The Sunshine battleground: Donald Trump speaks at a rally Estero, Florida on Monday September 19 © AFP
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Living in Celebration, a small town of about 7,000 souls in central Florida, is like being back in the 1950s, says Anne Lucas, a 74-year-old resident. Some of her neighbours describe it as The Bubble.

This is how Celebration’s citizens like it. The town was confected two decades ago by the Walt Disney Company to be an idealised sliver of mid-20th century Americana — a carefully curated haven of wooden verandas, front porches and picket fences, with a filmset capacity to conjure up comforting impressions of small-town innocence.

Sitting in her neat front sitting room with her husband Gene, Ms Lucas has no doubt which of the two main presidential candidates has the better chance of restoring the social cohesion and family-friendly safety she cherishes in Celebration, whose logo is of a girl cycling under an oak tree.

“I think he’s going to win by a landslide: it will be a ‘come to Jesus’ moment in the polls,” she says of Donald Trump, the Republican candidate. The US is losing its identity amid globalisation, illegal immigration and moral degradation, argues Ms Lucas, a stern woman who is a semi-retired geriatric care manager. “Russia is a strong country. China is a strong country. Japan is a strong country. We are just mush,” she says.

Convincing older, well-educated white citizens like the Lucases to turn out in November will be critical to Mr Trump’s hopes of overcoming his weakness among Florida’s rapidly growing Hispanic population and clinching victory in the biggest swing state.

His chances of achieving that feat have grown in recent days. Mr Trump has edged ahead in Florida opinion polls while Hillary Clinton struggles to capitalise on her sophisticated ground game and tens of millions in advertising spending.

The neck-and-neck polling has raised the stakes in a state that has the potential to be decisive in the outcome of the November election and has a history of razor-thin electoral margins.

“My gut feeling is that it is going to be close, and that Florida may be the deciding factor,” says Mark Oxner, the chairman of the Republican party in Osceola County, where Celebration is located. He predicts Mr Trump will clinch the state, adding: “If Trump doesn’t win Florida he doesn’t win the election.”

Mr Trump and Mrs Clinton have for months been lavishing attention and campaign visits on Florida. Mrs Clinton is heading to Orlando on Wednesday as she seeks to get her campaign back on track following a pneumonia-induced hiatus. Mr Trump campaigned in Fort Myers on Monday after visiting Miami only three days earlier.

Protesters hold a sign outside the Republican presidential nominee's fundraiser in Miami in July © AFP

Their focus reflects the state’s longstanding and notorious importance in presidential elections. Florida’s vote-tallying fumbles were pivotal in the 2000 election, in which George W Bush beat Al Gore after the count went to the Supreme Court. In 2012, Florida was the only state decided by less than a single percentage point as Barack Obama narrowly edged asidebeat Mitt Romney. The last time the victor in Florida failed to win the presidency was 1992, when Bill Clinton lost the state to George HW Bush.

Campaign focus 

Celebration lies in the heart of one of the most unpredictable and fiercely contested parts of the state — the so-called I-4 corridor, a stretch of highway including Tampa on the state’s west coast and Orlando farther east.

It is a region in the midst of breakneck population expansion and rapid social change driven by the arrival of tens of thousands of families — many of them Hispanics who have been alienated by Mr Trump’s nativist invective. 

Against that background, Mr Trump’s ability to win over significant numbers of white Floridians — especially senior citizens, who typically turn out to vote in large numbers — will be critical to his chances in November. Nearly 20 per cent of Florida’s population is 65 and over, the highest percentage in the nation. Polling by the Pew Research Center shows that 47 per cent of registered voters aged 65 or over nationwide support Mr Trump, compared with 39 per cent for Mrs Clinton.

The profile of Mr Trump’s supporters in Celebration and in the region’s gated communities — white, well-to-do and well educated — defies the common perception that he is relying on a narrow coterie of working-class men whose hope has been eroded by income stagnation and deindustrialisation.

“Older, white voters tend to be a key demographic for Donald Trump,” says Kevin Wagner, an associate professor of politics at Florida Atlantic University. “‘Make America Great Again’ is a slogan that appeals very much to older voters — it brings back a heyday of when the country was at its best.”

A Trump supporter wearing a sash with the words 'I am deplorable' at a Republican rally in Miami on September 16 © Getty

For some older residents of Celebration, changes outside their town are a source of concern — and they are turning to Mr Trump for answers. Ms Lucas complains that Osceola County has seen an influx of poorer families whom she believes local authorities are enticing in order to clinch federal subsidies. Jim Siegel, another Trump supporter in Celebration, warns that illegal immigrants and homeless people who are willing to work for “just about anything” are suppressing wages in the county, where nearly one in five households lives in poverty and many local motels host homeless families.

Drive a few minutes from leafy Celebration and you find yourself among the strip malls, fast-food restaurants and cut-price gift shops of America’s theme- park heartland. With attractions including Disney World and Universal Studios planning further expansions and a resurgence in construction of single-family homes, openings for builders are growing, as are low-wage posts in the vital hospitality sector.

To the Clinton campaign, the growth and diversity of the population in these areas present a clear opportunity. Greater Orlando, of which Osceola County forms part, is the fastest-growing of the top 30 US metropolises — thanks in significant part to a rapidly expanding Hispanic population.

In Osceola, the Hispanic population grew by 20 per cent between 2012 and 2015, driven by arrivals from economically stricken Puerto Rico. “The new demography will make a big difference in Hillary Clinton’s favour assuming they can get the turnout high along the I-4 corridor,” says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution think-tank.

