TAMPA — The race to win Florida is close, so carrying any bloc of voters could help push either presidential candidate over the top.
That’s why the campaigns of Donald Trump and Joe Biden are targeting the state’s Latinos — a group that has grown by more than 8 percent since the 2016 elections, and now accounts for one in five of Florida’s eligible voters, according to a Pew Research study this year.
But the candidates can’t count on Latinos to vote as a bloc. While polls vary widely on who they favor, an NBC-Marist survey last month showed an even split in Florida between Trump and Biden at 48 percent while Monmouth University gave the Democrat the edge in the state at 58 percent to 32 percent.
Interviews with a dozen Latino voters across Tampa Bay, from Dade City to Ruskin, bear out the numbers. In precincts with the heaviest concentrations of Latino voters, the issues likely to draw people to a candidate are as diverse as their roots. No single strategy seems likely to win them all over.
What’s more, the candidates face a generational challenge: There are more younger people among Latinos than in the population as a whole.
Raymundo Herrera, 61, is a Democrat and a native of Mexico who became a U.S. citizen in 2011. He lives in Dade City, home to two of the 10 most heavily Latino precincts in Pasco County. Immigration is a driving issue as Herrera prepares to cast his ballot by mail for Biden.
“I have voted for some Republicans in the county in the past,” he said in Spanish. "I would like to see a path to legalizing all the undocumented who have come here to better themselves. They are people who are hard-working individuals and help the economy.”
Hillary Padilla, 19, is the eldest of three daughters of a Mexican-Brazilian couple who are in the United States illegally. Padilla, born in New York, will be the first in her family to vote in a U.S. election.
Padilla lives in Ruskin, where those with no party affiliation outnumber Republicans like her nearly 3-1 among Latino voters in the heavily Latino precinct that casts ballots at Calvary Lutheran Church.
“I will vote for Trump, because I think the economy is growing,” Padilla said. “The Trump administration is strong, and it is supporting business and education. Not everything has been satisfactory. There are many difficulties and problems for immigrants. But politics is like that — sometimes, it’s not fair.”
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One priority does seem to unite Latino voters: Increasing access and lowering costs for health care, according to an August survey in Florida and five other key states by the Voter Participation Center, a nonprofit working to boost turnout among people of color. Next on the list of concerns, the poll said: discrimination, racism and immigrant rights.
Fueling concerns over health care is the disproportionate share of Latinos infected by the coronavirus or laid off from a job as the pandemic saps the economy.
Rather than driving Latinos to vote, however, the virus threatens to divert attention from the election, said Joshua M. Scacco, an associate professor in the Communications Department at the University of South Florida. So do mixed messages about whether mail-in ballots are a safe alternative to risking infection at crowded polls on Election Day, he said.
“The challenge for all campaigns this year," Scacco said, "will be tying messaging to the very serious impediments that, for many individuals, stand in the way of voting — whether that’s a job, or health insecurity, or disinformation perpetuated by some elected officials about how ballots are cast.”
One reason for the higher number of coronavirus cases among Latinos is that many have remained on the job since the pandemic broke seven months ago.
"We occupy the jobs that Americans don’t want to do,” said Juan Manuel Gómez, 43, a Colombian immigrant who works five days a week assembling electrical transformers at a General Electric plant in Clearwater. “And now, nobody wants to lose their job.”
Most of his co-workers are Latino and European immigrants who came to the United States as political refugees, Gómez said in Spanish.
For many Latinos, he said, the election is a referendum on Trump — balancing what they see as his economic achievements against poor immigration management.
“The government needs to change its tone when it comes to immigrants, and I’m sure it will,” said Gómez, a registered Republican who will be voting for the first time since he arrived in the United States 11 years ago. He lives in Clearwater, home to three of the 10 most heavily Latino precincts in Pinellas County.
“In the end, the search for economic stability means I’ll support Trump," Gómez said. “He defends liberty, religion, supports prayer and doesn’t agree with abortion."
He added, "I don’t talk about it because there are many haters.”
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Engracia Cid left the Dominican Republic and came to the United States in 1982, when she was 23. She lived under three Republican and two Democratic administrations before she became a citizen and voted in 2012 for the reelection of President Barack Obama.
At 61, she has three adult children and lives in a mobile home in Tampa. Tampa is home to seven of Hillsborough’s 10 most heavily Latino precincts, with the other three in the south county communities of Ruskin, Wimauma and Gibsonton.
Cid worries about jobs and believes the government should play a role in providing health care coverage to all. She suffers from diabetes and was out of work more than a year before landing a part-time position registering new voters with the nonprofit Mi Familia Vota.
Cid plans to vote for Biden.
“I don’t want a leader who continues to divide the country," she said in Spanish. “We have so many problems and so much drama with Trump and his racist policies. I think we need a transparent government that supports the working class and immigrants.”
Peruvian-born Gloria Mendoza of Land O' Lakes is a Democrat but said partisan ties will not necessarily secure her vote in November. Mendoza, 58, is a wife, mother of an adult daughter and a social worker with the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.
“I still don’t know who I’m going to vote for,” she said. “The only thing that is clear to me is that I’m a person who is more oriented towards the economy and education. More financial stability means more opportunities.”
Events and developments in the Caribbean and Latin America often help inform how Latinos vote in Florida. In many cases, loyalties fall along partisan lines.
Republican candidates have long enjoyed support among Cubans who fled for South Florida after the takeover of the island nation by Fidel Castro in 1959 and his embrace of socialism.
Similarly, Florida has taken in some of the 140,000 refugees or asylum-seekers across the United States who have left Venezuela as the once-stable nation deteriorates under the leadership of Cuban ally Nicolás Maduro. All told, three-fourths of the Venezuelans in the U.S. are foreign-born and half live in Florida.
