Barack Obama narrowly won Florida in 2012 by expanding the electorate. Hillary Clinton, with help from her allies, is trying to do that again in 2016.
Indicators on the ground and in the early ballot numbers suggest that many low-frequency voters, particularly Latinos, will participate in this year’s election.
Donald Trump, who has been relatively strong in Florida all year, needs the state’s 29 electoral votes in any realistic scenario that gets him to 270. The attention being paid to the state reflects its special, quadrennial importance: Clinton rallies today in Tampa, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale. Trump has events scheduled tomorrow in Miami, Orlando, Pensacola and then, on Thursday morning, in Jacksonville.
Pro-Clinton forces undeniably have a better ground game than pro-Trump forces, which were slow to ramp up.
It is helpful to think of get-out-the-vote operations like a special teams unit in football. It will not win you the game if you’re down a few touchdowns, but it can make the difference at the end of a close match-up. Right now, Clinton really just needs a field goal to block Trump’s path to the presidency. But it’s not totally clear how many yards she has to kick the ball.
That is why the kind of canvassing work that Leticia Nieves is doing in this working-class suburb of Orlando could prove pivotal. Two months ago, the 37-year-old was unemployed and living in Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania, when she saw an ad offering $15 an hour to knock doors in Florida. Now she is one of nearly 500 paid canvassers working in Florida for the Center for Community Change Action.
The progressive group has spent the past four months targeting a very specific universe of 384,000 Florida Latinos. They are low-propensity voters who are likely to support Democrats. That means they are registered but have either never participated or only cast a ballot in one of the previous four elections (typically the presidential in either 2012 or 2008.)
I spent a shift shadowing Nieves, who was born in the Bronx and spent her teenage years in Puerto Rico, as she tried to convince about a hundred folks that they should vote in 2016. Speaking their native Spanish, she was an effective messenger — but it also seemed to be a surprisingly easy sell.
Edgardo Casiano, a cable technician who is registered to vote but has not done so since moving to Florida, initially said he was supporting Trump when Nieves knocked on his door. His wife walked up from behind and smacked him on the arm. She told the visitors at her door that he was just joking around, and that they both support Clinton. “If he doesn’t vote for Hillary, I will divorce him! Seriously,” said Marlin Colon, a Mary Kay beauty consultant, as their two kids watched TV in the living room.
The conversation that followed with the 29-year-olds showed the value of these face-to-face encounters – and the challenges of mobilizing hard-to-reach voters.
The husband said he would go online to vote early. Nieves had to explain that you cannot vote on the internet but must do so in person. That surprised him. She told him exactly where he could go and talked about how easy it was. “Anytime from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.,” she said.
Then the wife, who loves the idea of Clinton being the first woman president, spoke up to say she filled out paperwork with someone at the mall so she could vote, but she received a letter from the board of elections saying that her registration did not go through because the Social Security number on her form was invalid. She wondered if it was too late to vote this year. The canvasser gave her the website and phone number for the local elections office and urged her to follow up as soon as possible.
And so it went for much of Nieves’ six hours at the door last Friday, from 2 p.m. until nearly 8 p.m. These low-propensity voters were incredibly enthusiastic about voting, but they often did not know basic information about how or where to do it. She explained patiently the requirement to bring a photo ID and why it is important to not just vote for the presidential candidates but also in the U.S. Senate race.
Many of the conversations were in Spanglish. Past a Honduran pupuseria and a Dollar Store, in a modest subdivision of single-family homes, one middle-aged woman hesitantly cracked open her door. Suspiciously eyeing her visitors, she asked: “Are you a Democrat?” When Nieves said yes, the door opened wide and the woman smiled broadly. She said she already voted for Clinton. Then she fretted that her 27-year-old daughter does not see the point. “We need to push her because she is lazy,” her mother sighed. “So lazy!” She promised that she would keep nagging her daughter, who still lives at home, until she votes.
Nieves next persuaded a man named Jose, who works in the service industry, to vote early. He said he would go on Tuesday, his day off. A few houses later, a man who has not voted since the 2008 election said he will definitely vote for Clinton. “If I opened the garage, you’d see a bumper sticker for Hillary,” he said. “No Trump, no Trump, no Trump,” an apron-clad woman named Consuela, who was preparing a dinner of chicken and chickpeas for her grandchildren, said on the next block.
An Ecuadorian immigrant in her late 70s answered the door in a bathrobe. “You can leave whatever you want as long as it is not for that crazy loon,” she said in Spanish, referring to Trump, when she saw the pile of political brochures in Nieves’s hand. “I am for Hillary,” the canvasser replied. Then the woman’s husband, Humberto Nunes, came to the door and heard the pitch. The couple agreed to go vote for Clinton and Patrick Murphy first thing the next morning.
— The influx of Latinos into the Orlando area has been dramatic. Kissimmee is in Osceola County. In 2004, George W. Bush beat John Kerry in this county by 5 points. In 2012, Obama crushed Mitt Romney by 25 points.