Viviana Janer, a Democratic county commissioner in Osceola, says the campaign has set up 11 offices along the I-4 corridor, with four of them in Greater Orlando, as the party steps up its efforts to engage Hispanic voters. There are hundreds of paid staffers and volunteers manning phone banks and canvassing door to door. Their efforts are focused both on registration and on convincing people to vote before November 8 or by post — as well as on securing longer opening hours at polling stations.

Though Mr Trump has eschewed building a traditional “ground game” in battleground states such as Florida, Republicans stress they have been working for three years to win over Hispanic voters. Campaigners have attended church events and cultural festivals in Greater Orlando in the search for political converts.

‘Eliminated him as an option’

Nevertheless, Mr Trump’s rhetoric on immigration has turned off a large portion of the Hispanic vote, especially after the businessman doubled down on his harsh migration policies following his recent highly publicised trip to Mexico, Ms Janer argues. “A lot of the people I have spoken to who were maybe on the fence or even considering him have absolutely eliminated him as an option because of that speech.”

Created by the Walt Disney Co, Celebration is an idealised sliver of mid-20th century Americana

One such voter is Sammy Torres, who works as a sous-chef at a Disney World restaurant as well as holding down a second job at another local eatery. Critical to the Democratic pitch to low-wage service workers along the I-4 corridor is the argument that Mr Trump will reverse the economic progress they have seen, for example because of his ambiguous and oscillating policies on the federal minimum wage.

Mr Torres, who earns $11.50 an hour and whose parents are Puerto Rican, sits in a branch of McDonald’s after finishing his shift. He lost his house in the property crash in Florida and now lives in a local motel. He and other workers employed by the catering company Sodexo in the area are seeking to join the local union, Unite Here, to strengthen their employment terms.

Mr Torres is disparaging of Mr Trump. But while he plans to vote for Mrs Clinton, he seems more excited by the idea of Mr Clinton returning to the White House than his wife, pointing out that the former president presided over surging growth and rising house prices in the 1990s. “I have seen what Bill Clinton can do,” he says.

This speaks to the enthusiasm gap Mrs Clinton’s campaign will need to bridge if it is to capitalise on favourable demographic forces in the region. Turnout among Hispanic voters is systematically lower compared with other groups, with only 48 per cent of eligible Latinos voting in 2012, compared with 67 per cent for blacks and 64 per cent for whites. Worryingly for Mrs Clinton, a recent poll by Univision suggested she is winning a smaller share of the Hispanic vote than Mr Obama did in 2012.

At a rally in neighbouring Orange County earlier this month, Mr Clinton was seeking to energise a crowd of a few hundred supporters. In a reproach to the insular approach of Mr Trump, Mr Clinton said there was no going back on the “interdependent age”, where different faiths and ethnicities and lifestyles are thrown together, as in Greater Orlando.

The modest crowd was enthusiastic but by no means euphoric. Afterwards Juanita Riley, a 65-year-old retired mental health counsellor, says Mrs Clinton needs to level with voters in the wake of the controversy over her use of a personal email server when she was secretary of state. “She is like an iron lady: she doesn’t apologise quickly,” she says. “I think she is beginning to realise it is just time for her to talk to people, and not to evade.”

An unconventional pitch

As questions surround Mrs Clinton’s efforts to mobilise supporters, her rival’s backers scent an opportunity in the air. Standing next to the dusty rodeo arena he operates in Osceola County, which is known for its cattle ranches as well as theme parks, Jed Suhl is fired up about Mr Trump’s unconventional pitch for the presidency.

A Stetson-hat wearing former bucking bronco rider, Mr Suhl is running for Republican commissioner in Osceola — an area dominated by Democratic officials. He browses an app on his mobile phone, using it to identify potential supporters. He claims that by going door to door he has uncovered an unexpected affinity for Mr Trump among independent voters — among them one family of Mexican origin.

Mr Suhl is not counting on Osceola County going for the Republicans, but a strong showing by Mr Trump could help swing his district in his favour. As the 2000 election showed, every vote counts in Florida. “Let’s see if he can pull this one off,” he says. “He’s been a winner all his life.”

Orlando: Clinton courts Puerto Ricans

One of the most valuable electoral prizes in the Greater Orlando area is the Puerto Rican population, which has risen rapidly in Florida as the small Caribbean island grapples with economic collapse.

The number of Hispanics of Puerto Rican origin now living in the state more than doubled between 2000 and 2014, when it surpassed 1m for the first time, according to Census Bureau data.

The key driver of the arrivals is the economic crisis in Puerto Rico, which has lost 9 per cent of its population over the past decade. Many of them have moved to Greater Orlando in search of work in the region’s rapidly growing tourist sector. 

While Puerto Ricans are American citizens, they cannot vote in a presidential election as long as they are living on the island itself, which is a US territory. As soon as they move to the mainland, they are eligible to participate in the election, but they have traditionally been slow to register and turn out to vote.

The Orlando metropolitan area has the biggest population of Puerto Ricans in the state. Unlike in southern Florida, where there is a large Cuban community, the Hispanic population in central Florida tends to be more Democratic. Surveys show Puerto Ricans take a dim view of Donald Trump and the Republican candidate’s often hostile rhetoric about immigrants.

A key question for Hillary Clinton’s Democratic campaign is whether Puerto Ricans will turn out to vote. 

Buddy Dyer, the mayor of Orlando, acknowledges that the share of Puerto Ricans who vote is likely to lag behind their weight in the population. 

But a redrawing of local boundaries has helped to put more Latino candidates on the ballot this time, which could help bring people to the polls, he said.

The Democratic party, he added, has been spending “time, money and effort” trying to register Hispanics and get them to the polls. 

“She closes Trump out if she wins [Florida],” he says of Mrs Clinton.

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