I was one of the Regional Field Directors for the Florida Democratic Party until shortly before Biden accepted the nomination earlier this year, and have been involved in party politics in Northeast Florida for the last 4 years. In light of the disastrous results the party had against a weakened and clearly dysfunctional Trump White House, I am forced to write this testimony of what I think went wrong. With much love and appreciation to all my colleagues, this needs to be said as the Party finds a new direction in Florida.
The dysfunction that led to the setback can be traced back to the Biden campaign undoing all the work that had been done in the ground prior to the primaries, the hiring of people with no Florida connections, the lack of in person campaigning and the lack of outreach in rural areas and latino neighborhoods to be replaced by huge amounts of money that party leadership now has to account for.
But first, credit where credit is due. When I came on board the party had a vision: We were going to close the gap of voter registration the Republicans had pulled on us since 2012 and mobilize those new voters to the polls. The reasoning was pretty straightforward: we had lost a senate seat by 10,000 votes, so registering 150,000 new Democrats should give us the margin we needed. Chairwoman Terri Rizzo and her team made the conscious decision to hire us during the off-year and we were all set to work from our own regions. By the beginning of 2020, we had organizers in most of the areas of Florida the data team had identified and had new people to register or mobilize. We expanded quickly, I got promoted and ended up in charge of a mammoth region from Orlando to Jacksonville for a few months, we worked hard but the structure was being built. I felt really good about our chances.
Then came Bloomberg. Friends who don’t live in the state might not understand this, but Bloomberg is a force to be reckoned with in South Florida, and he was making a serious play to replace Biden as the anti-Trump candidate during the primaries there. Bloomberg hired an army of organizers and promised them payment all the way through the election, regardless of the outcome of the primaries. As things turned out, all the other candidates except Bernie closed ranks with Biden in order to avoid a Bloomberg upset on Super Tuesday. Bloomberg decided to bank all of his money to support the party in Florida, but he sent a list of organizers for us to hire. Beyond the quality of the organizers, which was a mixed bag, we had a pipeline of people to hire in key areas of the state that we had to postpone to make space for the Bloomberg staff. Coincidentally, a big chunk of them ended up in the operational disaster of Miami-Dade we witnessed in the election results this week.
The next big blow was Covid-19. We had to stop the in-person voter registration work when we were only halfway to our goal. The entire field operation became remote, which meant our organizers hired specifically because they knew their areas of impact became phonebankers into other counties where they had no personal investment. It is hard to overstate how much of a blow this was, as we had opened offices and made relationships in a lot of places; but most importantly, we lost a pool of volunteers that we had cultivated for over six months as most people don’t like phone-banking. Still,we soldiered on thinking it would last two or three months at the most. As we see how things played out, the decision not to pivot to at least some in-person operations in the last few months put the Party at a disadvantage against the very much in-person Trump campaign — especially in rural Florida where Covid wasn’t nearly as much as a disruptor as it was in places like Miami and Orlando. In fact, we never made a play for rural Florida at all.
Then came the real disaster. A few weeks after I left Florida, former colleagues informed me the whole Party was being restructured because the Biden campaign was merging with the state Party, which in Democratic circles is called “the coordinated campaign”. In a letter that was made public at the time, the staffers warned that organizers who had been hired to organize specifically certain populations were being relocated to other places in Florida, removing them from their volunteer base. It is no surprise many volunteers ended the cycle without knowing what to do to be effective. Further, all the Spanish speaking organizers of Orange County were being removed without explanation. In addition, the letter accused the coordinated campaign of alienating local Democratic parties in their work. In essence, the Biden campaign had come in to undo everything we had done to build the structure necessary for effective outreach. In particular, this explains our lackluster performance with Hispanics in spite of a decent communications team that was put together in tandem to this, as it doesn’t matter how good your message is if you don’t have local people repeating it.
One of the main stories out of this election will be the 30% or more Latinos that have voted for Trump; although I don’t have all the answers, I do have a reflection to share. Back in mid-2019, I was in a meeting of Hispanic Democratic organizations in Central Florida, where a Venezuelan gentleman argued repeatedly that we should support a military invasion of his country. We didn’t bite, and we didn’t even have to argue about it because it was so obvious we did not want an invasion anywhere. The gentleman then went on to become an active Trump supporter (“magazuelan”), and told everyone he met that Democrats didn’t support “freedom for Venezuela”, although none of us were in favor of Maduro’s regime either. In retrospect, I see how we didn’t identify how much of a threat radical conservative activists were in other hispanic communities. Instead, the party bet on a Temporary Protected Status bill that fell short for the deeply anti-communist activists we now had in town. The Florida Democrats reacted later with explicitly anti-Maduro messaging, but these early interactions should have made us realize that we needed to compensate those votes somewhere else or with another message, given that anything short of full military demagogy was not going to cut it for them.
As early voting came in, it became clear that the central and northeast region was going to improve the numbers from 2016, but the alarms sounded loud from South Florida. As a political operative, my reaction was to get in my car, drive south and find a way to help; once in the area, my fears became true: volunteers and canvassers had no training, the DECs and caucuses were in the middle of infighting and the Party was trying to save face by sending all of it’s staff to knock doors, even though the great majority of them had not done any community organizing this cycle. As it turns out, the roadmap and plan we had to prevent a Trump presidency was switched to a hallelujah play for more ads — paid by Bloomberg — and sending bodies into areas that had not been touched in years.
The results are for everyone to see. After having lost by the slimmest of margins in the 2018 midterm cycle, Florida is now a solid red state with virtually no result to be lauded beyond the Municipal Victory Program. With the internal elections for a new party chair coming up, it is important that the story of how this cycle played out is known by all the Democrats that will represent the party. In particular, it is crucial to not give the ground operation to people from out-of-state. The Biden campaign performed terribly in the field during the primaries and had no business coming to Florida to tell the party how to run field operations. Furthermore, never think an investment from a millionaire like Bloomberg is going to give an edge over relationships cultivated over a long period of time. Lastly, invest in rural areas, as it is clear absolutely no one in the party paid staff made any effort to organize in Trump country. At the end of the day, if only we would have kept the margins of Hillary Clinton in 2016, and with the improvements in Central and North East Florida, we would have called the election by 8 p.m on Tuesday. Lastly, the party changed the data management committee three times during the cycle, making it impossible for anyone to do effective follow up. All of these things were flagged and warned about in the first half of the year, and it is my hope these lines help the next leadership invest in the local organizers and hear them out when something goes wrong.
In conclusion, we need more trust on the organizers in the ground over the strategists that too often rely on pollsters and spend more time tracking media buys than having conversations with people. Until they do that I for one will not donate a single dollar to the state party again.