Democratic groups are pouring money into get-out-the-vote efforts in Black precincts to try to increase turnout from 2016, in a state that is critical to President Trump’s re-election chances.
People waiting in line at the Main Library to cast their ballot on the last day of early voting in West Palm Beach, Fla.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — One Saturday last month, after Democrats held a news conference in this city’s predominantly Black east side to promote the start of early voting, State Senator Audrey Gibson offered her view about why turnout among Florida’s African-Americans dropped so strikingly in 2016.
“Some people were in mourning because President Obama could not run again,” Ms. Gibson said.
Around the corner, Joanne Townsend was blunter as she prepared fried fish and steamed crabs at a charity event. “We didn’t really think he was going to get in there last time,” Ms. Townsend, a retiree, said while reflecting the pervasive skepticism that Donald Trump could win in 2016. “I kept saying, ‘They’re not going to put that fool in there,’ and he got in there.”
Four years after President Trump carried Florida by just over one point, no other single battleground poses quite the impediment to his re-election as America’s largest traditional swing state. A loss in Florida, where several late polls show Joseph R. Biden Jr. with a modest lead, would be the most ominous sign for the president’s re-election chances on Tuesday night, given that the state was expected to report results faster than most key battlegrounds.
And no group of voters may be as vital to Mr. Biden’s success as African-Americans in Florida, a complicated political patchwork that is difficult for Democrats to capture under favorable circumstances and all but impossible for them to win if there is any ebb in enthusiasm among Black voters.
That’s what happened four years ago when only 65 percent of the state’s Black voters cast ballots, compared with 73 percent in 2012. In county after county where Black voters represent at least a quarter of the population — from the lightly-populated farmland in the Florida Panhandle to the state’s pulsating cities — Hillary Clinton’s share of the vote declined from what former President Barack Obama had garnered four years earlier.
A mural portraying the Jacksonville riot of 1960 in Jacksonville, Fla.
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That was the case for Alicia Maxwell, a nurse who voted early last month at the Miramar branch library in Broward County.
As she cast her ballot, Ms. Maxwell, who is Jamaican-American and has tended to patients with the coronavirus, wore goggles, two masks and a shirt that read, “We choose science over fiction.”
“More lives would have been saved if the president, who gets firsthand information, had listened to the experts,” she said, adding that she would have cast a ballot for Mr. Trump’s opponent even if his rival “had been a ham sandwich.”
Democrats have lavished attention on South Florida, with Mr. Biden, Mr. Obama and Senator Kamala Harris of California repeatedly visiting in the final weeks. Mr. Bloomberg’s political arm has started airing footage from Mr. Obama’s rally in a new television ad aimed at the region’s voters. “Miami, I’m asking you to remember what this country can be,” Mr. Obama says in the footage.
Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris have both targeted communities with Black voters of Caribbean descent; South Florida is home to the largest number of Haitians in the United States, and no county in the nation has more Jamaicans than Broward. Jamaican-Americans make up the entire Miramar City Commission.
“In some ways, it has been easier than four years ago,” said Francesca Menes, a Haitian-Dominican American and the chairwoman of the Black Collective, a nonprofit organization aimed at uniting the Black diaspora. “At least the campaign has shown the commitment to our communities. In 2016, there were a lot of personal feelings and frustrations that people held about the Clinton family.”
Back then, some Haitian-Americans blamed Mrs. Clinton, former President Bill Clinton and the Clinton Foundation for some of the woes in Haiti, where the couple and the foundation did extensive work. But the Trump administration has since tried to end temporary protected status for Haitian immigrants and Mr. Trump has referred to Haiti with a disparaging expletive.
Mr. Biden appeared to refer to those instances at the Little Haiti Cultural Center in Miami this month. “Wouldn’t it be an irony — an irony of all ironies — if on election eve, it turned out Haitians literally delivered a coup de grâce in this election?” he said.
Picking Ms. Harris, the daughter of a Jamaican father and Indian mother, energized Black voters of West Indian descent, said Marlon A. Hill, a Jamaican-American lawyer in Miami who interviewed Ms. Harris on his weekly Caribbean radio show in September.
“The Caribbean vote always gets overlooked,” Mr. Hill said, noting that it could help offset the Republicans’ “firewall” of conservative-leaning Cuban voters.
Joseph R. Biden Jr. and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, at the Little Haiti Cultural Center in Miami.Credit…Hilary Swift for The New York Times
This year, Mr. Hill said, “there’s some recognition that there needs to be greater investment in the layers of the community.” The Biden campaign has produced ads for Haitian Creole television, English-language Caribbean radio stations and Caribbean publications.
In Gadsden County, about 500 miles to the northwest, a group of local African Methodist Episcopal churches have been organizing get-out-the-vote drives in a region that was once filled with tobacco farms.
Voters there said their status as the only majority-Black county in Florida gave them a unique sense of purpose: If anyone should lead the political rebellion against Mr. Trump, they said, it should be them.
“The divisiveness — the racial divide — it has motivated people of color, I think,” Belinda George, a local resident, said. “People have seen the consequences of sitting out. They’ve seen what’s going on.”
The region, which includes a number of the state’s mostly heavily Black counties, can sometimes be overlooked because of the better-known and more populous Black communities to the east and the south.
“Sometimes, for presidential candidates and small rural counties that look like us, the engagement piece is not always a priority,” Nick Fryson, a young organizer, said.
In Gadsden, as is true in many Black communities across the country, there are two driving forces behind political mobilization; older Black voters are often reached through their churches, while the younger and more nonreligious population is targeted by a loose network of community groups and progressive organizations.
It’s the second of these that has been an explicit mission for the older volunteers. Powering through a trademark Florida rainstorm recently, many said they were encouraging residents to vote early and pushing an urgent message: Defeating Mr. Trump was personal, so ensure your vote will count.
At one point, a volunteer named Clydie Young posed the question of the moment to her 36-year-old daughter: “What do you think about Trump?”
“Am I allowed to curse?” Kahwani Young shot back. When her mother disapproved, she decided it wasn’t worth answering. “Then I’ve got nothing to say.”
Jonathan Martin reported from Jacksonville, Fla.; Patricia Mazzei from Miramar, Fla., and Astead W. Herndon from Quincy, Fla.