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Donald Trump's nonexistent Florida strategy

Not since Calvin Coolidge did it in 1924 has a Republican lost Florida but still won the presidency. And Donald Trump is starting way behind.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves goodbye at his primary election night event at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., March 15, 2016. (Photo by Mark Peterson/Redux for MSNBC)
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump waves goodbye at his primary election night event at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., March 15, 2016.

Florida, Florida, Florida.  It’s the phrase that’s now heard every election night since 2000, when a mere 537 votes separated George W. Bush from Al Gore.  The drama that ensued after that election gripped the country for weeks as the state recounted ballots and debated hanging chads, then the Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 decision that ultimately finalized the election’s outcome. 

The 2000 presidential election has made the Sunshine State the one to watch on election night ever since, and with good reason.  In order to win the White House, a candidate must win Florida.  Not since Calvin Coolidge did it in 1924 has a Republican lost there and still captured the presidency.

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It's a fact Republicans and Democrats know well, and while the Clinton campaign has shifted its focus in Florida by opening a general election campaign headquarters in the state and setting up a Florida field team, Donald Trump's campaign is still trying to figure out its strategy there. 

Trump could arguably call Florida his second home. Trump National Golf Course in Doral is listed as his biggest source of income, according to his most recent financial disclosures with the Federal Elections Commission. He spends significant time at his opulent Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach and has hosted campaign events and press conferences in the gilded ballroom of the private club.

Despite the focus that Trump, his family and his businesses have in Florida, Trump’s campaign has yet to follow suit. The Trump campaign and the Republican Party are currently “in discussions” over what kind of presence Trump will have in the state, according to Wadi Gaitan, director of communications for the Republican Party of Florida.

"What kind of infrastructure does he set up here in the state, how competitive does he think Florida is going to be, and once he has the answer to that question, what kind of investment will he make in this area?" asked Gaitan. "It could be that he relies on what we are doing. We do plan on expanding our program, so he might say, 'That's what I think we need to win Florida, and nothing much more beyond that.'"

The Trump campaign has said it will focus on about a dozen states during the general election, including Florida, but the candidate has not held a single campaign event there since winning the state's primary in March (he did attend the Palm Beach Lincoln Day Dinner held at Mar-a-Lago the weekend after winning the primary). Hillary Clinton will be in Florida Saturday, when she will make an appearance in Fort Lauderdale. 

Even though Trump has become the presumptive nominee well before his Democratic rival, his general election team doesn't yet have a real presence in the state. The campaign has yet to set up any of the infrastructure necessary to win a campaign in Florida, leaving its 29 delegates very much up in the air.

"There are people who supported him during the primary who continue to keep offices; however, they don't have an official Florida campaign office," Gaitan said. "I'm hesitant to say whether that's going to happen or not. Those are the conversations that are going to happen."

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Trump’s lack of a ground game isn't surprising. It’s been a criticism of his campaign throughout the primary process, but as both parties turn to the general election, the lack of local organization becomes more of an issue.

Steve Schale, who ran President Obama’s Florida operation in 2008, says the ground game is imperative.

“While I have definitely been in the camp that Democrats can’t take Trump lightly,” Schale said, “to try to run for president and to turn out voters without a ground game is clinically moronic.”

“It’s not turning out people who show up to rallies. If you turn up to a rally, you’re going to vote," Schale explained. "There are voters who have to be reminded, found and prodded. And to do that requires an operation."

Florida is a complicated state because of how different each region can be. Those who live there say it is like two states: North of Tampa and Orlando, it tends to be more conservative, while south Florida tends to be more liberal.  But for campaign operatives, the state can really be divided into five separate sections: north Florida, which stretches from Pensacola to Jacksonville, the Orlando area, Miami-Dade and southwest Florida, the Tampa Bay area, and Palm Beach-Broward counties.

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Even though Trump has yet to invest heavily in Florida, Republicans have been working in the state since losing the 2012 general election by less than 1 percent. Following the traditional model of grassroots organizing, they have held voter registration drives and recently announced that they have flipped seven counties from majority registered Democrats to majority registered Republicans. One of those, Pinellas County, is part of the highly coveted Tampa Bay area.

Tampa is the hardest media market win, according to Schale. He says the candidate who captures it almost always wins Florida. The region has a large independent voter base, a disparate population of older white voters, a growing Hispanic population and a large African-American population, which makes the market a bellwether for the state.

Which may be why the Clinton campaign has relocated its Florida headquarters from Miami-Dade to the Tampa area.  The campaign is following the basic blueprint to winning the state. According to a campaign adviser, Clinton will have a “strong presence” in Miami-Dade, in Central Florida, the Tampa-Bay area, Jacksonville and Tallahassee. The campaign will also do traditional voter registration drives. All strategies that Trump has yet to embrace.

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Gaitan says one of the lessons that Florida Republicans learned in 2012 is that a candidate can’t come into Florida three or four months before a general election and ask the state’s diverse electorate for their vote.  But Gaitan says the Republican Party of Florida is not worried yet about Trump’s lack of strategy.

“I think that Trump has proven that he is capable of winning in a nontraditional way,” Gaitan said. “Through the primary process he proved that he is a very unique candidate that has a very unique strategy in campaigning. His uniqueness as a candidate, his uniqueness in strategy, married with our grassroots -- we’ll be able to win Florida.”