The end of a wild campaign happily near, her presidential prize tantalizingly close, Hillary Clinton took the stage in Pembroke Pines on Saturday afternoon — torrential downpour be damned — to ask voters one more time to stick with her.
“We’re seeing tremendous momentum,” she proclaimed.
Across the Florida peninsula, Donald Trump gathered several thousand fans to remind them the state is his second home — and to promise a win for the millions of voters who believed in his unlikely candidacy.
“It is time for change, it is time for new leadership,” he declared. “Hillary Clinton is the candidate of yesterday. We are the movement of the future. And they’ve never seen a movement like this.”
As both candidates devoted part of the final Saturday of the race to the nation’s biggest battleground, the presidency seemed within closer reach for Clinton. Propelled by a surge of Hispanic and independent voters — many of them in South Florida — Democrats held a narrow lead Saturday among the demographics of Florida voters who have already cast ballots by mail and in person. A Sunshine State loss would essentially put victory out of Trump’s reach.
But making predictions is foolish in purple Florida, where four years ago the presidential race was decided by about 74,309 votes — or less than 1 percentage point. And Saturday’s bad weather might have hurt Clinton in crucial Miami-Dade and Broward counties: The rainstorm forced her to cut short her Pembroke Pines rally, where she managed to speak for all of seven minutes.
“I want to be president for everybody,” she told an outdoor crowd sheltered under umbrellas and makeshift ponchos at C.B. Smith Park. Her voice was raspy as she fought not to be drowned out by the pounding rain. “So let’s get out! Let’s vote for the future! Let’s vote for what we want for our country!”
In Tampa, Trump derided Clinton’s Friday night concert in Cleveland, which featured Jay Z and Beyoncé, as a meaningless, celebrity-studded affair. Bon Jovi was playing for her Saturday night in St. Petersburg.
“We don’t need Jay Z to fill up arenas,” Trump boasted. “We do it the old-fashioned way.”
Both rallies came together with short notice. For the last frantic hours before Election Day, campaigns strategically place the candidates in the states where they need the most visibility to push their remaining voters to the polls.
Democrats didn’t overtake Republicans in Florida ballots cast until midday Friday — far later than they had in 2012, when in-person early voting days were fewer — and as of Saturday morning were ahead by less than 8,000 votes. In contrast, Democrats led Republicans by more than 100,000 votes at the same point in 2012.
Trump plans to return Monday to Sarasota. President Barack Obama will campaign Sunday in Orlando. The last day of early voting is usually among the busiest — if not the busiest — in part because black churches, labor unions and other liberal groups organize caravans known as “souls to the polls.”
Blue South Florida, where Democrats can amass the biggest number of votes, is key for Clinton, as demonstrated by her frequent trips to the region. Her Saturday rally marked the third Clinton appearance in Broward in a span of just six days.
”If you could build a Donald Trump-style firewall around Dade, Broward, Orange and Osceola,” said Democratic consultant Steve Schale, who analyzes the pre-election numbers on a daily basis, referring to counties in the Miami and Orlando areas, “what the rest of the state would do wouldn’t matter.”
Part of the reason the Florida outcome remains difficult to predict is that so many more voters are casting ballots early, both by mail and in person, upending the 2012 electoral model. More than 650,000 Miami-Dade voters had already cast ballots by early Saturday — a 39 percent increase over the total number of ballots cast before Election Day in the county four years ago. In Broward, there was a 23 percent increase.
The Miami-Dade elections department said Friday was its biggest early-voting day ever: More than 43,000 people voted.
Though Miami-Dade is not as Democratic as Broward, its rise in no-party-affiliated Hispanics reflects a trend throughout the state. Democrats believe those voters lean toward their party, even if they’re technically independent.
As African-American turnout lagged and Democrats failed to surpass Republicans at the end of last weekend — when South Florida also experienced bad weather — Clinton made an urgent call to the polls Tuesday night in Fort Lauderdale. On Thursday, President Obama echoed her message in Miami and Jacksonville. By Friday, Democrats had taken the lead — and started sounding more optimistic.
As of Saturday morning, Democrats had squeezed ahead in early voting by building up big leads in Democratic-heavy media markets: Miami, Palm Beach and Tallahassee. Republicans were up in Tampa and only slightly behind in Orlando, while racking up votes in their strongholds of Fort Myers, Jacksonville and Pensacola.
In Pines, Clinton touted that early voting was “breaking records in some places.”
The dark skies opened only moments before she took the stage. A number of attendees gave off the distinct aroma of weed, presumably believing that campaigning on a Saturday is a joint effort.
Before the rally, Clinton stopped in Republican territory near the West Miami Community Center early voting site where Marco Rubio cast his ballot Monday. She was met by a Colombian-style pachanga. Later, Clinton dropped in on her Little Haiti field office.
“Haiti has been close to my heart for a very long time,” Clinton said. “And we really feel a sense of connection to Haiti and all of the challenges that Haiti has faced — the continuing terrible consequences of weather, the earthquake in 2010 — so I want to be a good partner with the people of Haiti.”
Trump has tried to win over Haitian Americans — or at least keep them from voting for Clinton — citing misgivings among some Haitians about the Clinton Foundation’s and State Department’s work in the country. Miami is home to the largest Haitian community outside Haiti, and Haitian Americans vote reliably Democratic. Trump met Haitian-American leaders in September and has repeatedly mentioned them in speeches since.
While Trump made no similar retail stops in Tampa, he did give a nod to Miami Republicans from the stump. After weeks of work to shore up his support among Cuban Americans, the most conservative of Hispanic voters, the candidate seemed pleased with winning the backing of a Bay of Pigs veterans group.
“The Cubans just endorsed me,” he said.
Tampa Bay Times staff writers Alex Leary and Adam C. Smith contributed to this report from Tampa.