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A road trip through the 'three Floridas' that could decide the election

Two Univision News reporters hit the road to explore how Floridians feel about the upcoming election.
2 Sep 2016 – 01:16 PM EDT
A gun store in northern Florida. Crédito: Federica Narancio

Univision News hit the road to analyze the “three Floridas” – regions so diverse that it's hard to believe they could be part of the same state. These areas are crucial to the election; Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump may need to win them to take the White House in November.

South Florida is largely Democratic, and at times is more reminiscent of Latin America than the United States. The rural, conservative north looks more like neighboring Alabama or Georgia. The center has a bit of both, and very often tips the electoral scales. But the three regions have one thing in common: Hispanics are increasingly important. They might even decide the presidential election.


Hispanic Republican David Triana, who’s against Trump, has had to unfriend two people recently on Facebook.

One of them is part of the Republican committee of Okaloosa County, in northwestern Florida, a conservative stronghold. Trump won the Republican primary there in March with 45.1% of the vote.

"She was crossing my personal line on immigrants, using aggressive words to refer to them as 'invaders' and calling for deporting them all," Triana, a local Hispanic leader explains.

This retired soldier and U.S. citizen of Mexican origin declined to give the person’s name, but described her as a “Trump groupie.”

Ironically, as we spoke to him, that very woman wrote a text message to Triana to ask if Trump's campaign could attend a Hispanic festival in September that Triana is organizing.

Is it part of a new electoral strategy to try to appeal to black and Hispanic minorities? If so, Triana thinks it’s too late to win votes, but he says the doors of the festival are open for all parties and candidates.

In Conexión, a newspaper he founded for the Hispanic community, he called for a “battle against [the] intolerance" of the presidential candidate.

It’s a lonely crusade: Triana says he hasn’t met many Republicans in northern Florida who are against Trump’s anti-immigrant stance.

With respect to the two people he deleted from Facebook to avoid further confrontation, he says he feels disappointed. "They are good people who have fallen into this gentleman’s trap.”


We chatted with Triana in a Mexican taqueria in the beach town of Fort Walton, in Okaloosa County.

The taqueria is next to a supermarket that sells Mexican and Central American products. There, most customers speak Spanish. Piñatas shaped like princesses or motorcycles decorate the ceilings. Several Hispanic-owned shops sit on the same street, Beal Parkway.

“It’s going to become like the ‘Calle Ocho’ of Miami,” Triana says, referring to the emblematic street for Cubans in Miami.

Though it’s not quite there yet, several people in northwest Florida note that there has been a large increase of Hispanics in recent years, particularly Mexicans, Central Americans and Puerto Ricans.

Many are undocumented who come looking for work in areas like hospitality, construction and house-cleaning.

According to the Census, in 2010, 6.8% of people in Okaloosa County were of Hispanic origin, a percentage that climbed to 8.6% five years later.

It’s small compared to the total percentage of of Hispanics in the state, 23%, according to Pew figures. But in an area with so few Latinos to begin with, their arrival is slowly changing the face of the state’s northwest.


Amid the tranquility of the area, with its lush forests and white sandy beaches, the Latino community is worried.

Noemi Suarez, a Colombian evangelical pastor who has a church in Fort Walton, says several of her parishioners have talked to her about the fear they feel facing a possible Trump victory.

"If he’s elected and does what he says he will do, it will destroy many families and homes," she says.

But Suarez isn’t convinced by Clinton either, mainly because the candidate does not share her social values.

"What a mess. It’s a confusing environment," she concludes.

Day 6: Trump country, on the border with Alabama

Three taboo topics

A fake car-sized handgun welcomes visitors to the Pensacola Indoor Shooting Range. Many Floridians love guns. And Pensacola is home to many members of the armed forces and veterans who like to sharpen their shooting skills at a range.

John, one of the range employees, speaks for many of those gun lovers when he says that Clinton wants to abolish their right to bear arms.

“Just look up her record on the internet,” John says. He waited to speak to us until the end of his shift, to avoid sensitive topics in front of two co-workers. “In this area, you don't talk politics, religion or guns,” he adds. He's not joking.

