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Florida Democrats hope abortion helps bring them back in what was once a swing state

Jennifer Griffith, chairperson of the Pinellas County Democrats, speaks from her office about efforts to win the swing county on Florida's Gulf Coast.
Don Gonyea
/
NPR
Jennifer Griffith, chairperson of the Pinellas County Democrats, speaks from her office about efforts to win the swing county on Florida's Gulf Coast.

Updated June 26, 2024 at 05:00 AM ET

SEMINOLE, Fla. — It was a muggy Tuesday night when Sandra Gerrish sat in a college library learning about phone banking and new voter registration laws.

This was only her second time attending a meeting of her local Democratic club. But the 53-year-old teacher from here in Pinellas County was spurred to get involved after lawmakers rolled back abortion access in the state.

“The attack on women's rights is really frightening,” Gerrish said. “It should be between a woman and her doctor making that decision.”

Democrats are hoping the issue spurs other voters to action too. A six-week abortion ban went into effect in Florida in May, and in November, a constitutional amendment will be on the ballot to enshrine the right to an abortion before fetal viability.

That’s one reason why Democrats see opportunity in Florida this year, despite the state going twice for former President Donald Trump and seeing large Republican victories in the 2022 midterms.

“When abortion rights are on the ballot ... they are a mobilizing factor,” said Kevin Munoz, senior national spokesperson for President Biden’s reelection campaign.

Munoz, a Jacksonville native, said Florida is “a winnable state for Democrats and for Joe Biden.”

But if they hope to compete, they’ll need to reverse a rightward shift more than a decade in the making. The swing county of Pinellas, which Biden won by just 0.22 percentage points in 2020, is a key part of their focus.

Abortion initiatives have driven turnout. But they’re untested in a presidential year

Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, ballot measures supporting abortion rights have driven voters to the polls and succeeded, even in red-leaning states. But none of those measures were on the ballot during a presidential election year.

“This is uncharted territory in terms of the real campaign strategy of a party being focused on drawing people to the polls through amendments and not the top-of-the-ticket race,” said Susan MacManus, a longtime political scientist at the University of South Florida. “We’ve never seen that.”

MacManus said polling shows support for Amendment 4, the Florida abortion initiative, to be at or close to the 60% required for it to pass. But she also stressed that Democrats cannot assume every vote for abortion rights will also be a vote for Biden and other Democrats down ballot.

“They could clearly be Biden voters. They could be Trump voters. They could be RFK voters, Jill Stein or none of the above,” MacManus said. “It's not necessarily cohesive from a partisan or a candidate perspective.”

In a May poll by CBS News and YouGov, 60% of likely Florida voters said they would support Amendment 4, but only 45% of voters said they would vote for Biden.

The organizers behind the ballot initiative say the campaign is a nonpartisan one. They don’t hold events with political candidates and have been reaching out to voters of all political persuasions.

“We had to garner the support of folks across the political spectrum just to get on the ballot, just to qualify. And we're going to definitely need their support moving forward,” said Natasha Sutherland, the communications director for Yes On 4. “It's an issue that affects everybody, whether you're Democrat or Republican or independent or something else. Everybody deserves to have the freedom to make their own decisions about their health care, and that includes with abortion.”

The May CBS News/YouGov poll showed that 43% of Republicans surveyed and 59% of independents voiced support for Amendment 4.

Democrats look beyond abortion, but Republicans remain confident

Democratic leaders in Florida are quick to say they aren’t counting on abortion as their only motivator. State party Chairperson Nikki Fried said the “No. 1 issue” facing Florida voters today is property insurance.

“No matter if you are a Democrat or Republican, an independent, whether you live in Key West or Pensacola — every single person in our state is experiencing this insurance crisis,” Fried said. “The No. 2 issue is general affordability.”

Jennifer Griffith, chairperson of the Pinellas County Democrats, also said the party is taking a “multi-pronged” approach.

“[Abortion] definitely carries weight. But on the things that people feel in their pocketbook? Daily? I think that carries an even bigger punch,” Griffith said. “When you open the door, ‘What's the biggest issue to you?’ Affordability is almost always No. 1, the first thing that they're going to talk about.”

Adam Ross, chairperson of the Pinellas County Republican Party, agrees that prices are the top issue on voters’ minds. And he says the GOP has a clear edge.

“You know, the famous line in the '92 election — ‘it’s the economy, stupid.’ Well, now I say all the time, ‘it's affordability, stupid,’” Ross said. “Everybody is having trouble. Everything's more expensive at the grocery store. So that's what we focus on.”

Inflation continues to be a challenge for Democrats. Angel Cruz, a retired truck driver from Pinellas Park, said he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Biden in 2020. But this time around, he’s not sure.

“I’m thinking that Trump was doing a lot better when he was president. The economy and everything was better,” said Cruz, 67. “Everything is so expensive right now … before it was not like this.”

Griffith argues Democrats can compete on economic issues. She blames the Republican-controlled state government for failing to act on high prices and rising insurance costs across Florida.

And Democrats see potential in another ballot initiative that could boost turnout — one to legalize recreational marijuana.

“I watch people's eyes when I tell them just casually, let's say a server at a restaurant or, you know, an old friend who's like, ‘I'm not political.’ I tell them both [about the marijuana amendment], and they're like, ‘Oh, maybe I do need to get that registration so I can vote.’”

Meanwhile, Ross boasts of a significant and growing GOP voter registration lead in the state, and points to major wins for the party in the governor’s race, statehouse and congressional races in 2022.

He says Florida — which narrowly voted for Barack Obama for president, in both 2008 and 2012 — is no longer a battleground, and Democratic dreams of flipping the state back to blue are “never going to happen.”

Trump's conviction and turnout remain big wild cards

One wild card for Republicans, though, is the effect of Trump’s recent felony convictions in New York.

Tampa resident April Taylor said she plans to vote for “Biden, all the way.”

 Conservative Grounds is a Trump-themed coffee shop in the town of Largo.
Don Gonyea / NPR
/
NPR
Conservative Grounds is a Trump-themed coffee shop in the town of Largo.

“You can't even join the Army if you're a felon, but you’re a felon you can run the country,” said Taylor, a 48-year-old who works with adults with disabilities. “I think that's a little contradicting to me.”

Sherry Kent, however, has no qualms about Trump’s legal troubles. She was attending an event at Conservative Grounds — a Trump-themed coffee shop in the town of Largo — wearing a T-shirt that read, “I’m voting for the convicted felon.”

“It’s all a scam, and it’s going to be appealed, and it will probably end up in the Supreme Court,” Kent said.

Democratic Chairperson Fried says the party’s strategy this election cycle is simple: boosting turnout in Democratic strongholds, winning “purple” counties like Pinellas, and losing by less in the red areas of the state.

“That is a winning equation every day of the week,” Fried said.

Political scientist MacManus said Democrats have a steep hill to climb, and they can’t afford to lose support among Black, Latino and young voters — where polls show their grip may be softening. But because many voters don’t like either major party candidate, she adds that predicting turnout and getting accurate polling is harder than it has been in decades.

Copyright 2024 NPR

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
Lexie Schapitl is a production assistant with NPR's Washington Desk, where she produces radio pieces and digital content. She also reports from the field and assists with production of the NPR Politics Podcast.