As Izaiah Mateo cast a ballot for the first time, he personified the demographic changes sweeping Florida that will help decide who wins the White House.
Mateo is 18, Hispanic and a Democrat who lives in the state’s increasingly diverse I-4 corridor, where a surge in Puerto Rican voters could help deliver a victory for Hillary Clinton.
“This is my future,” he said after voting early in Kissimmee on Tuesday. “I feel great.”
Proudly sporting an “I Voted” sticker, he paused outside the voting site so his father, Luis, a bartender, could take a picture and capture a family moment that won’t happen again.
Nothing stays the same for long in Florida. That’s especially true in politics.
With just over a week until Election Day, the growth in new non-Cuban Hispanics, fueled by the debt crisis in Puerto Rico, is likely to help Clinton.
Turnout among Hispanics is one of several factors that could determine whether Clinton or Donald Trump clinch the biggest swing state.
Just as important are two groups often slighted. One is the fast-growing pool of voters with no party affiliation. The second is those who have voted in no more than one of the last four elections, known as “low-propensity” voters.
So far, both groups are voting in greater numbers than in previous elections, and both sides claim to be winning them.
Another major factor: South Florida. In 2012, voter turnout in the three big counties in South Florida trailed the statewide turnout by 2 to 5 percentage points.
Many South Florida Democrats stayed home four years ago, but President Barack Obama still beat Republican Mitt Romney to win a second term.
Even after repeated get-out-the-vote appeals this fall by Obama, Clinton and others, the early turnout of mail and in-person voters is strong in Miami-Dade but appears sluggish in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
Through Friday, nearly 3.3 million people had voted, or one of every four Florida voters.
Of that total, nearly 1.9 million had voted by mail and nearly 1.4 million at early voting sites.
According to voter registration totals released Friday, there are 4.9 million Democrats and 4.6 million Republicans. But that 300,000 voter edge is smaller than the 500,000 margin Democrats enjoyed in 2012, when Obama won Florida by a slim 74,000-vote margin.
Republicans maintain a lead over Democrats in mail ballot returns, but nearly 70,000 more Democrats have received them, and the Republican advantage, while steady, is smaller than in past elections in Florida.
Democrats lead Republicans in early voting, with more than a week of early voting still to go in the state’s largest counties.
This is the first presidential election in Florida since the Legislature restored a maximum 14 days of early voting, a way of voting that remains most popular with Democrats.
For their part, Republicans are voting in big numbers in a party stronghold, Southwest Florida, where the turnouts in Collier, Lee, and Charlotte counties are much higher than the statewide average.
Trump also needs strong turnouts across the I-10 corridor on the state’s northern tier. It’s no coincidence that Trump has held recent rallies in Pensacola, Tallahassee and Panama City, and it’s a good bet he will be back, too.
The Trump formula for victory: win in returned mail ballots, lose the early voting phase by no more than 10 to 12 percent, and prevail at the polls on Nov. 8, Election Day.
“We fight for every vote we can get, from any demographic in any part of the state, and that includes the growing Hispanic population,” said Susie Wiles, Trump’s campaign manager in Florida. “We’ll know on Nov. 9 how successful everybody was.”
Democrats, eager to exploit the backlash caused by Trump’s intense anti-immigrant rhetoric, are focusing get-out-the-efforts along the I-4 corridor, home to the many new Hispanic voters who more than ever are Democratic.
A Clinton campaign field report, sent to key Florida supporters as early voting began last Monday, said 133,000 Hispanics had voted by mail, a 99 percent increase over the last presidential election in 2012.
According to an analysis by University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith, nearly 23 percent of the 820,000 voters who registered this year in Florida describe themselves as Hispanic (ethnicity is optional on voter forms).
Of those 186,000 voters, Smith said, 42 percent are Democrats, 42 percent registered with no party and 15 percent registered Republican.
Prior to this year, he said, 26 percent of Hispanic voters in Florida were Republican.
“That’s a historic shift,” said Smith, who analyzes Florida voting patterns on his blog, electionsmith.com. “Now we have to see if those folks come out.”
Women are another key to an election that will determine whether America has its first woman president.
A gender gap favors Clinton, and a Democratic review of voter files shows that so far, a higher-than-usual 55 percent of people casting ballots are women.
They include Ines Mevs, 63, of Delray Beach, recently retired after 43 years as a teacher, who voted for Clinton at a library in Palm Beach County.
“This is a really important election,” Mevs said.
Trump needs more Florida supporters like Sarah Evans, 42, a Boca Raton real estate agent, who likes Trump’s stand on immigration.
“He says what he thinks. He’s not a politician, so he’s not polished like Hillary. I like everything he stands for,” she said. “I don’t know any Hillary supporters.”
What many voters want is an end to an ugly race between two of the most unpopular candidates for president in U.S. history. That too defines this election, as a competition to see which voters dislike the other party’s candidate the most.
“I’m sick of it,” said Gary Davis, 66, a retired financial adviser who moved from St. Petersburg to The Villages 12 years ago. “I don’t think either party has a good candidate so I’m basically voting against the candidate I dislike the most. I’m going to vote for Trump because I think he’ll appoint conservative justices.”
Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @stevebousquet.