Florida Primary Could Be Last Stand for Sanders

TAMPA BAY, Fla. (CN) – Finally, a door opened. The man with the salt-and-pepper beard was hesitant at first, eyes squinting, but Colton Pettish launched into a chance to talk about Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

“Well, I’m for Bernie,” Pettish said. “I’m for Medicare for All.”

Pettish, 24, tells the man a personal story about his grandmother, who the health care system shuffled from a hospital to a nursing home to hospice before sending her to die in her grandson’s home.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks to reporters on Wednesday in Burlington, Vt. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

Next to Pettish, Samantha Whitmarsh, 25, dressed in jeans with a pixie haircut, shares a similar story to this bearded man with his hand at the door, though she shortens it for this conversation: Her mother was diagnosed with stage 3 lung cancer, forced to quit her job and forfeit health insurance, and Whitmarsh and her sister took the next few years on their shoulders, until their mother passed away.

“Bernie has a promise of medical insurance for all, which I think that’s important,” Whitmarsh says.

The man’s arm loosens on his front door, and he starts to engage.

Pettish and Whitmarsh are just some of the volunteers fanning out across Florida to convince Democrats to vote for Sanders, the junior senator from Vermont, in Florida’s primary on Tuesday.

They began canvassing a Tampa Bay neighborhood in the early afternoon on one of those cool, sunny days Floridians wait for all year. As such, most people were not home. The driveways carless. The door knocks, no response.

Sanders, the cantankerous leader of the party’s progressive wing, has the only ground game in the state, all led by volunteers, after most other presidential contenders dropped out.

But former Vice President Joe Biden, who has no canvassing or phone bank events in the state, overwhelmingly leads the polls here.

Neither Democratic presidential candidate has an office or a cadre of paid staffers crisscrossing the third most populous state that will play a large role in the general election.

And yet, Florida Democrats are overwhelmingly supporting Biden.

More than a dozen Florida mayors threw their support behind the former vice president in recent weeks, including Orlando’s Buddy Dyer and Miami Beach’s Dan Gelber.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his wife Jill arrive to speak to members of the press at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Two years after Biden endorsed St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman in his reelection campaign, the leader of the Florida’s fourth-largest city returned the favor this week.

“Joe Biden will bring unparalleled experience and decency to the presidency at a time when it is sorely needed,” Kriseman said in a statement. “Just as President Barack Obama did before him, Joe will provide Americans with a sense of calm while restoring our reputation on the world stage.”

The state’s top Democratic elected official, Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, also gave her endorsement to Biden this week.

“This is the most important election of our lifetimes,” Fried said in a statement. “The time for unity is now – and the candidate to unite behind is Joe Biden.”

“Joe’s diverse coalition and selfless service will restore America’s moral compass and leadership at home and abroad,” she said.

Florida’s Democratic congressional delegation also supports Obama’s former wingman.

“Sanders is not going to win Florida,” Michael Binder, director of the University of North Florida’s Public Opinion Research Lab, said resolutely. “This is a very favored Joe Biden state.”

He points to Florida’s demographics: most primary voters are older whites.

“To be honest, there are just not a lot of young people in the Democratic primary,” Binder said. “And in Florida we have a large chunk of older folks, a disproportionately large chunk of older folks.”

And the older folks are going for Biden.

On Thursday, the University of North Florida’s Public Opinion Research Lab found 66% of likely Democratic primary voters choose Biden. Only 22% of those polled said they would vote for Sanders.

A Florida Atlantic University poll released earlier in the week revealed similar numbers with Biden leading by 60%.

Over 1.5 million Floridians have already voted early or by mail.

In a speech on Wednesday after losing Michigan and other states on Super Tuesday, Sanders pledged to stay in the race. He has 710 delegates compared with Biden’s 864. Florida has 219 delegates at stake and Sanders must reach 15% of voters to take any portion of those delegates.

Arizona, Illinois and Ohio also have primary elections on Tuesday.

“That next debate is going to be a very, very important debate for both candidates,” Binder said, referring to Sunday’s debate recently moved from Arizona to Washington D.C. “Because that’s going to be Sanders’ last chance to turn the tide before [the primary]. And it’s also an opportunity for Joe to stand up there and be able to go head-to-head and prove to all of these Democrats, whose biggest concern is beating Trump in the fall, that he can go toe-to-toe with someone on the debate stage.”

Sanders’ volunteers are not dissuaded.

By the end of the conversation, Pettish hands the man a campaign flyer and asks him who he will vote for if not Sanders.

“Well, I don’t trust all those others as far as I can see them,” the squinting man says.

As they walk down the driveway, Pettish remarks, “He’s a maybe.”

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