ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – A.J. Broome is a 56-year-old married gay man living in St. Petersburg, Florida. Until recently, he was torn over who to pick in the Florida primary.
“I seldom vote down party lines,” said Broome, who is a property manager, adding that he voted in presidential elections for Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and also Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But when he started thinking about the March 17 primary, he became uneasy.
“I was looking at Pete Buttigieg and Bernie Sanders. They intrigued me. Bernie was about real change. And Pete was a newcomer,” Broome said. Then, an alternative emerged: former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
“There you go. He’s the one who’s going to be able to fight Trump,” Broome said. “Bloomberg really can’t be blackmailed. There’s nothing that Trump can do to Bloomberg. Bloomberg is like Teflon to Trump.”
But it's an open question whether Broome will get a chance to cast a vote for his preferred candidate. Bloomberg has showered Florida with attention, both in advertising and campaign infrastructure. But it is possible that he will no longer be in the race if he does not do well in the Super Tuesday primaries. He plans to be in Florida when those results start to come in.
With his vast resources, Bloomberg was able to build a national political organization from a standing start. On Tuesday, that effort will get its first test. If he does well, then the money spent on Florida and other states that follow will seem prescient.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' strong showings in the first three contests for the nomination and former Vice President Joe Biden's blowout win in South Carolina give both the kind of momentum that Bloomberg has yet to achieve.
And states like Florida, always critical in a presidential election with its 219 delegates, will be among the most important arbiters of who the Democrats choose.
It's neither as liberal as California nor as conservative as Texas. The median age is older than that of the nation — 42.2 years compared with 38.2. In the 2016 Democratic primary, Sanders received 33% of the vote, while Clinton received a resounding 64%. Trump won the 2016 general election here by 1.2 percentage points.
Given the state's decidedly purple status, Floridians who aren't entirely comfortable with Sanders' fiery rhetoric or the lagging candidacies of the rest of the field are looking to Bloomberg. Last week, a group of a dozen supporters gathered in a bungalow-turned-office building just outside of downtown Tampa to watch the South Carolina debate. Adorned with balloons, it's one of the candidate's many offices around Florida.
“I supported Cory Booker, but then he dropped out and I was undecided,” said Silvia Santos, a 50-year-old worker at Walmart who used to live in New York and New Jersey, and now resides in Tampa. “But when Bloomberg jumped in, I knew he was the person to run this country.”
Santos nodded and clapped when Bloomberg made his points during the debate, and thought he was doing a better job during the South Carolina debate than his first foray in Nevada.
Bloomberg enjoys the support of many in Florida like Santos — former New Yorkers who have moved south. He's trying to gain new fans by pouring money and resources into the state. He's opened 14 offices up and down the state and his campaign says it will open at least six more. He's hired about 200 paid staffers. He's put up 90 billboards across the state. And Florida voters can't escape his ads on television and social media, part of a nationwide effort that already has cost more than $500 million.
“He’s conservative in his ideas and I like the way that he started with nothing,” said 65-year-old Jim Flynn of Sarasota, who voted for Obama and also Trump, and added that he has “screaming matches” with his wife of 40-plus years who is a Trump supporter. “When you’re the mayor of New York City, that’s pretty commanding.”
Beverly Dame, a former Vermonter who now lives in Sarasota as a retiree, said: “I supported Elizabeth Warren at the beginning of the year, but I don't think she can appeal to that great middle mass of Americans. I need somebody that can get that man out of the White House.” Dame is supporting Bloomberg, because she feels Sanders' socialist background won't resonate with many, including Florida's Cuban population.
Bloomberg has also drawn some key endorsements in the state, including from former gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink and former Miami Mayor Manny Diaz.
Former Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who also is supporting Bloomberg, says you can't discount his resources.
“Who votes? Who votes consistently? Older folks. It’s not the young kids. It is senior citizens," Buckhorn said. "I think those ads, as well done as they are, are going to find fertile ground in Florida.”
Daryl Rouson is a black state senator from St. Petersburg. He initially was interested in Sens. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, but both dropped out of the race. He has decided to endorse Bloomberg, who he thinks is well positioned to win in Florida.
“I think that he has the skills, Rouson said. ”He’s learned lessons from his past, has acknowledged mistakes and that’s what you want to get behind, somebody who understands they need to govern differently.”
Some Florida voters, like Nancy Lee of Miami, have already received their early voting ballot. Lee, a retiree from New York, was ready to mark her ballot for Bloomberg, but hesitated after the debate in Nevada on Feb. 19, when the billionaire delivered a lackluster performance and was the target of sharp attacks from his rivals.
A lifelong Democrat in the general election, Lee said she appreciates Bloomberg's views on gun control and climate change. The fact that he succeeded in the cutthroat world of New York City business also impresses her. She isn't fazed by allegations of harassment complaints.
“I was a secretary for many years in New York. That's the way it was in those times. Crazy," she said, adding that she'd like to know more about the nondisclosure agreements his company signed, preventing women from talking about complaints of harassment.
On Sunday, Lee messaged The Associated Press. After Biden's performance in South Carolina and seeing his African American support there, she's now planning to cast her ballot for the former vice president.
“Bloomberg just had too much baggage,” she wrote. “But I think he would have been a good president.”