Democrats are poised this week to pass a crucial milestone in Florida:
For the first time, the number of Hispanic Democrats in the state is expected to exceed the number of Hispanic Republicans.
The Florida secretary of state is expected to release the month's voter registration figures to the state Democratic and Republican parties. The last set of figures, released in April, showed a bare majority of 212 Republicans over Democrats among the state's roughly 1.2 million voters who describe themselves as Hispanic on their official voter registration forms. In each month since the state started tracking Hispanic registration more than two years ago, Democrats have gained.
The significance of the numerical flip is mostly symbolic, but it's a powerful symbol at a key moment: Quietly, Democrats are debating whether to mount a full-out, expensive challenge to Sen., the presumptive Republican nominee, in Florida, or essentially cede its 27 Electoral College votes to the GOP. The Florida Democratic Party, still in the midst of a scheduling battle with the Democratic National Committee that has left the state with no say in the presidential nominating process, points to the numbers to argue that the national party should return to the state.
"They absolutely need to be in Florida," said state Democratic Party Chairwoman Karen Thurman, who called the anticipated shift among Hispanic voter registration "historic." "We're winning," she said.
In 2006, according to exit polls, Democrats won the Hispanic vote in Florida for the first time in 30 years, despite a Republican edge of about 45,000 registered Hispanic voters. Florida is one of a handful of states that sorts voter registrations by race. The Department of State releases the monthly figures only to the political parties.
But Florida leaders are still responding to a gloomy Democratic view of the state, which has been led by Republican governors since 1999, and where Gov. Charlie Crist cruised to victory in 2006. Though Democratic officials, in on-the-record conversations, are loath to write off the state, many are pessimistic of their chances in a state whose composition of older voters, security-conscious Jewish Democrats and conservative Hispanics seem tailor-made for McCain.
The question of the viability of Democrats in Florida is interwoven with the argument over the relative electability of Sens.(N.Y.) and (Ill.). Florida is a hub of older voters, Hispanics, and Jews - all groups with whom Clinton has been relatively strong in key primaries, and Obama relatively weak. If a Democrat can win Florida, Clinton may be the stronger candidate; if the real battles will be fought in Iowa, New Hampshire and the Pacific Northwest, Obama might be a better national standard-bearer.
Clinton's allies have been making this case across the country.
"Hillary runs 10 points better in the state of Florida" than Obama, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh told a Fort Wayne crowd Sunday. "She can carry the state of Florida."
Many observers still see the state as a stretch for either Democratic nominee.
"Republicans should rightly still be considered the favorites in 2008, especially because John McCain has strong military roots and his age should be less of a liability in the snowbird-heavy Sunshine State than almost anywhere outside of his home state," said Tom Schaller, a political scientist at University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has argued that Democratic presidential candidates should not bother competing in much of the South. Schaller said that Democrats nonetheless have a better shot in Florida than elsewhere in the region, in part because of its growing populations of Hispanic Democrats.
The rise of Democratic-leaning Hispanics offers a suggestion, in the short term, that Democrats can carry the state; in the long term, it's a worrying trend for Repubicans, who have long relied on relatively conservative Cuban voters to buck the national tendency of Hispanics to support Democratic politicians.
"Florida is the only state with significant Hispanic population in which Republicans have won the Hispanic vote for at least the last four cycles," said Florida Republican Party spokeswoman Erin VanSickle, who added that the party's appeal, and efforts, extends past Cuban-Americans. "Republicans are much stronger at turning Hispanic voters at the polls at a much higher percentage rate especially in Hispanic precincts."
But Republicans are battling what Florida political observers say is a powerful rising tide, driven by a changing Hispanic population.
First, a younger generation of Cuban-Americans may be shedding its traditional loyalty to the Republican Party. "We've been noticing a generational trend for the last two or three election cycles," said Susan MacManus, a professor of political science at the University of South Florida. "While their parents and grandparents care about Cuba, the younger generations are a bit removed from that. They'd like to open up travel to Cuba and they're concerned about domestic policies and the war."
In addition to the presidential race, that theory will also be on display in three South Florida House districts, where incumbent Republicans Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and brothers Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart face potentially serious threats from well-funded Democratic Hispanic challengers.
But the Hispanic growth in Orlando and in Central Florida's crucial "I-4 corridor" has also been a factor in the state's Democratic vote among Hispanics. Many Puerto Ricans, for example, have settled in the Orlando area, taking jobs in the state's stable tourism industry, McManus said. Colombians, Nicaraguans and other Hispanics have also moved to the area and typically lean Democrat.
The new numbers may not bode well for McCain - at least not with Hispanic voters.
"I think what you're going to see is a younger generation of Hispanics uneasy with John McCain because of the generational divide," said Richard Stuart Olson, a political science professor at Florida International University. "He seriously represents a different generation, and I would think that you'll see some interesting fractures in that demographic that we've never seen before."
McCain may have other advantages in the state, though, including the primary feud between the DNC and the state party.
"When they take a breath, they're going to see that these Hispanic voters are feeling left out and largely ignored," McManus said of the Democratic candidates.
And it remains unclear whether the longer-term trend is large enough to matter in November.
"I would be surprised if you'd see a huge shift," said Kevin Hill, a political science professor at Florida International University.
"Although you never know. It's Florida, and things change extremely rapidly."
By Amie Parnes and Ben Smith