DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Sen. Tim Kaine, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, came to the stage here on Tuesday and quickly reminded a racially diverse crowd that it was his second visit to Florida in 10 days.
“I think you can see that to the Clinton team, Florida is really, really important to us,” Kaine (D-Va.) told the crowd at Daytona State College. “You’re really important to us.”
Florida is always critical in a presidential election, but this year, Daytona Beach, home to the nation’s most popular NASCAR race, could prove especially important. Situated in Volusia County, the city sits at the far eastern end of the “I-4 corridor” of swing voters that stretches from Daytona Beach, through Orlando out west to Tampa. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is scheduled to hold a rally at a convention center here on Wednesday.
“The real significance is you have a bunch of middle-income families moving into this region,” said Susan MacManus, a distinguished professor of political science at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “Swing counties are often swing counties because the middle class is a larger share of the vote. It can go both ways.”
In Volusia County, both campaigns will be wooing those new, younger families but also an influx of Hispanic voters, many of them recent transplants from economically distressed Puerto Rico. In 2012, the county went for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney narrowly — by just one percentage point. In 2008, Barack Obama won the region by nearly five points.
Hispanics accounted for nearly 13 percent of the county population last year — a modest number, but a fast-growing bloc in a closely watched county. The Clinton campaign especially sees the county’s Puerto Rican population as important, and that importance was on display at Tuesday’s event.
Across Florida, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is running a targeted television advertising campaign and is poised to launch Latina-to-
Latina phone banks targeting Hispanic voters in South and Central Florida. Trump is relying on a statewide voter-outreach program run by the Republican National Committee that party leaders consider their best in the country. He is also wooing Hispanic pastors in hopes of winning over their flocks.
Kaine’s stop Tuesday at the college was focused on jobs, but there were several nods to the rapidly growing Latino population and the issues they face. The senator took the stage with Maritza Avila-Vasquez, president of the Democratic Hispanic Caucus of Volusia County. A Puerto Rican, she relocated to Florida after living in New York City and is married to a disabled Vietnam War veteran. Her daughter is a civilian employee of the Air Force.
“We are Hispanic, and a very proud military Hispanic family,” Avila-Vasquez said, drawing hearty applause from a racially mixed audience. She warned that Trump would “devastate communities like ours.”
“He says wages are too high,” Avila-Vasquez said. “I don’t know where he’s from.”
As Kaine spoke, several young Latinos were among the 10 people seated on the stage behind him, along with students and instructors from the college’s culinary school.
Early in his remarks, Kaine recalled the time he spent in Honduras working with Jesuit missionaries and broke out into several lines of Spanish. Later, he told the crowd in Spanish that “the details matter,” an effort to contrast Clinton’s policy proposals with what he characterized as a thin agenda offered by Trump.
Kaine also criticized Trump for making dismissive comments about the governor of New Mexico, who is a Latina, and a federal judge who is of Mexican descent.
“Those aren’t the values of our country,” he said.
The Clinton campaign’s aggressive targeting of Latino voters in Florida carries the immediate aim of making sure as many as possible are registered to vote or get re-registered if they are new arrivals from Puerto Rico. The campaign already has “a few hundred” staffers on the ground, according to a Clinton aide. The vast majority are field staff, many of them focused on registration efforts.
Before Kaine took the stage Tuesday, the crowd heard from Nina Santiago, a Volusia County field organizer. She addressed the crowd partially in Spanish, recalling that growing up, she was often bullied and came home from school with bruises. She added that the Clinton-Kaine ticket would stand up for people like her.
“I’m asking you to stand here for an America where no one can bully you,” she said.
Clinton’s outreach has included advertising on Spanish-language radio stations and the mobilization of a large number of local elected officials and prominent community activists. In coming weeks, the campaign also plans to bring in outside surrogates, including politicians and entertainers.
Republicans, meanwhile, already have 71 staffers deployed statewide working out of 20 national, state or county GOP offices, according to RNC aides. Since June, GOP volunteers have knocked on 300,000 doors statewide, the work of 400 “neighborhood teams” recruited by those paid staffers. A party-run fellowship program has also trained 600 party faithful in the art of grass-roots political organizing. So far, the RNC and Republican Party of Florida have spent a combined $2 million on voter outreach this year, according to Chris Young, the RNC’s national field director.
“It’s the best team we have in the country, and they’re some of our most experienced operatives. We never take Florida lightly, and that’s why we haven’t left since 2013,” he said in an interview.
Ultimately, the Clinton campaign should have an easier time wooing Florida’s Hispanic voters. In an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll last month, 50 percent of Latino registered voters in Florida said they would support Clinton, compared with 29 percent for Trump. Four years ago, Florida Hispanics voted for Obama over Romney by a margin of 60 percent to 39 percent. In the 2012 presidential election, 17 percent of voters in Florida were Hispanic or Latino, according to exit polls. That number is expected to be higher this year.
Despite his unpopularity, Trump’s outreach to Florida’s Hispanic voters has been more intimate, focused especially on winning over evangelical Christians.
Mario Bramnick, a senior pastor based in Cooper City, Fla., and a senior leader of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, said he has met with Trump three times since March. Another meeting that was set to take place at Miami’s famed Versailles Cuban restaurant was postponed when Trump canceled campaign appearances after last month’s police shooting in Dallas.
But Bramnick said that he and nearly two dozen other Latino conservative leaders met privately with Trump and his running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, last week in South Florida. The meeting allowed the candidates to update the local leaders on the state of the campaign and to make a direct appeal for support. Much more is expected in the coming weeks, Bramnick said.
“All indications are that he is in communication with us, he is interested in outreach to the Hispanic community, and he is interested in the plight of our constituencies,” he added.
O’Keefe reported from Washington.