“We're all military in this area. We fought to win this right, and we owe it to the Constitution to protect it,” he adds.

Florida has issued the most gun permits of any state, nearly 1.4 million, and ranks ninth in per-capita permits issued.

Trump has frightened gun lovers by accusing Clinton of planning to abolish the Second Amendment – which is not true. He's also said that the “Second Amendment people” could stop her candidacy, a statement viewed by many as a thinly veiled call to violence against her.

A 'for profit' candidate

In all past presidential elections, residents of overwhelmingly Republican Dixie County have received lawn signs, fliers and other political knick-knacks promoting GOP candidates. But not this year.

“Donald Trump is the first candidate to charge us for his political advertising,” said Rosaleen Lynar, a member of the local GOP Committee. Republican residents in this poor and isolated region have been calling the committee to ask for Trump signs. But when Lynar asked the Trump campaign for 50 garden signs, she got a bill for $350 – $7 per sign.

“The other candidates used to give us everything we asked for at no cost,” Lynar said, during a chat in the church hall where she teaches a manners class for little girls. “Well, I suppose that in the end that's a sign that Trump has good business practices,” she added jokingly.

Day 5: The further north you go, the more southern it feels

The county where Trump is most popular

Dixie County is home to tropical cowboys, big church crosses and weak cell signals. It's also the county where Trump won the highest percentage of the vote in Florida's March 15 GOP presidential primary – 63.4 percent.

The Republican candidate also won big in other parts of northern Florida, mostly rural and thinly populated areas that resemble Alabama, Georgia and other parts of the South.

The name Dixie is appropriate for the county. Confederate flags are a common sight here.

But Trump can’t settle for just his overwhelming victories in Dixie and other parts of north Florida. Only 1,103 Dixie residents voted for Trump in the primary. If he wants to beat Clinton in the presidential election on Nov. 8, he will need more votes in the liberal south and the undecided center.

Forbidden talk in a 'redneck' bar

Bubba's Place perfectly fits the stereotype of a U.S. roadside bar. It has a couple of pool tables, country music on the jukebox and patrons who smoke and order their beer by the plastic pitcher.

Surrounded by churches of all denominations, the bar is also a Sunday ritual in the area. “This is our religious service,” jokes waitress Cara Mathes.

Bubba's Place is in northwestern Florida, a conservative part of the state. We are told that bar clients can't talk about religion or politics. They also can't belch, adds one patron who promptly breaks that rule. We also break the rules, when we ask about the presidential elections.

Charles Judy, who's sitting next to us, says he doesn't know anyone in the area who will vote for Clinton, and neither will he. He's leaning toward Trump, but he's not sure. He says the business mogul “scares” him a bit, and has said “many stupid things.”

Judy points us to his friend, Anita Sanders, sitting on the other side of the bar. “Go talk to her. She's transgender. She's gotta have courage to come into a bar full of rednecks,” he says.

Sanders tells us that she's voting for Green Party candidate Jill Stein. “If I live that long,” she jokes. She's undergoing breast implant surgery in nearby Gainesville on Tuesday, and she's both excited and nervous.

“There are six or eight doctors in Gainesville who do this type of surgery, but only two of them will even talk to a transgender person,” Sanders says.

The “Trump effect” awakens the Muslim vote in Florida

Muslim student Ahlam Zehdi, 19, said she used to get around her hometown of Kissimmee, south of Orlando, without any worries. But that changed a few months ago. Now, she packs a pepper spray canister when she gets in her car or goes to class.

“When I turn on the TV I always see news about people who were hurt because of what they are or what they represent,” she said. She's referring to members of her Muslim community, which has been the target of Trump's anti-Islam rhetoric.

The young woman is attending a seminar this Sunday on how to register voters for the presidential election. Sixteen Muslim women turn up for the course at a Kissimmee mosque.

Muslims are mobilizing in unprecedented numbers for this election. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) estimates that 73 percent plan to vote in November. Less than 60 percent voted in 2012, according to CAIR, the largest Muslim organization in the United States.

In Florida, Muslim voters could be critically important in November. More than 300,000 Muslims are registered to vote in the state.