Many of these immigrants have attained U.S. citizenship and will turn out for Trump. He has reinstituted restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba and recognized a political rival as president of Venezuela while calling for sanctions against the Maduro government.
Many Puerto Ricans, on the other hand, have not forgiven Trump for what they see as his failure to provide adequate aid to the U.S. territory after a series of natural disasters starting with Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Georges Habalian, 40, of Tampa, was born in Venezuela and welcomes Trump’s hard line against the Maduro government.
A husband and father of a 10-year-old son, Habalian works in information technology and voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. He switched parties in 2018 and plans to vote by mail for Trump this year.
“President Trump’s behavior is probably not in line with history and good manners, but it is effective and other countries look at us with respect,” Habalian said in Spanish. “Biden is a stellar person with many qualities, but he is a rather older man and I think that can impact the presidency.”
People of Puerto Rican heritage account for the largest share of Hillsborough County’s Latino population, followed by Cubans and Mexicans.
Puerto Ricans Modesto and Gilda Escalera of Ruskin, both 71 and registered Republicans, said they will cross party lines to vote for Biden.
“The economy is doing well, but the U.S. is a country of immigrants," said Modesto Escalera, a retired electrical engineer. "We want to return to normal relations with the international community and for the government to protect the environment.
“Otherwise, what will happen to future generations?”
Among the issues that concern Gilda Escalera, who worked in Puerto Rico as an emergency management officer, are the handling of the pandemic and vandalism that has occurred during human rights protests and counterprotests.
“I have lost confidence in this government, and public institutions like the Centers for Disease Control, because of the coronavirus,” she said. “One thing is clear: You don’t have to be an expert to understand that some things are being mishandled.”
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Still, more and more, the Latino vote is up for grabs as people register neither Republican nor Democrat but “no-party affiliation.”
Across Tampa Bay, Latino voters registering with no affiliation outnumber Republicans and are inching closer to the lead that Democrats hold among the demographic. This is true in Hillsborough and Pinellas, where Democrats hold a majority overall, as well as in Pasco, a strongly Republican county.
Lucy Araiza, 22, recently graduated in marine science from the University of Tampa and is registered with no affiliation. Araiza voted for the first time while living in Texas in 2016, casting her ballot for Clinton as a rejection of Donald Trump.
She wishes Trump and Biden spoke more directly to the concerns of young voters — climate change, for example, and protecting the environment. She may vote this time for Biden, or she may not.
“I’m considering it, but at the same time, I don’t want to do it," said Araiza, who lives in Tampa and is the daughter of Mexican and Puerto Rican parents. "I would like to feel that there are voices that could represent me, but I think that now I am choosing between two evils.”
Another non-partisan voter, 25-year-old Lacho Palomo of Largo, also is considering sitting out the election.
“I don’t want to take this lightly, because we are talking about our future,” said Palomo, who has worked in construction and other jobs since he was laid off from the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa because of the pandemic.
Still, he said, he’s unsatisfied with Trump and Biden. "So to me, a blank vote is another kind of vote.”
Palomo, who has Mexican roots, said in Spanish that he hopes the next president will support small business because he believes the working class depends on it.
“Just ending 2020 doesn’t mean that all the bad things are gone,” he said. "It carries on until somebody makes a decision and who better to make a decision than the ones in office.”
Juan Rodríguez, a 60-year-old Mexican immigrant who lives in Clearwater, said he can’t understand why any eligible Latino voter would hesitate to cast a ballot.
“I’m counting the days," said Rodríguez, a father of three and a former farmworker who became a citizen two years ago. This will be his first time voting in America.
“I want to vote against Trump and pray for better jobs so more people can pay their rents and have more opportunities to improve their lives,” he said in Spanish.
It’s likely that many Latino voters will sit out the election, said Pablo Brescia, professor of Spanish and director of the Diversity Committee at the University of South Florida. One reason, Brescia said, is that many immigrants have little interest in who represents them in Congress and in state and local government.
One-third of Latinos in the United States are foreign-born, according to a Pew Research Center report in September 2019.
“It is not due to their education,” he said. "Rather, it’s a lack of information and interest in the political affairs of this country.”
Other factors in this lack of interest include the coronavirus, the economic crisis and the intimidation they feel from a government that marginalizes immigrants and Latinos in general, Brescia said.
“It would be a great mistake not to exercise the right to vote,” he said, "and leave things in the hands of others.”
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Latinos hardest hit by the pandemic actually are more likely to vote, so they can hold government leaders accountable, according to a recent poll conducted in Florida, Arizona and Texas by the civic advocacy group UnidosUS and research group Latino Decisions.
The poll gives Biden the edge among Latino voters in all three states, by a margin of 15 points in Florida, 28 in Texas and 29 in Arizona.
If Florida Latinos do exercise their political power, expect them to become a game-changer in the presidential race, said J. Edwin Benton, a professor in the USF School of Interdisciplinary Global Studies. They’re growing as a share of the voters in a state that ranks No. 3 for electoral votes.
In the long run, their votes also can drive policy on issues of importance to them, Benton said, including retirement, the environment, social and racial justice and achieving the American dream.
“Neither the Democratic nor Republican presidential candidates can afford to ignore this large bloc of potential voters," he said.
Padilla, the 19-year-old from Ruskin who will be voting for the first time, dreams of entering the armed forces to serve her country, study for a career and along the way, help support her mother and two younger sisters. Her father died two years ago from cancer.
She is coming to realize the responsibility of taking part in the democratic process.
“It is a serious thing. You are voting for your future and the stability of your family. It is a decision that will follow you for quite some time.”
Staff writer Ivy Ceballo contributed to this report.