There are few axioms in American presidential politics that are as celebrated and oft-repeated as, “the road to the White House goes through Florida.”
Rich in electoral votes and comprised by a politically diverse electorate, the Sunshine State is often regarded as the swing state jackpot, par excellence. No candidate can afford to ignore Florida; and few can expect to win the presidency without it.
The electoral importance that has accrued to Florida over the last several decades has had an impact on the state’s large Latino population. The historically vote-rich Latino areas of South Florida, dominated for decades by Cuban exiles and Cuban-Americans, were regular stops for presidential aspirants.
No campaign swing through Dade County was complete without a photo-op-worthy visit to Versailles, where the cortaditos flowed and the conversations and campaign promises typically revolved around U.S. policy toward the Castro regime in Cuba.
But in American politics, as in everything else, times change. The Cuban exile population in South Florida has become older and the Cuban-American population has become less focused on the Castros and Cuba and more focused on domestic issues such as healthcare and civil rights. Relatedly, the once-solidly Cuban Republican vote in Miami, Hialeah, and Westchester has become less monolithic in its political preferences.
The most important change that has taken place in Florida, however, has been the growing diversification of the state’s Latino communities. From Miami-Dade County to Osceola and Orange Counties, Colombians, Venezuelans, Dominicans and, most significantly, Puerto Ricans are fundamentally reshaping what it means to be a Latino in Florida.
Recently, Hispanic Federation, in partnership with Nielsen, released a report, Latinos in Central Florida: The Growing Hispanic Presence in the Sunshine State, that highlights some of the significant changes taking place in Latino Florida, with a special focus on central counties of the state. After decades of taking a backseat to the communities in Miami and Tampa, Central Florida has emerged as ground-zero in the transformation of Florida’s Latino electorate.
Demographic increases, geographic concentration, youth; these are the characteristics that define Florida’s new Latino communities. But behind the dynamic growth there are some challenges. Challenges that may undercut Latino political power in the state come November.
For one thing, we found that Latinos in Central Florida tended to register to vote at rates significantly lower than their non-Latino peers. While 80 percent of all Floridians are registered to vote, among Latinos in Orlando the rate is just 66 percent. And it’s not just the lower voter registration rates that are troubling.
When asked whether they vote in local elections, 60 percent of Latinos in Orlando said they never vote in local contest; and only 20 percent said they always do. And while nearly 7 out of every ten Floridians say they always vote in presidential elections, less than half of Latinos in Orlando say the same. In fact, 40 percent of Latinos in Orlando and 41 percent of Latino in Tampa said they never vote in presidential elections.
The disproportionately low political participation among Latinos in Central Florida poses real problems. Without a strong voice in government, Latinos in the state will continue to deal with lower educational attainment rates, low-wage jobs, and fewer opportunities for economic success.
Decades of research tells us that Latino voter turnout rates increase when voters are engaged with the issues and the political process. That’s why the Hispanic Federation and other Latino civil rights organizations have been investing so many resources to carry out civic engagement efforts in Florida.
We not only help potential voters to register, but also provide civic education and voter mobilization activities so that voters understand what’s at stake when they head to the polls.
Our goal is very simple: get more Latino Floridians registered and to the polls on November 8th than in any presidential election in history. We have already registered thousands of Latinos in the state and will be working to register thousands more before the October 11th registration deadline.
None of this work is easy but too much is at stake in this election to sit on the sidelines. If the road to the White House truly goes through Florida, it also goes right through Central Florida’s Latino communities.
José Calderón is president of the Hispanic Federation. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org
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