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CENTRAL FLORIDA VOTING TRENDS

Bush wins Hispanic support; McBride fails to woo black voters

By Mark Schlueb And Kelly Brewington
Sentinel Staff Writers

November 7, 2002

By the numbers, Bill McBride should have been able to count on Gustavo and Stella Sabogal.

The middle-aged couple, who emigrated from Colombia, live in the South Orange community of Meadow Woods, where most voters are Hispanic and Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly two to one. The Sabogals, like most of their Hispanic neighbors, voted for Al Gore two years ago.

But when they marked their ballots on Tuesday, they marked them for Jeb Bush.

"Our ideas are Democratic, but it depends on the candidates," said Stella, a 54-year-old homemaker. "You can't vote for one party all the time."

Across Central Florida, election returns show that Democrat-leaning Hispanic voters crossed party lines to give Bush his second term. Analysts said the shift was fueled by Bush's cultural charisma and neglect by Democrats.

GOP leaders now hope that Central Florida Hispanics -- a voting faction that had seemed solidly Democratic just two years ago -- can be won over permanently.

McBride, meanwhile, also failed to get blacks to the polls, hurting his ability to narrow the gap.

Voting results show that precincts with the largest percentages of Hispanic voters in Orange, Seminole, Osceola, Volusia and Lake counties backed Bush -- even in the precincts that boast a majority of Democrats.

  • Bush won the five Orange County precincts with the largest percentage of Hispanic voters -- most of them Democrats -- with 54 percent of the vote.
     
  • In Seminole County, voters in four predominantly Hispanic precincts backed Bush with 58 percent of the vote, two points higher than his margin of victory statewide.
     
  • In the tiny Lake County town of Mascotte, where Hispanics -- most of Mexican descent -- make up about 40 percent of the population, Bush won 64 percent of the vote to McBride's 32 percent.
     
  • In several heavily Puerto Rican precincts in Buenaventura Lakes near Kissimmee, Bush earned more votes despite registration numbers that in some cases show twice as many Democrats as Republicans.
     
  • And in Deltona, Bush carried the 18 precincts with the greatest percentage of Hispanics.

    So how did Bush woo Central Florida's growing Puerto Rican, Latin American and Mexican voters to his camp?

    Hard work, said William Bolivar, news director for the Spanish radio station 98.1 La Nueva.

    'Tremendous outreach'

    Bush personally spoke to several Central Florida community groups, including those representing Colombians and Nicaraguans. Throughout the campaign, Bush advertised on Spanish-language radio and television.

    And it helped that Bush speaks the language fluently, and his wife, Columba, is of Mexican descent.

    "The Republican Party has done a tremendous outreach in the Hispanic community. To see a governor having rice and beans with you at a meeting of a local political group -- that's very powerful," Bolivar said. "And there's the cultural tie. When the governor communicates with the Hispanic community in its own language, he doesn't even sound -- excuse the term -- like a gringo."

    That helped earn Bush a vote from Juan Duran, 49, a first-time voter from Puerto Rico who lives in Osceola County.

    "He knows both English and Spanish, and that connects him with us," Duran said. "We can understand him."

    Some Hispanic voters said they felt taken for granted by the Democratic Party, which didn't reach out to the Hispanic community as much as the GOP. That's dangerous, because Hispanic voters often pay more attention to individual candidates than party lines, said Henry Flores, a political scientist at Texas' St. Mary's University who is studying Hispanic voting trends.

    "If there is one thing that Latino voters like, it's a personal appeal, and Governor Bush is very good at that," Flores said.

    But at least for Central Florida's Hispanic community, the governor's influence didn't reflect on other GOP candidates. The same five heavily Hispanic, heavily Democratic precincts that voted for Bush in south Orange County also picked Democrat Buddy Dyer over Republican Charlie Crist for attorney general.

    The question for state GOP leaders is whether Bush's crossover appeal can be translated into a boost for other Republican candidates two years from now.

    "I think the Hispanic community does like Jeb," said Jim Stelling, vice chairman of the Republican Party of Florida. "I'd also like to think they're attracted to Republican values. We'd obviously like them to stay with us."

    Black turnout declines

    While Bush was motivating Hispanics, McBride failed to do the same with black voters.

    In Central Florida, black turnout fell well below Democratic Party hopes, despite aggressive campaigns among civil-rights groups. Many activists had worried that lingering resentment from the botched 2000 election would discourage black voters. In 2000, more than 170,000 votes were thrown out in Florida, most of them from precincts that were predominantly minority and poor.

    This year, in the five Orange County precincts with the highest percentage of black voters, turnout was 35 percent -- far short of the countywide average of 55 percent.

    But Monique Edwards, a community activist and attorney, blamed apathy more than skepticism.

    "What I am most concerned with is young black professionals who don't participate in the process," said Edwards, who helped monitor precincts in predominantly black neighborhoods in Orange County and was an on-call attorney in case of voting violations. "We typically don't get involved in campaigns or even nonpartisan efforts to get people to vote. And we are in a position to help and to lead."

    In addition, Edwards said she doesn't think McBride reached out enough.

    That said, some black voters find neither party appealing, she said. The Democrats have traditionally had the strongest following, but have grown fragmented and lack a clear vision, Edwards said. More voters would swing Republican, she thinks, if a candidate displayed a spirit to fight for the underdog.

    "Both the parties need to go to the grass roots if they want to attract black voters," she said. "They are all disconnected with the little guy walking the street and catching the bus."

    During the campaign, McBride supporters said they were counting on the black vote to win. But some political analysts said that McBride would have lost, regardless.

    "McBride's problem was that he didn't have enough white support," said David Bositis, a senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank on black issues. "In a state like Florida, the black population comprises a small number of the population. To win, the Democrats have to appeal to white voters.

    "McBride lost by 13 points; that's the whole black population. Even if every black person voted, which is ridiculous because no group turns out at 100 percent, he still would have lost."

    Bositis said many black voters were eager to see Bush ousted. Some felt alienated when he pushed the One Florida initiative, which banned traditional affirmative action. And many, bitter over George W. Bush's win in the 2000 presidential race, were looking forward to getting his brother out of the governor's office. Nevertheless, Jeb Bush had a broad support base.

    "Bush was an incumbent governor, his brother is the president of the United States, he had way more money than McBride and he controls the state machinery," Bositis said. "Incumbent governors only lose if they have done something wrong. The average voter, regardless of race, thought he was doing a good job."

    Mindy Hagen, Beth Kassab, Mark K. Matthews, Sandra Pedicini and Robert Perez of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Mark Schlueb can be reached at mschlueb@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5417. Kelly Brewington can be reached at 407-420-6186 or kbrewington@orlandosentinel.com.

    Copyright 2002, Orlando Sentinel

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