At Century Village in Pembroke Pines, where the Democratic roots run decades deep, residents are seeing a change that once would have been unthinkable. In the past 10 years, as the original condo dwellers, mostly northeastern Jews, passed away or moved out, the over-55 community that routinely delivered a Democratic voting bloc is becoming increasingly Republican and independent.
Century Village — the largest condo development in Broward County — is now 60 percent Democratic, down from 77 percent in 2002. Meanwhile, registered Republicans have jumped from about 18 percent to 23.6 percent. But it’s the independent and no-party-affiliation voters who can claim the prize: They grew from 5 percent in 2002 to a hefty 16.3 percent today, according to voter registration records from the county’s Supervisor of Elections.
Put another way, that’s a 17 percent shift away from the Democrats.
The increase in independent voters extends to the county. In the past decade, the percentage of Democrats in Broward has remained the same, about 52 percent, and the percentage of Republicans has fallen, from 29 to 23 percent. But independents have inched up from 20 percent of registered voters to 25 percent.
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While the increase in independent voters — and in Century Village, Republicans, too — may not spell immediate trouble for Democratic candidates in Broward, the numbers are certainly a harbinger of change.
”It’s not just Century Village,” says Kevin Hill, an associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University. “What has changed is the exploding number of independents. The county’s population is getting younger and the younger people are more likely to register as independents or have no party affiliation.”
In the case of Century Village, it’s not just a generational difference, though there are certainly younger retirees moving in. The so-called New Deal Democrats who retired to South Florida from the Northeast in the 1980s, are being replaced by people moving north from Miami-Dade County, some of them Republican, some with no commitment to either party.
Broward County Democratic Chairman Mitch Ceasar has been keeping tabs on the numbers. “Independents,” he says, “are critical. They’re a growing trend of people who are disaffected and tired of the gridlock in Washington.”
How critical are these swing voters? Depends on the race.
In past elections, even as Century Village grew less Democratic, residents voted the party ticket. In 2010, Alex Sink handily beat Rick Scott in all six of the community’s precincts. In 2008, Barack Obama walloped John McCain by almost 2 to 1. Most — except for the hard-line Republicans — believe Obama will again win Century Village this fall, though perhaps by a smaller margin than in 2008.
Nevertheless, Century Village voters could play a big part on the larger stage. “If the presidential election comes down to 10,000 votes and Romney picks up 2,000 votes in Century Village, that’s a huge percentage that can go a long way,” says Hill, who in 2011 co-authored a book on the state’s voters, Florida’s Politics. “If I were the Democrats, that would worry me.”
Rico Petrocelli, executive director of the Broward Republican Party , believes the vote-rich community known for its high turnout may prove fertile ground for cross-overs. “There are certainly some Democrats and many independents who will vote Republican.”
He says he gets several calls a week from local Democrats disappointed by Obama’s stance on Israel — an issue that Petrocelli says might be powerful enough to sway some, particularly Jewish voters in Century Village, to vote for Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee. Both Ceasar and Sophie Bock, president of the Democratic Club at the Village, acknowledge they are working hard to counter “the outright misinformation that is out there,” as Ceasar puts it.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, has held several town hall meetings to convince Jewish voters that Obama is supportive of Israel. But “sometimes people don’t listen,” Bock says. “They listen to what’s out there, what isn’t true, and you can’t get a rational thought in.”
Israel may not be the big bring-out-the-vote issue, anyway. Many Century Villagers cite the economy as a top concern.
Bernard Witkin, 63, is registered as an independent but tends to vote Democratic because he believes the party’s economic platform is fairer to people from all walks of life. He also thinks Democrats look out for the middle class more than the GOP.
“Trickle down doesn’t work,” he says. “The division between rich and poor is growing bigger and bigger.” He blames that on past Republican policy.
At the June meeting of the Democratic Club, where about a dozen local candidates spoke, Nancy Moss, 82, was one of the more than 50 die-hards who showed up.
“I’m a little concerned [with Obama] because I haven’t heard him enough on Israel,” Moss says. “I want to know more about what he’ll do. About Egypt. About Iran.”
Despite this concern, she will “most definitely” vote for Obama in November because “Romney will do what Bush did — run the government into the ground and Romney worries about the wealthy.”
The village’s Republican Club is much smaller than its Democratic counterpart. It meets every other month at a Latin restaurant and also invites local candidates to make their pitches. Founded in 2003 with about 40 members, it now has more than 120. Almost all are Hispanic and of those, 95 percent are Cuban American. Club President Alberto Darby says much of the growth has come from the influx of Miami retirees moving north, but the club is also seeing voters with no party affiliation switching to the GOP.
Guillermina Lopez, 83, is one of them. She decided on the no-party affiliation when she became a U.S. citizen in 1980 and kept that same registration when she moved to Century Village from Hialeah seven years ago. Then a few weeks ago, she decided to join the Republican ranks after socializing with several club members.
“I always vote Republican anyway,” she says.
Darby says the club is doing a lot of outreach. “We’re growing, that’s for sure. Each election we get more interest.”
Pembroke Pines Commissioner Angelo Castillo, a Democrat first elected to office in 2004, sees the condo community as still Democratic, and most would agree. But regardless of party affiliation, the village’s voters are united in their concerns: healthcare, Social Security, Medicare.
“They’re level-headed, moderate voters who tend to be fiscally conservative but socially liberal,” he says. “They want politicians who will deliver on the issues important to them.”
Sometimes that can be a tall order. Jose Torres, who registered as an independent when he became a citizen in 2000, says he’s “disgusted” with politicians who promise but don’t deliver. The 67-year-old retired teacher who now works part-time echoes the sentiments of many independents who feel the two-party system isn’t working. But he likes Obama’s healthcare plan and worries about the Republicans’ spin on the issue.
“If we were all independent, we wouldn’t have so much political competition,” says Torres, who moved to Century Village from Miami Gardens. “There’s a lot of manipulation going on. I feel like democracy has been kidnapped.”
Miami Herald political reporter Marc Caputo contributed to this report.