ALTAMONTE SPRINGS, Fla. — 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.
“People are sick and tired of people who can’t even speak English, who have been here 30 years and are milking dry all of our resources,” said Wilkenfeld, who is white and plans to be the “first one out the door” to vote in the Nov. 6 election. “I think a big surprise is coming — a big red wave is coming.”
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.
Suero, who is of Puerto Rican and Costa Rican descent, counts numerous African American, Asian and mixed-race families as her neighbors. She also is eager to vote.
“Even though [Trump] says he is not racist, he is racist . . . and he only cares about himself,” said Suero, who is raising three mixed-race children and is leaning toward voting for Democratic candidates this year. “I think he is a spoiled brat.”
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.
A Washington Post review of U.S. Census data shows just how divided the state has become demographically, and how much Democratic hopes here largely rest on motivating younger voters to head the polls.
Florida’s population of nonwhite young adults continues to surge and now outpaces the growth of older white residents. The trends create even more uncertainty in a state already known for close elections, especially in fast-growing areas such as here in Seminole County.
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.
As Democrats look to rebound both this year and in future elections, they have been closely examining whether the state’s minority population will rival or surpass the influence of older whites — while retaining their partisan allegiance.
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.
Once known for one of nation’s largest celery crops, this county directly north of Orlando grew rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s as retirees, often conservative, flocked here to escape northern winters.
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.
Those younger, more diverse residents have been eroding Republicans’ grip on Seminole County. Although 55 percent of white voters over the age of 50 remain registered Republicans, according to the county elections bureau, only 13 percent of nonwhite voters under age 50 are registered with the party.
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.
Rob Bial, the chairman of the Seminole County Democrats, said he expects an energized local party to lift Nelson and Gillum to victory in the county this year.
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.
“What we saw after 2016 is a combination of voters, not just minorities, but a lot of folks who considered themselves to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative, make a choice that ‘the GOP and this party of Trump isn’t for me anymore,’ ” Bial said.
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.
“Liberals just want to give, give, give, and if you give, someone has got to pay for it,” said Mike Goodall, 67, a retired utility worker in Winter Springs, Fla., who plans to vote for Republican candidates.
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.
At Eastmonte Park, located on South Ronald Reagan Boulevard, Little League Baseball enrollment has been consistently growing by about 20 percent per season.
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.”
“I’m Hispanic, and he doesn’t go for our side,” said Torres, a truck driver with three children.
But Torres appeared far more interested in the 2020 presidential race than this year’s midterms. Torres said he likes Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), who is considering a bid for a president, but 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.
“Yes, demographics still matter and do play well in determining which way people are going to vote, but voters are smarter than that,” Owens said. “Conversations matter more, and people are no longer just falling for the last 30-second ad they saw on TV.”
Suero, the mother of three from Altamonte Springs, said she plans to vote for Nelson in the U.S. Senate race. But as a mother whose children attend private schools, she said she still wants to learn more about Gillum’s stance on private school vouchers. DeSantis has vowed to expand the program.
Having those sorts of conversations with voters is now a top priority of Democratic-allied groups in Seminole County.
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.
“I’m voting because I don’t need another person like Trump in office,” said Passion Robinson, 22, a Haitian American who was seven months pregnant but still stopped to register to vote outside a Walmart in Sanford earlier this month.
But Seminole County Democrats still need to win over residents like Elsie Acosta, a 65-year-old who moved to Florida from Puerto Rico in the late 1980s. She lives in Wilkenfeld and Suero’s Altamonte Springs neighborhood and works two jobs as a hotel and house cleaner.
“Every year, my son and daughter keep telling me I need to vote, but I don’t have time when you work 7 to 11,” said Acosta, who is not pleased with Trump but isn’t sure if she’s a Democrat, either.
“Maybe I’ll do it,” Acosta continued. “Next year.”