TALLAHASSEE — Republicans have seen a surge in registered voters in Florida since the start of the year, cutting the Democrats overall advantage to the thinnest in state history and giving Donald Trump's presidential campaign more reason to be hopeful.
Since January, the number of registered voters in Florida has jumped by 377,000 with nearly 60 percent of that within the Republican ranks — a sign that Trump is drawing voters to the party, his campaign argues. Democrats now have a 259,000 vote edge over Republicans — only half of what it was four years ago.
"It is a difference maker," Karen Giorno, Trump's chief strategist in Florida, said of the gain and the packed rallies that demonstrate enthusiasm for Trump.
There's no doubt that the March 15 primary, which Trump won with 46 percent of the vote, drew a flurry of new members to the Republican Party. It added 154,000 between January and March. Democrats gained only 88,000 during the same period, according to Florida's Division of Elections.
But those gains might be an exaggeration of overall Republican support in a general election, said University of Florida political science professor Daniel A. Smith.
In January and February, many who were registered with minor parties, like the Reform Party, or claimed "no party affiliation" shifted to Republican so they could vote in the GOP presidential primary. Smith said those voters were already likely Republican voters, so it doesn't indicate a significant swing come November.
Since the primary, Republicans have added 68,000 — which is on par with what Democrats have been picking up.
Smith said the overall trend remains that voters are increasingly picking neither major party. The number of voters with minor parties or no party affiliations has climbed from 22 percent in 2008 to 26 percent now. Registrations for both major parties dropped during the same period.
With recent polls showing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at least five percentage points ahead, Democrats call predictions of Florida growing more Republican "laughable."
Sure, there is a chance Republicans could get more voter registrations, but that does not change how the state has been performing, said Scott Arceneaux, the executive director of the Florida Democratic Party and a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.
Arceneaux points to demographic data that shows more than 1.9 million of Florida's 12.4 million voters — or 15 percent of the electorate — identifies themselves as Hispanic. Four years ago, Florida had 1.7 million voters out of 11.9 million, or 14 percent, listed as Hispanic.
"Florida is getting younger and more diverse," Arceneaux said.
The Hispanic vote is significant for Trump, given that some nationwide public polling has shown more than 80 percent of Hispanics disapprove of him.
But Giorno isn't buying that number. She said there is almost a secret or "silent" Trump vote within Hispanic communities. She said some voters have told her they support Trump but are afraid of a backlash if they came out publicly for him. When election day rolls around, Giorno predicted Trump will do better with Hispanic voters in Florida than so-called experts think.
"I just don't believe those numbers," Giorno said.
In raw numbers, Republicans gained 66,000 more voters than Democrats since January. Giorno said given that President Barack Obama won the state by just 73,000 votes, the numbers show Florida is winnable for Trump.
It is just a matter of time before Florida will have a majority of registered Republicans, said Blaise Ingoglia, the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.
"It is inevitable and there is nothing Democrats can do to stop it," Ingoglia said.
The presidential primary campaign drew more voters into the Republican Party, but also, Ingoglia said the party has targeted voters in midsized and rural parts of the state where voters have been Democrats for generations, yet vote Republican in presidential races. He said the party has made it a priority to switch those types of voters.
In Tampa Bay, Republican registrations have mirrored statewide increases since January. In Hernando, Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas combined, Republicans increased their numbers by 23,000 voters. Democrats increased their total by just under 20,000. Combined, those four counties have 665,000 Republicans compared to 693,000 Democrats. The Democrats margin over Republicans shrank by more than 6,600 since January, the new numbers show.
In South Florida, the voter registration trend is different. In both Miami-Dade and Broward, Democrats grew their voter registration advantage over Republicans since January. In Miami-Dade, the Democrats advantage went from 170,000 over Republicans to 187,000. In Broward, the advantage went from 312,000 to 322,000.