Zehdi will be voting for the first time, and says she will cast her vote for Clinton. She said she knows of many other Muslims who will participate in an election they consider to be “critical” for their community.

Clinton has been working hard to win the votes of people like Zehdi in Florida, a state that is critical for her hopes to win the White House. Her campaign has organized a coalition to mobilize the Muslim vote – the first time that's been done in the state.

Day 4: A Puerto Rican motorcade and a Muslim candidate in Orlando

Knock, knock.

Nuren Haider says she has knocked on “thousands and thousands” of doors since launching her candidacy in December for a seat on the Orange County Commission, which includes Orlando.

When they open their doors, voters find Haider, smiling and wearing the hijab, the veil traditionally worn by Muslim women. The reaction has not always been friendly.

“The worst that happened to me was when a man got his pistol and threatened me so I left the neighborhood,” said Haider.

The massacre at the Pulse gay club in Orlando June 12 and Trump's anti-Islam rhetoric have tainted relations between Muslims and some neighbors. The massacre coincided with the start of the final leg of Haider's campaign. She's running against three other candidates in a primary Tuesday.

She hasn't been intimidated by the Islamophobia shown by some of her neighbors. On the contrary: after taking a one-week break to mourn the Orlando massacre, she returned to her door-to-door campaign, and found the tragedy had sharpened both of the usual reactions to her veil. “The homes that were more loving are now even more loving. The homes that were hateful are now more hateful,” she said.

The 31-year-old lawyer says she wants to be a county commissioner to promote sustainable growth in the county, and regrets the fear and intolerance that the presidential campaign has generated. “When they come to the door, who do they see? The don't see Nuren Haider, candidate for District 1 in the Orange County Commission. They see me as a Muslim, and they treat me differently. And that's not right.”

“The taste of roast pork”

Think U.S. politics are bland? Some Puerto Ricans in central Florida have imported their island's tradition of organizing motorcades to support their candidates to give the 2016 campaign “the taste of roast pork,” referring to a traditional Puerto Rican food.

The idea is to motivate fellow Puerto Ricans, known as Boricuas, who have just arrived to the area and miss the color and rhythms of elections on the island, said Jimmy Torres, an activist with the group Boricua Vota.

On Saturday afternoon, about 20 cars paraded through the streets of Kissimmee as they blew their horns. They were led by an open-bed truck loaded with huge speakers that blasted Caribbean music, and a display promoting the Puerto Rican candidates in Tuesday's local and state primaries. Candidates and supporters waving Puerto Rican flags rode in the motorcade.

The size of the motorcades is modest when compared to those on the island. “This is a minimum, but it's just the start,” said Rubén Cosme, a labor union activist who moved to the area three years ago. “We are awakening the Boricua culture.”

Day 3: Kissimee, an increasingly Hispanic city in Disney's shadow

An enormous, plastic-looking castle looms in the distance. It's called Medieval Times, and offers tourists “a trip through the mists of time” to watch a joust between two medieval “knights” who fight on horseback.

Kissimmee has cheap and low-quality tourist attractions that serve as alternatives to neighboring Walt Disney World, a 10-minute drive away.

The city, south of Orlando, is a bit run down. But in the last few years it has received a massive flow of Hispanics, most of them Puerto Ricans, who are changing the face of the area.

The vote here will be critical for the presidential elections in November, as evidenced by the intensity of both campaigns here.

Trump held a recent rally in Kissimmee. Clinton opened a campaign office here two weeks ago, bringing her total number of campaign offices in Florida to 34. We arrived too late for its inauguration, but managed to check it out.

The perfect phone call

Clinton wants her volunteers in Kissimmee to round up the largest number of votes possible. That's why her campaign provides them with a list of do's and don'ts to follow when making telephone calls and doing door-to-door canvassing.


“Speak from the heart.”

“Be persistent. Knock on the door twice. If there's a doorbell, use it first. Knock as a second option. Ignore ‘No Soliciting’ signs. You're not selling anything.”

“Be polite, and say thanks.”


