Andrew Gillum campaigns in his hometown of Richmond Heights to encourage early voting
Like so many Democrats heartbroken by the narrow loss of Florida’s first black nominee for governor, Judy Beck is pretty certain why Andrew Gillum lost.
“Andrew Gillum would have won if he were white,” said Beck, a St. Petersburg retiree and registered Democrat.
That sentiment is widely shared among Gillum supporters, who saw poll after poll suggest Gillum was headed for a victory and likely to perform stronger than Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson. Both Democrats barely lost their races in the preliminary counts, but Nelson, who is white, wound up winning 43,000 votes more than Gillum.
Given how Nelson outperformed Gillum, there’s a widespread perception that race played a key role in the governor’s race, said Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.
“I’m not one to call racism unless I smell it, feel it, touch it, walk with it,” Rouson said. “But there are many who would argue, and make good points, that racism did have a role.”
The reality is much more complicated.
Racial overtones were a prominent feature in the Florida’s governor’s race, from Republican Ron DeSantis’ kicking off the general election saying Gillum would “monkey this up,” to Gillum’s implying racism when DeSantis pressed him on a corruption investigation. In an election decided by less than half a percentage point, Gillum’s race plainly could have been a key factor in DeSantis’ win.
But so could the strikingly large number of black voters in Florida who chose not to vote for Gillum.
Exit polls showed 86 percent of black voters cast ballots for Gillum, and 90 percent backed Nelson. At least 95 percent of black voters backed Barack Obama 2008 and 2012.
Nelson received a couple hundred more votes than Gillum in Florida’s only majority black county, Gadsden in North Florida. And the white three-term senator won more votes than Gillum in the five counties with the highest share of black residents, including Gillum’s home county of Leon.
Kevin Cate, a senior adviser on the Gillum campaign noted that the race was a statistical tie, so no one should make sweeping assumptions about why Gillum barely fell short.
“It’s much easier to scare the ---- out of people than to motivate them with a message of positive transformational change. That’s what Andrew Gillum did, and that’s what he will continue to do,” Cate said.
Gillum also was an unabashed liberal running in a state that elected Republican governors in five previous elections. Obama became the first black candidate to win a statewide Florida election after spending millions of dollars on TV stressing his plan to cut middle class taxes. Gillum in contrast called for an increase in corporate taxes to better fund Florida schools.
“If race was the determining factor, Gillum wouldn’t have started with a large lead in the polls right after the primary. It only tightened when people found out about his progressive ideas,” said Democratic consultant Barry Edwards of St. Petersburg.
Political analysts have long talked about a “Bradley Effect” in polling, the theory that white voters tell pollsters they intend to vote for a black candidate when they don’t for fear they could be perceived as prejudiced.
The term refers to Tom Bradley, the black mayor of Los Angeles who in 1982 lost a gubernatorial campaign for governor after consistently leading in the polls. Similarly, Douglas Wilder in 1989 barely won election as Virginia governor, though polls showed him way ahead of his white opponent, Marshall Coleman.
Pollsters and political scientists have come to be skeptical of the Bradley Effect theory. In the case of Gillum, a lot of the polls showing him ahead were automated robo polls in which the person surveyed never speaks to a live caller.
“A push button doesn’t care whether you’re voting for an African-American candidate or a white candidate,” said Democratic pollster Tom Eldon of Tampa.
One possibility for Gillum’s slightly lower performance among black voters? His opposition to shifting public money to pay for low-income students to attend private schools and his criticism of charter school funding.
The Tampa-based Florida Federation for Children spent $1.6 million working to defeat Gillum and other candidates opposed to such programs. That included repeated social media and communication with hundreds of thousands of parents with children in charter schools or with tax credit scholarship children.
Eldon said he believes the contest shifted toward the end at least partly due to attention on an FBI corruption investigation in Tallahassee City Hall.
“And throughout the entire campaign DeSantis did not have a positive campaign message, but he did at the end. His wife did have a very good campaign ad at the end,” Eldon said.
In Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties, which are whiter than the state overall, Nelson won a total of 25,000 more votes than Gillum. In more diverse and representative Hillsborough County, the preliminary, unofficial vote tally showed Gillum winning 34 more votes than Nelson.
The Tampa Bay Times looked at voters without party affiliation. In counties with higher shares of white independent voters, Nelson performed an average of 2 percentage points higher than Gillum.
Exit polls found 55 percent of voters without party affiliation voted for Nelson, 54 percent for Gillum.
Edwards, the Democratic consultant, thinks Gillum hurt himself by frequently casting DeSantis or prominent DeSantis supporters as racist. At the first televised debate, DeSantis pressed Gillum on whether he had received free gifts from an undercover FBI agent posing as a developer. It later came out that Gillum had received free Broadway tickets and more, but he deflected the question with a racial barb.
“I’m a hard-working person. I know that may not fit your description of what you think people like me do,” Gillum said.
In focus groups of voters conducted for legislative races, Edwards said, people brought up that and other similar Gillum comments.
“People did not like him playing the race card. That had a demonstrable effect,” Edwards said.
DeSantis’ victory can’t be attributed to one thing, said Shannon Love, a Democratic consultant in St. Petersburg.
“I don’t think many people would say they don’t think race was a factor at all, but the question is how much of a factor,” she said. “Do I think it had an effect? Yes. Do I think it was the only thing? No, especially when you had FBI investigations and things like that.”