“WHAT you have to remember”, says Ronald Brisé, in a conference room several storeys above downtown Orlando, “is that Florida is like three to five states in one.” Spend more than a couple of hours talking Florida politics and some version of Mr Brisé’s dictum will emerge. South Florida (Mr Brisé’s home, before he served in the state’s legislature) is multicultural, crowded and Democratic. North Florida is whiter and staunchly conservative. This gives statewide races a familiar pattern: Democrats seek to run up their totals down south while minimising their losses in the north, while Republicans do the opposite. The parties fight over central Florida, a region that changing demography—an influx of Latinos from Puerto Rico and the north-east, a steady flow of white pensioners seeking sunshine and pickleball in retirement—prevents from listing too far in either direction.
Perhaps no race in the country offers a starker choice than the contest between Ron DeSantis, a three-term Republican congressman, and Andrew Gillum, the Democratic mayor of Tallahassee, to become Florida’s next governor. Mr DeSantis is among President Donald Trump’s most ardent congressional supporters. One campaign ad features him building a wall with his daughter, then reading to her from one of Mr Trump’s books. Mr Gillum, meanwhile, was backed by Bernie Sanders. He favours universal health care, gun control, raising business taxes to fund public schools, and criminal-justice reform. Neither candidate was expected to win his primary; both defeated more mainstream, establishment-backed candidates.
Florida has not elected a Democratic governor since 1994. The Democrats it elects to statewide office, such as Bill Nelson, the incumbent senior senator, tend to be dull, Anglo moderates. Many Democrats worry that Mr Gillum, a young, black progressive, is too left-wing. His opponent gleefully accuses him of being a socialist.
Even so, Mr Gillum has a small but steady lead in the polls. But casting a shadow over his campaign has been an extended FBI investigation into corruption in Tallahassee’s City Hall (Mr Gillum says he has done nothing wrong and has been told by the FBI that he is not a target). Since the primaries his campaign has been steady; Mr DeSantis’s has been disorganised and beset by racial controversies.
Mr Gillum is making the same electoral bet as Stacey Abrams, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Georgia. In recent decades, as Republicans have moved rightwards, Democrats have nominated white centrists designed to win voters in the theoretical middle, hoping that progressives or non-white voters would trudge to the polls anyway for lack of other alternatives. That strategy has often failed them. Instead, Mr Gillum is trying to excite non-white voters, hoping they will turn out in numbers similar to presidential rather than off-year elections, when the electorate is typically older and whiter.
Mr Trump has been polling better than in other swing states, partly because Florida has so many old people (over 20% are 65 or over, compared with around 15% nationally), and they turn out to vote more reliably than young people do. Christian Whitfield, an African-American Republican running for the city council in Jacksonville, says Mr Trump is popular because “people see his policies working regardless of the noise you hear. They can pay their bills, go shopping and go to dinner every so often.” Thomas Esposito, another Jacksonville Republican, says Mr Trump’s transformation of the party has been popular in Florida. “It’s the party of the common man, the forgotten man, [and] there are a lot of forgotten people in Florida.”