The changing faces of Orange County means a political shift from reliably Republican voting patterns of the past.
Orlando and surrounding Orange County were a reliable Republican bastion for decades, even when Florida and the Deep South were solidly Democratic.
Led by largely conservative orange growers, cattle ranchers and small business types who relocated from the Midwest, metro Orlando voted Republican in every presidential election following Harry Truman’s upset of Thomas Dewey.
Virtually everyone was a so-called Dixiecrat back then, even though they tended to the right with their politics and almost always went Republican when it came to the White House.
Grace Chewning, who retired as Orlando’s city clerk in 2000 after 47 years at City Hall, said she registered as a Democrat when she first went to the ballot box.
“You couldn’t vote otherwise,” recalled Chewing, who eventually switched her affiliation to Republican.
But, starting in the mid-1990s, the pendulum started swinging toward the Democratic Party. The change was mostly a matter of demographics.
More and more young people were moving to the area, drawn by the plethora of jobs offered by the burgeoning service industry catering to the tourists flying and driving into the area to visit Walt Disney World, Universal Studios Florida and Sea World.
At the same time, the minority population was growing, too, particularly Hispanics — led by an influx of Puerto Ricans leaving their island nation in search of work. The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community increased as well.
People under 30, minorities and LGBTs have trended Democrat for years.
The result of the newcomer influx was that Bill Clinton barely lost Orange during the 1992 and 1996 elections, even though he took the White House comfortably both times. In 2000, Al Gore nudged past Republican George W. Bush, who also lost to John Kerry in 2004 during his successful re-election campaign.
Barack Obama then took 59 percent of the vote in Orange during his two runs for the Oval Office, seemingly turning Orlando and Orange County solidly blue when it comes to national elections.
But what about the future?
Aubrey Jewett, who teaches political science at the University of Central Florida, sees more of the same.
“It will be more Democratic,” predicted Jewett, who is researching a book about Florida politics.
Orlando and Orange County, he said, are following the same trends as the rest of the nation when it comes to the two major parties. As minorities grow in numbers across the country, Democratic numbers are rising, while the Republican constituency is struggling to keep apace. Independents are up, too.
“Orange County has gotten incredibly diverse,” he said. “That is great news for Democrats in Orange County, but discouraging news for Republicans.”
Pointing to U.S. Census data from 2000 to 2010, Jewett said, the Hispanic population in Orange grew more than 83 percent and African-Americans jumped 22 percent. The number of whites increased by just 2 percent.
By 2020, the census projects, Hispanics will grow by another 44 percent in Orange, African-Americans by 43 percent and whites by 6 percent.
Polling data indicates Hispanics are trending hard toward the Democratic Party, particularly this election cycle with Republican nominee Donald Trump campaigning against immigration and promising to build a wall along the border between the United States and Mexico.
African-Americans, long a staple of Democratic support, seem to be sticking with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton as well.
And women tend to have a negative view of Trump, possibly pushing them toward Clinton, according to the polls. As of May (the most recent month available) almost 54 percent of the Orange electorate was female, according to the Orange supervisor of elections office.
Should all those trajectories hold true moving forward, Jewett said, “It (Orlando and Orange) would be bordering on overwhelming Democrat.”
Party registrations in Orange, elections office statistics show, have been moving to the Democrats for nearly two decades.
In 1996, Republicans outnumbered Democrats with 46 percent of the registrations to 40 percent, respectively. As of July, Democrats were at 42 percent, but Republicans had fallen to 28 percent — this as the region’s overall population has grown exponentially. There now are almost 307,000 Democrats registered in Orange, versus nearly 207,000 Republicans. Independents are closing in on Republicans with nearly 199,000 registrants.
Orange, according to the 2015 census, has 1.3 million residents, with Orlando checking in at approximately 271,000. The 2000 census had Orange at more than 896,000 people, with Orlando at approximately 193,000.
As far as the local implications of the parties go, most of the elections are nonpartisan, meaning candidate affiliation is not on the ballot. But most people know whether they are voting for Democrats or Republicans.
Orlando’s elected officials are mostly Democrats, led by three-term incumbent Mayor Buddy Dyer. The Orange County Commission is primarily Republican, led by two-term incumbent Mayor Teresa Jacobs. Seven of the county’s eight constitutional officers are Democrats.
That split largely mirrors the state and much of the nation, where Democrats tend to control the larger cities, while Republicans do well in the suburbs and rural areas.
Longtime Democratic activist Doug Head of Orlando and Jewett said voting patterns in the City Beautiful and environs follow what happens nationally, too. In other words, Democrats turn out for presidential elections, but often stay home during the off years, when the more reliable older and whiter Republican base shows up.
When Obama won in 2008, for example, 45 percent of the votes cast were by Democrats versus 33 percent for Republicans and 23 percent for Independents and other parties. In the 2010 midterms, 42 percent of the ballots were cast by Republicans, 41 percent Democrats, and 17 percent others. During Obama’s re-election drive in 2012, 44 percent were Democrats, 33 percent Republicans and 23 percent others.
As the election cycles indicate, an edge in registration numbers mean little if voters do not get out to the polls.
Jewett said Democrats seem to need lots of ads and news coverage — like those generated during presidential years — to engage and vote.
Tico Perez, an Orlando attorney and longtime Republican, takes solace in that pattern.
“When they (Democrats) don’t have somebody quality at the top of the ticket … Republicans fare very well,” he said.
He also said the growing number of independents helps Republican candidates. He is confident of winning persuadable voters.
“If it’s a battle of ideas, we win that battle,” Perez said.
Head said a big problem for area Democrats is they lack leadership. The head of the Orange County Democratic Party has changed almost yearly during the past decade. Current Democratic leader Juan Lopez did not return several calls seeking comments for this story.
“Both parties have kind of lost their way for what they want to do,” Head said.
Republicans, he said, are engaged in a fight between established leaders and some grassroots members, such as the arch-conservative tea party.
He said a similar fight could break out the more-established versus liberal branches of Orange Democrats.
“You’ve got to listen to the people,” progressive activist Head said, contending greater Orlando Democrats identify too much with area business needs and not to more traditional party interests such as environmentalists and unions.
Republican Perez said his party needs to improve the way they deliver their message, not necessarily the content.
“People want to hear the stories, hear the facts,” he said. “We need to tell the story better, in a more personal way.”
As for Chewning, she has seen the shift from Democrat to Republican to Democrat again.
“What goes around comes around,” she said. “The past is prologue.”
Dan Tracy is a freelance writer based in Orlando.