TAMPA — There is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, speaking fluent Spanish for Hispanic media and giving his Mexican-born wife, the formerly press-shy Columba, a key role at a major fundraiser.
There is Florida Sen. Marco Rubio at an iconic Miami immigration center, lauding his Cuban parents.
There is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz saying he has never seen a Hispanic panhandler.
For 2016 presidential candidates both declared and undeclared, the courting of the Hispanic vote is underway.
A look at a key census figure helps show why.
A well-worn political adage is that you can’t win the White House without Florida, and you can’t win Florida without the Interstate 4 corridor.
Between 2008, when President Barack Obama was first elected, and 2013, the most recent reliable census figures, the population of the I-4 corridor increased by about 7 percent. The Hispanic population increase in the same swath was 20 percent.
“Any time you have a demographic like that, it’s significant. It’s a big deal,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who successfully directed the 2008 Obama-Biden campaign in Florida.
And in the past, it has been a Democratic big deal.
Obama carried Florida’s Hispanic vote in 2012 by 60 percent to 39 percent, an improvement over his 57 percent to 42 percent showing in 2008, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Gov. Rick Scott won re-election last year despite opponent Charlie Crist’s 58 percent to 38 percent advantage among Hispanics.
“I think the premise is still true: The I-4 corridor is still critically important to winning the state,” said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida. “It’s the fastest-growing region in the state, it’s got the most registered voters, and the Hispanic share is growing at a faster rate than the Anglo and black population and is thus becoming an even more critical voting bloc.”
Census data indicate that from Obama’s first win in 2008 until 2013, the population of the six counties through which I-4 travels grew from about 4.1 million to about 4.4 million. Of the overall increase of 292,424, those identifying themselves as Hispanic totaled 181,384.
There was a marginal increase in the white population and an 11 percent increase in the black population in the counties along the roadway that runs from Tampa to Daytona Beach.
Those are pure population numbers, not voter registration numbers. And there are varying definitions of the “I-4 corridor,” with some analysts including every community reached by the massive Tampa-St. Petersburg and Orlando media markets.
But the numbers, and the candidates’ early activities, testify to the demographic’s importance.
“It’s a wild card,” said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. “Most people do believe that the Hispanic vote is going to be more important, but the question is how to target the different groups within the Hispanic population at large.”
That demographic is not “cohesive,” she said. “They don’t always vote the same way, and they certainly don’t vote at the same rates. It’s really a very complex picture,” MacManus said.
A major topic on the early campaign trail is immigration. However, one of the drivers of the Hispanic influx into Florida is Puerto Ricans, who enter the country as citizens and might not be as concerned about immigration policy.
In fact, a Pew center survey of Hispanic voters had 49 percent ranking the economy as the most important issue facing the country, followed by health care at 24 percent and illegal immigration at 16 percent. That mirrors all U.S. voters, 45 percent of whom cited the economy, 25 percent health care and 14 percent illegal immigration.
The largest increase in Hispanic population along I-4 came in Osceola County, at 26.7 percent.
In Hillsborough, the increase in Hispanics from 2008 to 2013 was 17.1 percent. For blacks, it was 11 percent, and for whites it was 2 percent.
Hillsborough County has a reputation as the state’s bellwether, having called every presidential election but one since 1960.
Schale, Obama’s campaign director in 2008, recalls opening the campaign’s state headquarters in a historic building in Ybor City, saying the choice was “both symbolic and strategic.”
“Part of what makes Florida always interesting is that it is forever dynamic,” he said. “There’s nothing about the state that is static.”