Slowly, quietly and doggedly, the presidential campaign ground armies are rumbling into action.
“Florida is going to be a very important state, as it always is, and we’re going to work hard to bring it home for Marco Rubio,” said Judy Wise, a Rubio supporter and one of a couple of handfuls of volunteers calling voters Thursday night at a law office in Riverview.
“There isn’t a more humble, caring political guy than Marco Rubio. When he was running for senator he called all of us personally to thank us for putting on a fundraiser dinner. It was very sweet,” said Wise, who had reached three voters — two professing positive feelings for Sen. Rubio and one set on Donald Trump.
Scenes like this are occurring with increasing frequency in this mega state that all but locked up the nomination for the past two Republican presidential nominees.
“These people are fired up. We have more volunteers than we know what to do with right now, and they’re diverse, and they’re not your typical Republican campaign volunteers,” said Karen Giorno, Trump’s Florida campaign leader.
The primary landscape could be vastly different when the Florida votes are counted March 15. About two dozen states already will have voted and the large field is almost guaranteed to be significantly smaller.
But the leading campaigns understand that even as they fixate on all-important Iowa (caucuses kick off the voting Feb. 1) and New Hampshire (the do-or-die primary is Feb. 9), they can’t afford to ignore Florida too long.
Rubio, whose campaign has not opened an office, let alone had much visibility in his home state, is scheduled to hold a town hall meeting Monday at a sailboat manufacturing business in Sarasota. Trump plans to headline a rally Wednesday in Pensacola.
Winning the nomination ultimately comes down to who can win the roughly 1,200 delegates necessary. Florida will be the first mega state to award its 99 delegates winner-take-all, rather than proportionally.
That enhances the state’s importance, and explains why Trump already has a dozen paid campaign workers on the ground reaching out to volunteers and supporters — more than anyone else. It’s why Jeb Bush did not divert anyone from the Florida effort when his struggling campaign dispatched workers from his national headquarters in Miami-Dade to shore up other states.
Adding urgency is that Florida’s election actually begins much sooner than March 15.
Overseas mail ballots must be sent out no later than Jan. 30, and domestic mail ballots go out starting Feb. 9. In-person early voting runs March 5-12, and by Florida primary day, probably more than half the votes already will have been cast.
About 50 volunteers for the Ted Cruz campaign met Tuesday evening in a rented conference room in the Miami suburb of Doral, said Manny Roman, Cruz’s Miami-Dade chairman who is also vice chairman of the Miami-Dade Republican Executive Committee.
“We’re starting to give them assignments, whether it’s door-to-door, phone banking, event planning,” he said. Some volunteers offered up office space for future campaign use, since Cruz hasn’t leased space yet.
“If people want to do door-to-door, we’re setting them up for that,” Roman said. “If people just want to attend gun shows, we’re setting them up for that, too.”
No one has as deep a political infrastructure in Florida as former Gov. Bush, who helped build the Florida GOP into the dominant force it is today and who has received more than 500 endorsements from state political leaders.
“We’re going to have the best organization the state has ever seen. That’s how confident I feel about it,” said Pablo Diaz, a veteran campaign strategist who is running the Bush Florida campaign out of Tampa.
Times/Herald reporters stopped by Bush’s two Florida campaign offices unannounced at about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday. In Coral Gables, we saw one paid staffer and two volunteers making calls. In Tampa, the office was empty and closed for the day.
Loads of work is underway to deliver Florida to Bush, say his supporters.
Eric Brown, Bush’s Hillsborough County chairman, says the preseason is over and now the real work is underway with at least one poll showing Bush in second place in New Hampshire.
“God knows there’s a lot of work to be done,” agreed Miami-Dade Bush campaign chairman Jorge Arrizurieta, a longtime Bush friend. And not just because Miami-Dade is Florida’s largest and most voter-rich county.