Many Puerto Ricans fleeing the debt crisis in the U.S. territory have settled here. They are already American citizens so can easily register to vote in Florida. The state’s Puerto Rican population, in excess of 1 million people, has doubled over 15 years. Experts say 1,000 new Puerto Rican families are re-settling in the state every month.
Kissimmee is in Alan Grayson’s House district. Grayson vacated the seat to unsuccessfully seek the Democratic nomination for Senate. He threw his support behind his wife in the open primary to succeed him, but she lost to a Puerto Rican state senator. It is just the latest way that an emerging community is flexing its muscle.
— Various efforts to register new voters have already paid off for the left. Only 45 percent of the 493,000 people who have registered to vote in Florida since the start of August are white. Democrats expanded their voter registration advantage by almost 70,000 over the course of the summer, so they go into this election with a 327,000 registration advantage statewide.
— A surprising number of low propensity voters have voted early so far. About 3.73 million ballots have already been cast in Florida, compared to a total of 8.5 million votes that were cast in 2012, including on Election Day. More than 400,000 of the registered Democrats who have voted early have either not voted in the past three elections or voted just once. Among Republicans, that number is 336,000. Of the nearly 200,000 registered Hispanic Democrats who have already voted, 50 percent fall into that category. Through the weekend, 70 percent of early voters have been white, compared to 14 percent Hispanic and 11 percent African American. (Hispanics account for about 16 percent of Florida’s registered voters.)
Mobilizing the voters who are with you is far more important than persuading new ones to support you at this point. “This is a state all about managing these micro margins,” said Steve Schale, a Tallahassee-based operative who directed Obama’s efforts in Florida and has been crunching these numbers every day. “She has a 1 point to 1.5 point demographic advantage built in. The blocking and tackling at the doors … is where we are at in this election. It’s a huge funnel of people. You’re just trying to get as many people out of the bottom as possible.”
— The Florida canvassers with Center for Community Change Action have faced off with humidity and Hurricane Matthew. When the Zika virus became a problem, the door knockers who work out of the three offices in Miami-Dade County, got extra rations of mosquito repellant.
They have learned many lessons during four months on the ground. When they first started knocking doors in June, the walkers carried flyers that included a big picture of Trump. It was an unflattering image, but they discovered that it made the Hispanics less likely to engage. Seeing the picture and not speaking English, they assumed the people coming to their door were representatives from the Trump campaign. Trump’s image now does not appear in any of their materials.
Nieves said she was chased by dogs in one development recently. In another, someone anonymously called the cops on her. Organizers are advised not to wear black, gold or red – to avoid being mistaken as somehow affiliated with area street gangs. She goes with the non-controversial color grey.
— CCCA has similar, but smaller, programs to drive low-propensity turnout in Nevada and Colorado. Using the most sophisticated social science research on social pressure, the group is experimenting with various efforts to make sure these voters follow through when they commit to vote. During phone banks, canvassers do what they call “catch-and-release calls.” If someone agrees to vote, they are asked to record a brief message about why it is important. Before Election Day, they receive an automated call and the message is replayed to them. Mailers are going out in the days before the election that detail their voting history in comparison to their neighbors. This makes people uncomfortable, but it is effective. “Most campaigns don’t want to invest the money to get the hardest voters,” said Chris Torres, the national campaign director for the group’s Immigrant Voter Project. “Everything we’re doing is additive to what the campaign is going to be doing.”
— The Clinton campaign, which cannot coordinate with these groups, has carefully customized its own pitch for Latinos. Their field office in Kissimmee opened in August and is full of bilingual staffers. You cannot listen to Spanish-language radio stations here without hearing ads from Clinton about Puerto Rico’s debt crisis. The campaign took special care to get the accent of the narrator just right. (The speaker in Clinton’s ad in Miami has a Cuban accent…) Trump has run no ads in Spanish. The communications team has also worked to pitch stories to Puerto Rican newspapers, in hopes that the people who have moved to Orlando still read their traditional news sources from San Juan.
In places like Arizona and Nevada, which have large numbers of Mexican-Americans, Clinton’s ads emphasize Trump’s promise to build a border wall. If you listen carefully, that’s not part of the Clinton paid media in Florida. Puerto Ricans are already citizens, and the wall is not a concern for the Cuban community. But many are offended by other insensitive remarks Trump has made about the broader community.
— One week out from Election Day, a red flag for Brooklyn: Nationally, early voting has increased sharply among Hispanics – a sign that anti-Trump backlash will indeed materialize at the polls. “But African Americans are turning out in smaller numbers than they did with Obama on the ticket,” Dave Weigel reports. “Early returns show a boost in turnout in heavily Latino counties and a decline in largely African American ones (in Florida). In a state such as Nevada, where Democrats are relying heavily on Latinos, early returns show they are voting in similar numbers as in 2012, boosting Democratic chances. But in battleground states such as Ohio where Democrats are counting on African Americans to put them over the top, they could be in trouble…”