MIAMI — Barack Obama vs. Donald Trump. “Bring It Home!” vs. “Lock Him Up!”
In front of adoring and amped-up crowds this week, the former president and his successor rallied their parties’ bases in Florida, home of deadlocked and intensely watched races for U.S. Senate and governor in the nation’s largest swing state. Florida has an electorate that’s such a national bellwether that it can seem more schizophrenic than truly red or blue.
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Florida elected Obama in 2008 and 2012, but then swung hard right in 2016 by voting in Trump, who rallied Wednesday in Southwest Florida and returns Saturday to the Panhandle, two Republican-rich areas that made Florida Trump Country.
Sandwiched between those Trump stops in Florida, the first African American president gambled Friday that he could help turn Florida back into Obama Country in Democrat-heavy Miami with a message calibrated to draw a sharp contrast with the harsh tone of his successor, especially over immigration.
“The character of our country is on the ballot,” Obama told a crowd of 4,000. “In the closing weeks of this election, we have seen repeated attempts to divide us with rhetoric designed to make us angry and make us fearful, that’s designed to exploit our history of racial and ethnic and religious division, that pits us against one another to make us believe that order will somehow be restored if it just weren’t for those folks who don’t look like we look, or don’t love like we love, or pray like we do.”
The crowd in Miami interrupted him with a clapping chant that’s the slogan of Democrat Andrew Gillum’s campaign for governor: “Bring it home!”
Two days before, on the other side of the peninsula, the current president’s rhetoric was a world away.
“Republicans want strong borders, no crime, no chaos and no caravans. Democrats want open borders, and they want to invite caravan after caravan into our country, which brings crime upon crime,” Trump said in Fort Myers in a filled-to-capacity arena. “A vote for Democrats is a vote to liquidate America’s borders. And it’s a vote to let meth, fentanyl, heroin, and other deadly drugs pour across our borders, drugs that take the lives of over — think of this — over 70,000 Americans a year.”
The crowd at one point broke out with the longstanding Trump campaign chant: “Build the wall!” Unprompted, they chanted “CNN sucks!” at one point. And they booed when the opposing candidates were mentioned by name. Obama’s crowd did it, too.
But both presidents had a different response. Trump said little as the boos rained down. Obama often responded, “don’t boo, vote!”
The two sides also fracture along racial lines.
The Florida Democratic Party recently became a majority-minority party. And the Obama rally was multiracial. The Republican Party of Florida is disproportionately white compared to the state’s general population and its registered voters overall. And Trump’s rally was overwhelmingly white.
Gillum — Florida’s first African-American Democratic nominee for governor — and Sen. Bill Nelson are pulling a disproportionate share of the non-white vote and their opponents, Ron DeSantis and Gov. Rick Scott, have outsized support among white voters.
At each rally, voters mentioned race without prompting when asked to describe the different Floridas on display in Trump’s America and Obama’s America.
“In all honesty, a lot of people voted for Obama just because he was black. And that was that. He didn’t have anything to go by,” said Dean Parave, a 54-year-old Naples resident who attended his fifth Trump rally on Wednesday. “He made a lot of promises, he didn’t keep any. What did they have to go by? Just his race.”
Obama rallygoer Ellen Kaplan had a far different take: “Donald Trump’s America is the America of old white men who are afraid of giving up what power they have.”
Another Democrat at the Wednesday rally, Crystal Romero-Sherman of Boca Raton, said Trump is negative and Obama’s positive.
“Donald Trump doesn’t inspire love and hope and prosperity for everybody,” she said. “Obama gives us a reason to believe that Obama will be better tomorrow.”
Trump rallygoer Gina Vithoulkas summed up her view of the divide this way: “He’s evil. Obama is evil.”
At his rally for Gillum and Nelson, Obama brought up the issue of anger in Trump’s base.
“Why is it that the folks that won the last election are so mad all the time?” Obama asked to applause. “When I won the presidency, at least my side felt pretty good. It tells ya something interesting, that even the folks who are in charge are still mad ‘cause they’re getting ginned up to be mad. That’s the mindset.”
DeSantis, who earned a reputation for getting mad after losing his temper with a debate moderator last week, has made the race for governor more of a referendum on Gillum’s character, and specifically an FBI investigation swirling around City Hall in Tallahassee where the Democrat serves as mayor.
DeSantis used the Tallahassee investigation as a point of departure to criticize Gillum’s call for impeaching Trump, whose campaign is under federal investigation.
“He’s running on impeaching the president. For what?” DeSantis asked the crowd as it booed Gillum’s name. “This is a guy that took bribes from an undercover FBI agent, took money from a lobbyist, did favors for the lobbyist. Maybe we should impeach Gillum as mayor of Tallahassee!”
“Lock him up!” the crowd chanted.
Days later, Gillum had his chance to rebut DeSantis, accusing him of being dishonest over his repeated votes to repeal Obamacare and his newfound promise to protect insurance coverage for people with preexisting conditions. But more broadly, Gillum sought to portray the election as a choice between hope and divisiveness.
“We have the opportunity to send Mr. DeSantis and Mr. Trump a message on Nov. 6,” Gillum said. “We have a chance to send them an apologetic message. One that will no longer confuse them — that their brand of politics is no longer acceptable in the state of Florida at all. At all.”