“Stay too long at one door, 5 minutes at the most. We want quantity as well as quality in the conversations. Avoid any hostility by voters. You will not persuade anyone by arguing with them.”

“Go inside any homes. Safety comes first. If voters invite you in, decline politely.”

And something super important

It may look like a normal scene, but what happens every morning at the entrance to Unidos Supermarket in a modest residential neighborhood of Kissimmee could have a powerful influence on the outcome of the race between Trump and Clinton.

That's where five activists from Mi Familia Vota – My Family Votes – greet shoppers and offer to help them register to vote.

Many area residents are Puerto Ricans, like Gabriel Rodríguez and Carmen Delgado, retirees who moved to Florida a year ago as part of the exodus sparked by the island's economic woes. Puerto Ricans can vote in presidential elections if they live in the continental United States, but not if they live on the island.

Registering to vote is as easy as filling out a short form with personal details. If the 250,000 Puerto Ricans estimated to have moved to Florida since 2012 actually vote, their ballots are likely to have a decisive impact on the state's results, which have historically swung between Democratic and Republican candidates. In a tight election, they might well decide which candidates makes it to the White House.

But will Puerto Rican voters really turn out on Nov. 8? Will they tip Florida's electoral balance to the Democratic candidate? Will they shatter the Republicans' hopes of winning Florida?

What new voters will do on Nov. 8 is unknown, but Rodríguez and Delgado say they will certainly vote for Clinton.

“We are with Clinton because we need people who support our race,” said Rodríguez.

Day 2: Looking at a crystal ball

Our Florida travels start in bellwether Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa.

Bellwether is a common word in U.S. politics. It's used for counties or states where the majority of voters often follow national trends, and they can be used to predict the winners of presidential elections.

Ohio is the state commonly deemed a bellwether for the national vote, as is Vigo County in Indiana. But in Florida, it's Hillsborough County, where voters have favored the winner of every presidential race since 1960, with the exception of the 1992 election.

The tolls that Trump's RV offices will have to pay

Trump doesn't have a lot of campaign offices in Florida, but says he plans to open 25 in the next few weeks. The business mogul has opted for a simple yet smart way of covering territory in the huge state: Trump campaign RVs that cruise the state registering voters and handing out ads.

What's the advantage of the campaign-on-wheels? Maybe the novel strategy saves money on rent and calls attention to the campaign.

But the RVs will not avoid the many toll stations along the Florida highways. We went through five toll stations during a one-hour drive from Tampa to Kissimmee.

Tolls are almost an institution in Florida. A recent report in the Orlando Sentinel said the state has 719 miles of highways with tolls, probably more than any other state in the country.

It's unlikely that the Trump campaign RVs will be able to avoid them.

A successful meeting

When only 10 people turn up for a presidential campaign event, it could be seen as a flat-out failure. But that’s not true in this case.

In the Tampa area, television is more important for reaching voters than any other place in Florida, with one out of every four registered voters living within a TV coverage area. And that's why it's not important that only about 10 people turned up for an event Thursday organized by the Clinton campaign and aimed at Hispanic business people in Tampa.

Anyway, the tiny space at the Blind Tiger Cafe in Ybor City could not have fit many more people. Camera crews from the leading Spanish-language TV networks, including Univision, covered the event, and that was enough to bring smiles to the faces of the Clinton campaign folks.

Cigar makers and independent voters in historic Ybor City

One day after covering the Trump rally, the Univision News journey through the three Floridas continued Thursday with a stop in Ybor City, a historic district of Tampa once known as the cigar-making capital of the world.

Cuban, Spanish and Italian migrants came here at the end of the nineteenth century to work in the many cigar factories. In its glory days, in the 1920s, Tampa produced about 500 million cigars a year.

The Great Depression in the 1930s and the two World Wars hammered the local industry. And the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba in 1961, which banned imports of Cuban tobacco, condemned many of the factories to death.

Today, Ybor City has been resurrected as a tourist center. Bars and cafes fill many of the old brick cigar factories. And there are many cigar shops, featuring cigar makers who roll stogies with leaves imported from the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Ecuador.

