Democratic political strategist Steve Schale realized that Donald Trump would win Florida 45 minutes after the polling places closed.
“Going into Election Day, I thought that Hillary Clinton had a 200,000 vote lead,” Schale, who managed Barack Obama’s Florida campaigns in 2008 and 2012, but sat out 2016, told the Tiger Bay Club in Tallahassee Wednesday.
“By comparison, Barack Obama had a 150,000 vote lead going into Election Day in 2008. Donald Trump would have to win Election Day by nine points. Mitt Romney won Election Day by five points.”
In fact, Schale said, Trump won the day by 13 points.
As the votes came in, at 7:15 Schale thought Clinton had the election “in the bag.”
“By 7:45, I knew it was over,” based on heavily GOP Panhandle counties that were yet to report vote counts. “There were just not enough (Democratic) votes out there for it to play out.”
That’s how finely balanced Florida is politically, Schale said.
Since 1992, when Florida became a swing state, voters here have cast 50 million presidential election ballots, with Democrats enjoying an 18,000-vote advantage in that time — a 0.4 percent difference.
“It’s important not to over-read this election. Even though Trump won, Democrats won governorships in places like North Carolina,” Schale said.
“This was basically a race-to-the-bottom campaign. And, frankly, my party does not win races to the bottom. There are more Republican voters who vote in every election than Democrats. So when you get into a race to the bottom, we don’t win. We have to inspire people, as Barack Obama did in 2008.”
Florida is a “huge, massive place,” Schale said. Miami represents the world’s 32nd largest economy. Tampa ranks No. 57. Orlando’s GDP equals Kuwait’s. Voting patterns reflect the states of origin of Florida’s people, and the I-10 corridor is the fulcrum.
“Hillary Clinton did better in Tampa and Orlando than Barack Obama,” he said.
“Where she lost was in these places that between 7:15 and 7:45 came in and reported. Places like Pasco County, Barack Obama lost by 7,000 votes in 2008, she lost by 53,000.”
It was the 10th closest election in American history, Schale said, and Clinton won the popular vote by at least 2.3 million.
“We’ve not seen this kind of instability in American politics since the 1890s. Our politics are more unstable today than during two world wars, the Great Depression and the Civil Rights Era. It’s Americans calling out, crying out, ‘Please, Washington, be functional. Do something.’ ”
Getting there might be difficult. “The problem is, in both parties, the primaries have become so insane,” Schale said.
“My friends in Bush world, I remember asking them early on, ‘How are you going to win a primary when 60 percent of your primary voters in Iowa believe Barack Obama’s a Muslim from Kenya?’ On my side, same thing.
“That’s the challenge. These primaries are making the candidates more extreme than the country is. Until one of the parties or the other figures it out, we’re going to keep going back and forth.”
As evidence of consensus, he cited gun control. People get hot about it, yet 75 percent of the public supports banning weapons sales to people on the no-fly list, he said.
“Both parties continue to misread these back-and-forth elections as a complete repudiation of the other party and a complete endorsement of something else,” he said.
“One of these days, somebody’s going to figure out that you can run for office on a fiscal conservative, socially liberal message that appeals across party lines, and is going to win 400 electoral votes.”
Clinton supporters should not hope the Electoral College might deny Trump the presidency, Schale said.
“One thing about electors, they’re picked by the candidates. While there have been faithless electors over time — one or two, maybe, at most — you will not see any change in the Electoral College this year. They are slates that are delivered by the campaigns to the state.”
And Schale wishes Trump would shut up about nonexistent voter fraud.
“This voter fraud thing that’s out there right now is absolutely abysmal,” he said. “Not only because it’s a lie. It’s because it plays into the basic cynicism people have about institutions. All of us in the process, we all have a responsibility to defend the institutions.”