By Emily Cadei
September 8, 2016
Election Day is still two months away, but in Florida it feels as if it’s tomorrow. With the state’s voter registration deadline looming in mid-October, absentee ballots arriving around the same time and early voting starting October 24, the real scramble for votes is happening now.
The race to sign up new voters is particularly fierce, given the Sunshine State’s exploding population and shifting demographics, and both presidential campaigns recognize that the next month will go a long way toward determining who wins the nation’s largest swing state, typically decided by just a percentage point or less.
Jorge Sanchez is just one of the transplants who have flooded Florida in recent years. The 77-year-old retired engineer moved down to central Florida from Milwaukee 10 years ago. On a recent Saturday morning, he was sitting at a table at the Starbucks in Avalon Park, a sparkling, new planned community on the outskirts of Orlando, listening intently to a young field organizer for Hillary Clinton explain the process of registering voters.
“You actually need to reregister [voters] a fair amount of the time,” said the Clinton staffer. “In 2012, if you moved within the state of Florida you could re-register on Election Day, but now it’s changed so that you can only reregister on Election Day if you moved within the same county.”
Sanchez and a fellow volunteer, 54-year-old Scarlet Semko, nodded as they looked over their clipboards, well aware of Florida’s population churn. Semko, a retired teacher, says she sees the impact of the migration influx all around her. The Orlando area “keeps getting more diverse.” This particular neighborhood “used to be all white” when it was first built, back in the early 2000s, Semko says, but now it’s a mix of colors and languages.
Once Semko and Sanchez passed a brief quiz confirming they had the registration basics down, they and other volunteers prepared to fan out across the Avalon Park shopping center—one was already posted in front of a McDonald’s ahead of the lunch rush, while others were headed toward the entrances of a Publix grocery store and a Chipotle—to encourage their neighbors to sign up to vote.
Clinton’s Florida representatives kicked off a statewide registration campaign in late August, 50 days before the October 11 deadline. They now have 51 field offices around the state, which are fielding an army of volunteers like Sanchez and Semko aimed at registering as many voters as possible. “Our job as a campaign, number one…is voter registration, voter registration, voter registration,” says a Florida-based Clinton aide, who asked not to be identified in order to discuss campaign strategy.
The Republican Party is engaging in similar tactics across the state, part of an effort to build up ground operations to support Donald Trump’s campaign, as the campaign itself has not done so. “The big emphasis we’ve had this cycle is voter registration,” affirms a Republican National Committee (RNC) operative, who declined to be identified so he could speak about strategy. Like the Democrats, the Republicans are using data analytics to target specific communities and even neighborhoods they think are likely or persuadable GOP voters.
For both sides, the slice of Florida that runs between Tampa and Daytona Beach, anchored by Orlando in the middle, is particularly rich ground. This is an area known as the I-4 Corridor, a reference to the east-west highway running across the belly of the state, a swath of cities and suburbs viewed in political circles as the most competitive part of one of the country’s most competitive swing states. The candidate who wins the I-4 wins Florida, conventional wisdom holds.
But the fast-changing nature of the region is also shaking up some of those political dynamics. Both Orlando-Kissimmee and Tampa-St. Petersburg were among the top 15 fastest-growing metro areas between 2014 and 2015, according to the Census Bureau. And the Villages, a sprawling retirement community an hour east of Orlando, was the fastest-growing metro region of Florida over the past five years, a state report finds. Orlando and its environs was second.
Much of the Orlando area’s growth has come from an influx of Hispanic and, to a lesser degree, African-American residents, which has turned the surrounding Orange County into increasingly Democratic territory. “It wasn’t that long ago that Orange County was very evenly divided,” says University of Central Florida professor Aubrey Jewett. In 2004, Democratic nominee John Kerry eked out a win over President George W. Bush in Orange County by just 827 votes. Less than a decade later, President Barack Obama beat Republican Mitt Romney soundly there, winning by more than 85,000 votes.
The same trend is at play in Osceola County, to Orlando’s south. The dominant ethnic group there is now Puerto Ricans, who’ve been migrating to the “mainland,” as they call it, in droves over the past 15 years, a movement accelerated by the island territory’s economic crisis in recent years. Overall, Puerto Ricans now nearly match Cuban-Americans as the largest Hispanic group in Florida. On the other side of the political coin, the exodus of retirees from the frigid northeast to the Villages has pushed surrounding Sumter County in a more conservative direction. And, as Semko observed during her volunteer training, those retirees vote.
Much of the Clinton campaign’s voter registration effort in Florida is targeted at the exploding Puerto Rican population and other growing minority communities, as well as young people. But Republicans aren’t ceding those voters. In the I-4 Corridor, GOP operatives are also zeroing in on Puerto Ricans, whom they believe can be won over with appeals to faith and family. Many Puerto Rican immigrants, the RNC aide points out, are evangelicals. “We are going out to the naturalization ceremonies, we’re going to church festivals” to conduct outreach and to register voters, he says.
Polling data and past elections show Florida’s Puerto Rican voters lean solidly Democratic. Obama, for example, won more than 70 percent of Florida’s Puerto Rican vote in 2012. Still, Jewett says, roughly a third of Puerto Ricans tend to back Republicans, and many, particularly those who’ve just recently arrived in Florida, don’t have deep ties to either party. Puerto Ricans, moreover, have become a key voting bloc not just in Orange and Osceola counties but also in several highly contested counties around Tampa.
There’s one other reason why both parties are vying particularly hard for this voting bloc: Unlike other immigrants, Puerto Ricans are American citizens and have to wait only 30 days after relocating to the U.S. to be eligible to vote for president in November. In Puerto Rico, residents can’t vote in the general election for U.S. president. So it requires “a big voter education effort,” as the Clinton staffer puts it, to get people who’ve sat out past general elections to recognize they now have that right.
Overall, Republicans appear to be winning the registration battle in Florida—voter registration reports through July of this year show the GOP has added more registered voters than the Democrats have. But as The New York Times recently pointed out, much of the gain has come from voters switching party registration, and they may have already been voting Republican in general elections. Democrats continue to have an edge with new-voter registrations as well as in the overall number of registered voters in the state.
The main challenge facing Republicans is that their nominee may be a mobilizing force for Puerto Ricans and other minority residents in the I-4 Corridor—against them. According to an April poll by Latino Decisions, 91 percent of Florida’s Puerto Rican residents had an unfavorable opinion of Trump. Even South Florida’s Cuban-American population, who skew Republican, reported strongly negative feelings about the blustery real estate tycoon. The poll found 82 percent of them viewed Trump unfavorably.
Sanchez, who is Colombian by birth, told Newsweek Trump’s divisive rhetoric is a big part of the reason why he spent the Saturday of Labor Day weekend standing in a grocery store parking lot trying to sign up new voters on behalf of the Clinton campaign. “This country is great,” he says. “This country gave me opportunity.” And he worries that Trump is now tearing the country apart, pitting different types of people against each other and undermining the principles of democracy.
“I believe we can live in harmony,” Sanchez says. But “if we don’t get united, we’re going to let people deteriorate the United States of America.”
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