David Smiley is a Florida native (yes, they exist) and veteran of South Florida journalism. He’s covered schools, cops and crime, and various city halls, earning awards for stories about municipal pensions and Miami Beach’s police department. He became the Miami Herald’s political reporter in 2018 and covered the midterm elections and recount.