But not a lot of people are walking around. In fact, the streets are almost empty. “This looks like the Old West,” says one cigar maker as he trims a tobacco leaf. It's a witheringly hot summer, he says, and most tourists come in the winter to escape the snow and ice up north.

Another independent voter

Madelaine Valdés, 38, who learned how to roll cigars in her native Cuba and now makes 80 to 100 per day in Ybor City, is one of the many independent voters in Hillsborough County.

More than 200,000 county residents are independent voters who have no affiliation to any political party, according to official figures. Another 320,000 are registered Democrats and 260,000 are registered Republicans.

That's why capturing the independent vote will be crucial for capturing Hillsborough.

Valdés says she will vote for Clinton. “Trump wants to be president because of the power. He's not interested in the people,” she says.

Amid the quiet of Ybor City's streets, the Clinton and Trump campaigns are sharpening their weapons for the battle in November.

Trump spoke at a rally in Tampa Wednesday, and afterward his campaign inaugurated one of the three RVs that will cruise Florida to register voters and distribute campaign advertising. The RV in these photos will be traveling through central Florida, crucial to winning the state in November.

The next day, Clinton campaign officials, who have an office in Ybor City, met with Hispanic business people in a historic district cafe.

Cafe owner Roberto Torres is one of the independent voters who the two candidates want to win over. He is undecided, and says he will wait until the Clinton-Trump debates to make up his mind.

Day 1: A Trump meeting in Tampa courting Hispanics and African Americans

Just minutes before Trump began to speak at the rally Wednesday in Tampa, one of his supporters took the microphone and spoke in Spanish.

Some of the 2,000 people at the rally looked at each other and asked what the speaker, local Republican leader Deb Tamargo, was saying. Mildred, a Puerto Rican in the audience, assured the woman next to her that Tamargo “was saying something good.”

“Hillary is shameless. She does not respect Latinos … I am voting to save my country, for jobs, for peace, for Trump for president,” Tamargo said in somewhat broken Spanish. “Mr. Trump is well prepared to be a great president for you and for all.”

It’s a daring move to speak Spanish at a Trump event. Kentucky State Rep. Ralph Alvarado, whose father is from Costa Rica and whose mother is from Argentina, surprised many when he used Spanish to address the GOP convention in Cleveland.

Many Trump supporters are bothered by Spanish and believe that only English should be spoken in the United States. Trump himself said as much during the campaign when he criticized former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for constantly using Spanish on the campaign trail. Trump is the first GOP presidential candidate in 20 years who has not used Spanish in any campaign communications.

The Tampa audience applauded Tamargo at the end of her speech, and no catcalls or boos were heard.

Tamargo told Univision News that she did not tell anyone in the campaign that she would be speaking in Spanish. “They asked me to speak as a woman and as a mother, and I also wanted to speak as a Latina,” she said.

An African American and a Hispanic who Trump hasn't won over

Eric Hollis is the kind of voter coveted by presidential candidates: an independent voter in bellwether Hillsborough County.

It's Wednesday, and the 51-year-old African American is at a Trump rally in Tampa.

With a solemn face and wearing a jacket and striped shirt, Hollis stands out among the majority of the people at the rally: white and dressed in shorts and short-sleeved tee-shirts to beat the summer heat.

His goal is to listen to Trump's speech and continue to flesh out his opinion of the GOP candidate. At the end of the rally, he talks about his views.

“Today he spoke to a predominantly white audience,” Hollis said. “If he wants to appeal to African Americans and Latinos, he has to address those audiences at an event where the majority are black or Latinos.”

Trump's attempts to appeal to minorities started only in recent weeks. He says that Democrats have failed Hispanics and African Americans, that he would give them jobs and economic opportunities and keep them from “being shot to death” as they walk down the street.

A 15-minute drive from the Trump rally, in predominantly Hispanic West Tampa, the GOP candidate's messages does not receive a warm reception at the Cancún Grill.

Victor Guevara, a Salvadoran who owns the restaurant, said he wanted to vote for Jeb Bush. He says he does not like Clinton, but will not vote for Trump. “He knows nothing about politics,” he said.