As Donald Trump’s path to victory narrows to just a few key states, none is bigger or more diverse than Florida, making it crucial that he broaden his appeal.
But interviews with more than a dozen voters, several GOP strategists and observations at his campaign events show those efforts have been stymied by a slow, rough start in Trump’s general election campaign, the candidate’s explosive rhetoric and his inability to stay focused.
No doubt Trump is strong in the Sunshine State, as his blowout primary win illustrated. But if form follows and the race is decided on a narrow margin, he must expand what is overwhelmingly a white voter base and not alienate people he’s already drawn in.
“He needs to keep his mouth shut,” said Larry Nicholson, 64, a Republican from Orlando who still intends to vote for Trump but fears other Republicans and independents are being turned off by Trump’s abrasive personality and appetite for controversy.
“It’s turning me off in a way. I wonder if he can keep his temper to himself and be a leader. People are watching and learning, figuring it out,” Nicholson said, walking to his car after breakfast at Cracker Barrel.
“At first I was going to vote for Trump, but the more he talks … ” said DeDe Johnson, a moderate Republican who plans to vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton. “Seriously, I think he could become a Hitler.”
Mora Acosta, a member of Central Florida’s booming Puerto Rican population, said she agrees with Trump’s position on border security and the economy. Still, the Republican views Trump as erratic and considers the way he talks about immigration overly harsh. “He doesn’t think twice. He’s too ‘aaaagghhh.’”
Acosta, 52, says she’s seen no outreach to the Hispanic community from Trump, and she’s on the fence between him and Clinton. Polls shows Trump has a deep problem with Latino voters, pulling just 13 percent support among Florida Hispanics in a new online poll. Four years ago, Mitt Romney got 39 percent of the Hispanic vote and still lost.
“I don’t think they are paying much attention to the Hispanic campaign; they are concentrating on white voters,” said Dennis Freytes, a GOP activist from Puerto Rico who lives in the Orlando area. “We want to support him, but he needs to do his part. It can’t be about Trump. It has to be about America. And so far it’s all about Trump. He’s still fighting the primary. He needs to get into general election mode and reach out.”
With Colorado and other swing states drifting out of reach for Trump, he is looking at Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida to give him enough Electoral College votes to become the nation’s 45th president. During a rally in Daytona Beach on Wednesday, Trump pointedly mentioned all three.
A Quinnipiac University Florida poll last month showed him leading Clinton but contained an ominous sign: Trump is pulling only 21 percent of the non-white vote. “Although he is winning among white voters, who are mainly Republican, victory in Florida will be a very difficult lift for him if he can’t do better among non-white voters,” pollster Peter A. Brown said at the time.
Rise of independent voters
As Florida continues to diversify, a flood of voters are leaving the major parties to become independents. Unaffiliated voters now outnumber Republicans in the state’s three most-populous counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. They also make up a sizable share of the coveted Interstate 4 corridor stretching from Tampa to Daytona Beach — the battleground within the battleground.
It was no coincidence that both the Trump and Clinton campaigns descended on Daytona Beach this week, with Trump drawing 8,000 people Wednesday and Clinton running mate Tim Kaine packing a smaller room at the local college Tuesday.
With a tableau of white, black and tan faces on stage behind him, Kaine made overt appeals to Hispanics, pitching immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship and speaking Spanish he learned as a Jesuit missionary in Honduras.
Trump’s audience was overwhelmingly white, and he showed off his appeal with boasts about bringing back jobs, building a huge wall on the Mexican border (and making Mexico pay for it), all while tearing into Clinton. It was an attempt to move beyond the controversy he generated over the previous week, chiefly his clash with the Muslim parents of an Army captain who died heroically in Iraq.
He did revisit, for no apparent reason other than to bash the “dishonest” news media, scrapes with Fox News host Megyn Kelly and alluded to insensitive remarks about a disabled New York Times reporter that brought recriminations from both parties.
“I wish he would stay on message and not get distracted by all these other issues,” said Janice Fitzgerald, 68. “He’s got enough with Hillary’s background to beat her down every time, but he doesn’t do that. I wish he would stay with the economy, national security. If he doesn’t, he’ll lose the election.”
Trump’s campaign is projecting confidence, saying the general election effort is just now getting under way and most voters won’t pay attention until after Labor Day. It also sought to counter the idea that Trump is performing poorly among women.
