Andrew Gillum lost Florida by just 1 per cent of the vote – but Obama could have reversed that result

A presidential endorsement has a significant impact on how the electorate votes: our past leaders hold a huge responsibility to advocate on behalf of the politicians they believe in

Sharon Wright Austin
Wednesday 07 November 2018 09:42
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Democrat candidate for Flordia governor Andrew Gillum rips into opponent Ron DeSantis over racism

President Trump has demonstrated the power and influence of his endorsement in Florida, as his endorsee Ron DeSantis won against his Democratic opponent, Andrew Gillum, to be the 46th governor of the state.

But it wasn’t a landslide: Gillum, a young progressive African American candidate was projected to win by many polls and was endorsed by the former president Barack Obama. In the end, he lost by approximately 1 per cent of the vote.

So how did this happen?

DeSantis, a Yale and Harvard Law graduate with a decorated military background, successfully competed against Gillum, a graduate of the historically black Florida A&M University. Aged just 23, Gillum became the youngest person ever elected to the Tallahassee City Commission and was elected as mayor of Tallahassee, Florida in 2014. A victory would have made Gillum only the fifth African American to serve as a state governor in US history,

Gillum was always thought to be the underdog in a contentious general election largely characterised by mud-slinging and race-baiting. In August 2018, Gillum was the surprise victor in a Democratic primary that consisted of candidates with more name-recognition and a lot more money. After winning the primary, Gillum found himself in competition against a Trump-endorsed, well-funded candidate in a state that had not elected a Democratic governor since 1990. Plus, he was a black candidate running for a statewide office. Few African Americans have ever won the statewide offices that usually launch candidates into national office.

Gillum also had some baggage that his opponent capitalised on. In 2015, agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) posing as businessmen by the names of Mike Sweets, Mike Miller and Brian Butler told city officials that they would invest in local properties if given public funds.

In 2017, the FBI issued a subpoena requesting public records. Later, Gillum met with FBI representatives without an attorney present and is currently not the subject of an FBI probe – but the DeSantis campaign was able to cast doubt on his integrity.

Because of these disadvantages, Gillum crafted an aggressive grassroots campaign that motivated Democrats into a large turnout while also soliciting the votes of independent and Republicans dissatisfied with former Governor Rick Scott and Trump. His campaign heavily used social media to spread information as well as to attract supports and funds.

What he lacked in funds he made up for in youthful charisma, but although his agenda pleased some voters, it alienated others. While Gillum’s supporters viewed him as a progressive, his opponents believed he was a socialist.

Nevertheless, the DeSantis campaign also had major missteps to overcome. After referring to Gillum as “articulate” he said, “the last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state. That is not going to work. That’s not going to be good for Florida.” Many perceived the phrase “monkey this up” as an unfortunate choice of words that were racially coded.

However, Trump not only endorsed DeSantis but also made several campaign appearances for him. Shortly after Gillum’s primary win, the president referred to him as a “failed socialist mayor”. He later referred to Gillum as “a thief and who is mayor of poorly-run Tallahassee, said to be one of the most corrupt cities in the country”.

Gillum’s supporters, meanwhile, saw similarities with another successful grassroots candidate: Barack Obama. The former president endorsed and campaigned for Gillum in the final days of his campaign, but he did not campaign for Gillum as frequently as Trump did for the governor-elect.

If you are wondering why Trump put so much effort into this race, its simple: the president has a special interest in the Florida race because of the state's critical role in presidential election results. Trump narrowly won Florida in 2016; he needs to win the state’s 29 electoral votes again to secure 2020 re-election. His efforts to win Florida again will be made significantly easier with a Republican governor that he has already campaigned for, rather than a Democratic governor who once suggested that he be impeached.

The lesson to be learned from this gubernatorial election is that both progressive and conservatives will be motivated to turn out in large numbers to support their candidates of choice. More importantly, a presidential endorsement has a significant impact on how the electorate votes – and they shouldn’t forget it. Our past leaders hold just as much responsibility as our current ones to advocate on behalf of the leaders they believe in.

We elected these people for their voice; it should not suddenly disappear from politics at the end of their term in office. It needs, in fact, to be just as loud as the day they were elected.

Sharon Wright Austin is a professor of political science at the University of Florida

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