When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accused her own party of incompetent campaigning, just days after a presidential election win, the reactions ran the full gamut from defensiveness to counter-criticism. But for me, the result was something different: a flashback.
In 2018 I covered the midterm elections as a foreign correspondent, reporting from a series of swing districts across the Sunbelt; contested terrain in Arizona, Texas, California and Nevada. But the most lasting impression was left by two close-set congressional seats in Southern Florida: Florida 26, and Florida 27.
Situated in and near Miami, these districts make up some of the most volatile and interesting political territory in the United States. FL-27 had voted heavily for Hillary Clinton in 2016, but the House seat had been held by a socially liberal Republican, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, for 30 years. Ros-Lehtinen was retiring, and on paper the district seemed a natural Dem pick-up. The districts also overlapped with Miami-Dade, the most populous county in Florida, whose turnout would be critical in deciding a narrow gubernatorial race.
Instead of requesting interviews, I decided to see the candidates like an undecided voter would, joining the audience for stump speeches and campaign events. This seemed standard, almost old-fashioned reporting. It never occurred to me that it would be hard, let alone so hard that I’d need to extend my stay in Miami. By leaving time, I felt not like an undecided voter, but like a private detective. Finding a schedule of Republican campaign events took 15 minutes. With Democrats, this process took five days.
Campaigns tend to de-prioritize foreign correspondents (they seldom speak to voters), so there was nothing unusual about messages and emails going unanswered. That was also a good excuse to visit a campaign office. It was only there, in a gloomy room set in a strip mall, that I first picked up the tell-tale signs and symptoms of dysfunction. The election was days away—early voting had started—but the atmosphere inside the place was relaxed, almost sleepy. The handful of volunteers, a curious mixture of younger men and older women, milled aimlessly.
My presence made them perplexed, and then panicked. “Do you have a press contact for the campaign?” I asked, a question that would soon come to feel like “Take me to your leader” (they were also unable to take me to their leader).
“A media person, a press contact, someone doing your communications?”
“OK, don’t worry—I just want to see the candidates speak. Do you have a campaign event calendar, or a schedule?”
Perhaps this information was at one of the other offices. Volunteers tried to be helpful. One suggested a website might have the information, and when pressed, offered unsarcastically that I “try Google.” Another showed me an event dated two weeks prior. Finally, with fanfare, someone produced a number for another campaign office. They could put me in touch with the right person. I stepped outside and dialed. I had called the switchboard for the City of Miami Gardens, Florida.
Irritation was turning into intrigue, and while the next few days were mileage and frustration-heavy, they were in some ways a reporter’s dream. The factional fighting between Miami-Dade Democrats, Florida Democrats, Senate campaign offices and the national party was flagrant. One of the few times I saw the operation energized was when I mentioned the Miami-Dade Democrats to a staffer for and she rolled her eyes. I heard more than one volunteer try to remember the names on the ballot and fail. I was left unsupervised in campaign offices, in prime eavesdropping real estate, though this was just a bonus: campaigners were ready to vent their frustrations, and I opened my confessional.
By comparison, the Republicans I encountered were courteous, organized, and dedicated. I heard a speech by the GOP challenger for FL-27, Maria Salazar, and afterwards her apparatchiks handed me business cards. At voting locations drowned in GOP paraphernalia, campaign staff showed me detailed spreadsheets, tallying how early turn-out numbers tracked with their booth-by-booth strategy. They asked if I needed anything. The competition dynamic was starting to remind me of 1980s comedy movie: a ruthless, well-heeled team up against a band of plucky misfits.
My grail quest became no easier. At one field location, I arrived just before the advertised opening time and waited by myself for hours before leaving empty-handed. Finding the number for one press secretary took phone calls to 22 different people, most of whom didn’t know who he was. Several times I was told that a particular volunteer was important and “knew everything.” Tracked down at a polling booth, he turned out to be a young backpacker, freshly arrived from Spain, who knew as little as anyone else. Later, I realized the source of this special status: he was one of the few people on the ground who could speak Spanish. Donna Shalala herself (i.e. the candidate) could not.
Following a hot tip about a possible press contact, I turned up at another campaign office with a different strategy: I would refuse to leave. After the traditional greeting—bewilderment, being offered a chair within earshot of indiscrete conversations—there was a short conclave. I could speak with Ben. Ben and I sat facing each other, in the middle of an open-plan office. By this time I had become a kind of connoisseur of incompetence, and I sensed that Ben was good at something, but he had not dealt with a reporter before. “Can I ask what your role with the campaign is?” Ben was a policy adviser. He had no idea if his candidate had any events that day, and no idea why he was speaking with me.
When the comms person did come in (this was treated as a special occasion), our conversation had an informality that was almost charming. I explained my difficulty with the Democratic campaigns, and the contrast with Republicans. “They’re a lot more organized than us!” she said, and I had to laugh. They sure were! Here at last was some kind of schedule, but as we stepped through it, something was missing. Through exhaustive internet searches, I had found a digital ticketing website offering a Q&A event featuring Donna Shalala. Why wasn’t it on the schedule? “Ohhh, that’s cancelled.” Perhaps, she said, they could line up an interview instead? I explained that I had been trying to see the election from the perspective of a voter, not a reporter, and how information was freely available from Republicans and almost non-existent from Democrats. Catching my drift, she started to flush.
The call came through later, when I was in a Haitian-owned coin laundry. A DNC flack in Washington, D.C. had heard I was making trouble, planning some kind of “Dems in disarray” story, and as I scribbled notes on top of an industrial dryer, I picked up the story that had been relayed to him, as much from his tone as his words. A foreign correspondent had arrived in Miami expecting VIP treatment, then got miffed when the red carpet wasn’t rolled out. Smearing the ground game would be revenge for a bruised ego. “Money at a national level has gone into these seats,” he assured me.
Walking him through what I’d seen—and hadn’t seen—only made him angry. “We’re going to win both of those seats,” he said, berating my ignorance. It was a strange reaction. By then I probably had as clear a snapshot of the election in Miami as anyone. Wasn’t that information useful? Potentially important, even? Instead, someone hundreds of miles away was blithely junking this eye-witness evidence in favor of obnoxious confidence. “You’ll see,” he insisted, “when we win FL-26 and FL-27 on election night, I’ll message you.” And they did, and he did.
In my reply, I pointed out that Andrew Gillum, the Democratic favorite to become Florida’s governor, had lost by a narrow margin, and that poor turnout in Miami-Dade was the culprit. And perhaps you can imagine my lack of surprise two years later, when FL-26 and FL-27 both fell to GOP challengers, one of them Maria Salazar. On the presidential ballot, Clinton’s 30-point lead in Miami-Dade shrunk to a 7-point margin for Biden.
In a piece titled What the Hell Happened to Democrats in Miami-Dade?, Rolling Stone observed ruefully that “Miami-Dade is considered safe—until election night, when suddenly it’s not,” and quoted Maria Elena Lopez, first vice-chair of the Miami-Dade Democrats.
Lopez lamented how the Democratic National Convention did not talk to, fund, or advise the local parties. “We don’t get any feedback from the DNC,” she said. “They don’t come to us and say, ‘Hey, what is the messaging that would work in your community? Where are we weak?’ [The party] doesn’t do that, at all. We are on our own.”
“Unfortunately, this is not the first time that we’ve seen this,” she said. It was not the first time I had seen it either.