“Look at all the Republican women in this room,” tea party activist Dena DeCamp said in Daytona Beach to cheers. “Can you believe that the media thinks women are not supporting Donald Trump?” In Jacksonville several hours later, former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll noted she is not only a woman but black.
Still, polls show Trump is behind with both groups.
Trump will get minority outreach help now that the campaign has linked up with national and state GOP organizations.
“There hasn’t been an active campaign for independents only because we’re actually fielding them as they come in,” said Florida strategist Karen Giorno, a veteran of several presidential campaigns. “Mr. Trump is bringing in Democrats, independents, first-time voters, disenfranchised voters, young people, you name it. His base is so diverse that it kind of makes me chuckle when Hillary Clinton says there’s no diversity.”
Lorenzo Palomares-Starbuck, who is helping the campaign with Hispanic outreach, has been going on Spanish-language news programs daily to sell Trump. Part of the difficultly in Miami-Dade has been that many voters were loyal to hometown favorites Bush and Marco Rubio, who both ran against Trump in the primary. Palomares-Starbuck said a concerted effort to reach Puerto Ricans in the Orlando area is also getting started.
Trump recently held a meeting with Hispanic leaders in Miami, quieting some complaints he was moving too slowly. But the same day, he held a news conference and all but encouraged Russian hackers to go after Clinton, creating another wave of national headlines.
“We don’t need to be dealing with distractions,” said Palm Beach County GOP Chairman Michael Barnett, who is African-American and part of Trump’s diversity team. “People want to hear about issues that directly affect them. They don’t want to hear about a spat on national TV. They want to know what Trump’s going to do to bring jobs back to Florida.”
“I think we have some time,” he said, but added he wants to see Trump visit the area and not just address Hispanics but the Haitian population that is showing more than typical interest in a Republican. He says the campaign also needs to flood local media with surrogates.
“His campaign is going to have to step it up,” Barnett said.
Every so often there are media reports from inside the Trump campaign that he is going to “pivot” to the general election, meaning emphasize policy over personality and moderate his tone. But such attempts have been ephemeral, Trump sticking to a freewheeling style that his supporters love.
“Maybe it’s not as articulate as a scripted speech … he might get in a little bit of trouble,” Giorno said. “But that authenticity is what is resonating with American voters. They don’t want to be lied to anymore.”
Trump is facing a decided crisis following the GOP convention. Clinton got a better polling bounce from her convention, which featured the rebuke of Trump by Khizr Khan, whose son died in Iraq in 2004 from a suicide bomber. Trump, feeling slighted, hit back, creating an uproar that is still dominating the news.
“If he were a serious person and a serious candidate, he would be looking for ways to talk to people he has alienated. He would be looking to be more centered and less bombastic,” said Rick Wilson, a Republican strategist in Florida who has opposed Trump from the start. “Americans will elect somebody who is passionate, fiery and assertive. But the minute you get an edge in there of danger and fundamental risk, I think it turns around pretty quick.”
Some prominent Republicans are already fleeing.
Top Bush adviser Sally Bradshaw announced she was leaving the GOP over disagreements with Trump and that if the race is close in Florida, she’ll vote for Clinton. The defection is notable because Bradshaw helped author a sweeping report following the 2012 election that implored the Republican Party to address its problems with minorities.
“I’ve been considering the switch for months,” the now unaffiliated Bradshaw told CNN. “Ultimately, I could not abide the hateful rhetoric of Donald Trump and his complete lack of principles and conservative philosophy. I didn’t make this decision lightly — I have worked hard to make our party a place where all would feel welcome. But Trump has taken the GOP in another direction, and too many Republicans are standing by and looking the other way.”
At the Cracker Barrel in Orlando, Michael Lyman, 26, said he’s a registered Republican who will vote for Clinton. “I personally don’t like her, just the scandals and being in the Obama administration,” he said. “But Trump is unpredictable, extremely vulgar and aggressive. He belittles people he feels are inferior.”
Lyman came to Florida from the Dominican Republic when he was 7 and said he finds Trump’s immigration stance offensive. “To block out people just because they are not from here is not what America stands for. To say you are going to build a wall is one thing. But to not let anybody in of a certain race?”
The elementary school teacher said his students impersonate Trump.
“They loved him because he’s a personality on TV,” Lyman said. “But he’s not someone I would want my kids seeing, even though I don’t have kids.”
Contact Alex Leary at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @learyreports.