Arrizurieta likes to note that the last time a Republican presidential nominee won Miami-Dade in a presidential election was back in 1988, when Bush’s father was on the ballot and won Florida and the presidency. George H.W. Bush also won Florida — but not Dade — when he lost re-election in 1992. (Ronald Reagan, with Bush as his running mate, won Dade, Florida and the race in 1984.)
Rubio’s lower-profile Florida effort has been under way since at least October, when his campaign began sending out mailers, highlighting his opposition to Obamacare, “job-killing’ energy taxes, abortion funding and his 2010 Senate race. “While Charlie Crist was busy pushing the Obama agenda, Marco Rubio was fighting for Florida,” it reads, with an image of the former governor hugging the president.
About 100 people showed up to an organizing meeting Dec. 12 and Tampa Bay chairwoman Deborah Cox-Roush said 1,000 volunteers have showed interest in helping.
Many voters, she said, are still undecided, “that’s why this ground game is so important.”
On Thursday in Miami-Dade, Rubio volunteers worked a phone bank, while that same night, the Rubio, Bush and Trump camps were signing up volunteers at a county GOP meeting.
Much of the campaign activity is traditional grassroots voter targeting — weekend precinct walks, building voter coalitions (seniors, veterans, gun enthusiasts, and the like), manning phone banks to call Florida voters or in many cases voters in other early-voting states. (Modern campaign calls get dialed from a computer program, but Bush’s Miami office has some phones available for older volunteers who prefer to punch in the numbers themselves.)
Bush opened the Coral Gables field office back in September, staffed with a paid campaign worker, Kevin Marino Cabrera, who keeps the storefront on Southwest Eighth Street open six days a week. It’s set up with two rows of tables and decked with blown-up photos of Bush in action. “Siempre con nosotros,” always with us, say the large red Bush signs available for pickup. Key Florida election dates are posted near the front, along with a countdown calendar until the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses.
The office was opened, despite several rounds of Bush spending cuts, to give local supporters a place to meet and drop by separate from the national campaign headquarters.
Unclear at this point is how much a strong get-out-the-vote campaign really matters in a state as big as Florida, where momentum from earlier primary elections is likely to be crucial. The average of recent Florida GOP polls compiled by RealClearPolitics.com shows Trump leading with 33 percent support, followed by Cruz with 21 percent, Rubio with 16, Bush 11, Ben Carson 7 and Chris Christie 5.
“The ground game can be overrated. It matters more in marginal races where you have very, very close contests, but that’s not this one,” said Tony DiMatteo, a former Pinellas GOP chairman who supports Trump.
DiMatteo has seen little sign of an organized Trump campaign, but he doubts it matters based on what he hears from rank-and-file voters he talks to in his pest control business.
“The people I speak to, Trump’s polling over 50 percent — and these are not just Republicans,” DiMatteo said. “The overriding thing in this election is the people are scared and they’re [angry]. They’re fed up man, I’m telling you, and the only candidates who can possibly win this thing are Ted Cruz or Donald Trump because they’re not establishment.”
Leading Trump’s Florida campaign is Giorno, a campaign veteran who has worked in Gov. Rick Scott’s office as well as the George W. Bush White House.
Without press releases or much visibility, Giorno and her team chaired by Sarasota GOP Chairman Joe Gruters and former Gov. Scott campaign manager Susie Wiles, are building traditional county-by-county organizations made up of countless untraditional Republican activists.
“A lot of campaigns have to create email blasts or special opportunities to draw people into their campaigns. We have this diverse base of supporters already in place,” said Giorno, who has opened campaign offices in Sarasota and Ormond Beach and says part of the campaign’s effort is educating some avid Trump supporters that they need to register as Republicans by Feb. 16in order to vote in the Florida primary.
“A lot of these people are first-time voters or disenfranchised voters or independents,” she said. “It’s been probably over 30 years since anyone in the Republican Party has helped expand the number of voters who want to participate in the process, and Mr. Trump is doing that.”