Posted on October 23, 2018

In Florida, White Voters Siding with Republicans Keep a Surge of Young and Minority Voters at Bay

Tim Craig and Aaron William, Washington Post, October 23, 2018

Everywhere Donna Wilkenfeld looks in this lush suburban Orlando neighborhood, the 56-year-old transplant from Tennessee sees neighbors who she suspects share her passion for the Republican Party, especially its stance against illegal immigration and the party’s unflinching support for President Trump.


But just a few blocks away from the house on East Citrus Street where Wilkenfeld settled in hopes of soon retiring, 37-year-old Sara Suero looks around and sees a completely different image of Florida’s Seminole County, a rapidly growing suburb on the front line of Democratic efforts to tip the Sunshine State in their favor and Republicans’ attempts to keep it in theirs.


As voters here in America’s most notorious swing state prepare to elect a new governor and help decide which party controls the U.S. Senate, the clash of views in this middle-class neighborhood represents the battle over Florida’s direction in Trump’s America.

It’s a struggle that increasingly pits older white voters, including transplants with hopes of retirement, against the state’s rapidly diversifying youth in a demographic battle that presents challenges for both parties in a state gaining nearly 1,000 new residents a day.

This year, the stakes are particularly high for a midterm election as Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum seeks to become the first Democratic governor in two decades. Gillum, who would also be Florida’s first African American governor, is hoping to boost turnout among the minority and younger voters who tend to vote far less frequently than the older white voters on whom the Republican nominee, former congressman Ron DeSantis, is depending.

The same voter division defines the Senate battle, as incumbent Bill Nelson (D) tries to fend off an aggressive challenge from Republican Rick Scott, the incumbent governor. A half-dozen House races are also competitive.


According to census estimates, 40 percent of Florida’s 20 million residents are now over the age of 50, and slightly more than two-thirds of them are white. Those residents have formed the backbone of recent Republican victories here.

In the 2016 presidential contest, Trump carried Florida by 113,000 votes after 64 percent of white voters supported him, according to exit polls.

But 57 percent of Florida residents under the age of 30 now identify as a minority — a percentage that leaps above 70 percent in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, the state’s two most populated.

Roughly 7 in 10 of those nonwhite Florida voters supported Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to exit polls.


Census data offers conflicting indicators. The data shows Florida’s minority population grew at more than five times the rate of the white population between 2010 to 2017 — 22 percent versus 4 percent, according to Census estimates.

The growing minority population includes a surge of younger minorities who are now reaching voting age. Florida’s population of minorities who are between the ages of 20 and 30 grew 18 percent since 2010 — surpassing the growth of white residents over the age of 50. That group grew by 13 percent.

Those younger residents provide a potential trough of Democratic-leaning voters — but white voters over 50 still outnumber this demographic nearly 4 to 1.

“Florida is interesting because it’s one big moving part of constant change,” said Brad Coker, managing director of Florida-based Mason-Dixon Polling & Strategy. “But at the end of the day, despite all of that change, it doesn’t really change that much.”

Still, Democrats are trying to ride trends benefiting them in a neighbor-to-neighbor battle in Seminole County, which hasn’t supported a Democrat for president since Harry Truman in 1948.


In 1988, former president George H.W. Bush, a Republican, won nearly three-fourths of the vote here. The county includes the city of Sanford, which grabbed national headlines in 2012 after a neighborhood watchman shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in a case that highlighted the state’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” gun law.

Since then, Seminole County’s 462,000 residents have continued to diversify — the non-Hispanic white population has plunged from 75 percent in 2000 to 61 percent this year, according to census estimates.

The decline in the white population is largely driven by an influx of residents under the age of 30, about half of whom identify as Latino, black, Asian or mixed-race.


In 2016, Trump carried Seminole County by just 3,500 votes, about 1.5 percentage points. The same year, Stephanie Murphy, a Vietnamese American Democrat, defeated a 12-term Republican incumbent in a congressional district that includes Seminole County and a small part of neighboring Orange County.


After registering several thousand new voters since 2016, Seminole Democrats have come within 8,000 registrants of reaching parity with the GOP. But about 28 percent of Seminole County voters have no party affiliation, part of a broader trend among Puerto Ricans in Florida who are choosing not to register with either major party.


But John Horan, who chairs the all-Republican Seminole board of commissioners, believes the county’s GOP tilt will continue for years to come.

On issues such as taxes, Horan said the electorate has grown more conservative over the past decade. In 2014, 52 percent of Seminole County voters supported a one-cent increase in the sales to tax to fund enhanced county services, compared with the 72 percent who voted for it in 2001.

“It’s all about demographics, and on that issue of taxes we have a lot of people who like that we have a low tax environment and feel they are getting their money’s worth in Florida,” said Horan.

Interviews with older voters in Seminole County reinforced the advantage Republicans appear to continue hold on issues of taxes and spending.


But the other half of the divide quickly becomes apparent here in Altamonte Springs, which is located near Interstate 4 and has seen influx of young families, many from Puerto Rico and Venezuela. Latinos now make up 21 percent of the county population.


Jason Torres, a 35-year-old Little League coach who moved to Florida from Puerto Rico about two decades ago, said he supports Democrats because Trump “needs to shut up.”


But Torres {snip} still isn’t sure he will take the time to vote in the midterms.

“I just don’t believe that sometimes it makes a difference,” said Torres.

Stephanie Owens, a Florida-based political strategist who was a veteran of both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns here, said that sort of apathy highlights why Democrats in Florida can’t just assume that the changing demographics will benefit them.


One super PAC heavily funded by labor unions and businessman Tom Steyer, For Our Future, recently announced it had hired 100 paid canvassers in Seminole County. Another group targeting Seminole County minority voters, Organize Florida, registered more than 4,000 people in Seminole County this fall.